Naim* and his co-workers, migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh, live on Khairani Road, a densely packed industrial hub in Sakinaka in Mumbai (Maharashtra), where at least one large fire has destroyed lives, wages, and documentation every year for the past three years. Under ordinary circumstances, employers such as Bablu, who run units producing flammable material, forbid smoking onsite, let alone cooking. But now, to survive the shutting down of neighbourhood dhabas (where they usually eat) and the militant enforcement of the lockdown by the police, Naim and his colleagues are compelled to put themselves at the mercy of the same fire hazards that, just three months ago, took two lives and destroyed 30 units just a 20-minute walk away.
Bablu, a marginal producer himself, has seen his earnings diminish because of the lockdown and is running out of rations and money to feed his workers, compelling Naim to cook in hazardous conditions. According to estimates by Aajeevika Bureau**—a labour organisation that works with informal and migrant workers—70 per cent of the workers live on such high-risk worksites: cramped and poorly ventilated, where they sleep—and now spend their entire days—near old, hazardous, second-hand industrial machines, including metal cutters, power-presses, and drilling machines.
In Ahmedabad (Gujarat), Ramlal and his co-workers, migrants from Rajasthan who worked as daily-wage labour in the construction sector, had gone out of work a few days prior to the announcement of the lockdown. In the city, they live in an informal rental space, where 15-20 workers cram themselves into single, unventilated rooms—the most premium of which are 10x12 feet in size going at the rate of Rs.500 per worker. Many of the workers sleep on the tin roofs of the rooms, while others squeeze themselves in the hollows of the walls meant for storage. For them, the lockdown means spending 24 hours jam-packed into these cowshed-converted rooms in the scorching heat. The rooms do not have sanitation or water, but their occupants run the risk of police harassment if they step out. Their landlord, a local Rabari, from the cattle-rearing community, relies solely on the rent from migrant workers, and the ration shop that he runs, which caters exclusively to these groups. He cannot afford to lose out on rent or supply rations for free.
Ramlal and the other workers attempted to seek accommodation in a homeless shelter but were turned away. They were asked for their identity documents, told that they were not homeless, and that the shelter did not have capacity. There are roughly 1.3 million migrant workers in Ahmedabad, according to Aajeevika’s estimates. Left without other options, many of them set out to their villages on foot. As a result, over 40,000 migrants had congregated at the Gujarat-Rajasthan border in Ratanpur on March 25.
The long march home
Since the Central government announced the 21-day nationwide lockdown, along with the suspension of all transportation and the strict sealing of inter-State borders as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19 infection, Aajeevika’s labour helpline has been ringing continuously. It logs an average of 200 distress calls daily from migrant workers who have been left without work, wages, food, water and, sometimes, shelter.
The announcement for a lockdown came without any prior notice for the estimated 100 million internal migrant workers in the country. In a matter of hours, the unanticipated public health crisis in India triggered an even larger, humanitarian crisis, the toll of which was borne by the most vulnerable sections of its population. So desperate were these workers to leave the cities and towns where they worked that they left in scores to their villages on foot, braving hunger and thirst, the scorching summer sun, police harassment, forested areas, and the threat of disease and death. Those who could not leave called helplines in desperation, seeking food, supplies and shelter, or begging to simply be transported back to their villages. Many were stuck at borders, forming large crowds, where they were stranded, sprayed with disinfectants, or asked to provide “health certificates” which they had no means to procure, before being allowed to enter their home States.
This is not an unanticipated event. For decades, internal migrants toiling in cities have remained uncounted in national statistics, excluded from urban governance facilities and services, and unrecognised either as workers or as citizens by their employers or governments. Before announcing the lockdown, the government had forgotten that its celebrated economic growth model—based on high-growth sectors and world-class infrastructure in large urban agglomerations—is built through the labour of rural-urban migrants.
Like Naim and Ramlal, migrants live in informal and unrecognised spaces in cities. This includes worksites, with workers living inside construction sites, small manufacturing units, hotels and dhabas or headloading markets, often in peripheral and isolated industrial locations. Some migrants live in informal rented accommodation with no rental contracts, at the mercy of extractive local landlords, who charge them arbitrary rents for a few facilities. Many live in the open to save on rent—on pavements, under flyovers, near railway tracks or on private or public land.
While worksites and industrial areas remain outside the jurisdiction of urban local bodies, informal rental spaces are often on illegally held land, which are not regulated by the state. Migrants living in open spaces, on the other hand, interact with the state only during evictions by the municipal authorities or the police, where their assets are seized and they are asked to leave with no options for alternative accommodation. When asked about migrants’ access to basic public provisioning in the city, officials from the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation responded thus: “We can only provide for ‘taxpaying’ residents and our resources are limited. The industry should be responsible for the labour they bring.”
However, distress calls from migrants across the country reveal a different story— industry hires migrants precisely because they can cut costs and remain competitive by not providing for their welfare. In many cases, employers such as Bablu are themselves marginal, taking cheap orders with very small profit margins from large dealers who then aggregate and sell these products in domestic or international markets. Without orders, they are likely to face cash and ration shortages themselves. They pass on the losses to their workers by cutting wages and benefits.
Where employers are large and work-units themselves are organised, migrant workers are still hired on a casual or contractual basis. In a cement company in Kutch, 5,000 migrants called the helpline demanding rations. The company had refused to provide for them as they were hired through a labour contractor. While the main contractor had fled to Ahmedabad before the lockdown, the petty contractor was unable to provide rations to a large number of workers. While he gave advances to some workers to purchase rations, they did not know how much would be deducted from their wages when work was resumed. When the local administration and the police were apprised of the matter, they made the petty contractor sign an agreement to arrange rations, as the labourers were his responsibility.
With a large number of intermediaries between employers and migrant workers, they find it hard to identify the employer or even the company that hires them, remaining solely dependent on the petty contractor. Many more migrant workers are labelled as “self-employed” but in reality are piece-rate or home-based workers. For instance, the garments industry in Narol, Ahmedabad, employs a large number of migrant women who work from their tiny rooms or in small units to stitch buttons, cut extra thread from textiles or sew beads on to garments, which are then sold to large international brands. They receive work from local agents who pay them a marginal amount based on their output. The lockdown has meant a loss of orders, and these women workers are left with no employer to ask for their wages. When the government announced that employers must pay wages to workers despite the suspension of work, migrant workers were left without standard work contracts or identifiable employers to pay them.
Similarly, the Garib Kalyan Yojana announced by the Finance Ministry and the slew of measures promised by different States provided little relief to migrant workers. Despite these announcements that have been presented as adequate to assuage their fears, they continued to leave in hordes to their villages. In its report to the Supreme Court, the government attributed migrants’ continued exodus from urban areas to misinformation and fake news which spread panic.
What went unsaid was that the relief packages relied on advancing the benefits under welfare schemes based on the existing lists of beneficiaries. Migrant workers do not make it to these lists—they do not have residence-based identity documents in the cities they work in because their living spaces are un-enumerated or unrecognised by urban local bodies, which view them as “illegal” or outside their scope. Without documents to prove that they are “residents” of the city, they cannot access free ration from the public distribution system (PDS) or demand water and sanitation in their living spaces.
The Labour Ministry has announced that cess funds collected by the Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Boards (BoCWWB) would be used to transfer money to registered construction workers. However, in many States, dysfunctional welfare boards and complex documentation requirements result in migrant workers being unable to register themselves as construction workers.
Furthermore, women make up a large section of construction workers for whom access to BoCWWB registration is even more challenging. They are rarely identified as independent workers, but hired as a family unit, along with a male relative, who is then paid the wages for 1.5 labour units. This is inspite of the fact that the construction sector is the largest employer of migrant workers and the second largest employer of women in the country. As a solution, some States have opened free meal kitchens, but migrants, socially, culturally and geographically excluded from central city areas where these kitchens are set up, do not have the information or means to reach them during lockdown, and where overcrowding of local populations for accessing food is also a problem.
As a response to the crisis, the Ministry of Home Affairs released an order on March 29 asking States to prevent the exodus of migrants by ensuring that they have rations and shelter, receive their wages and do not have to pay rent. However, it did not prescribe how these measures are to be operationalised. On the contrary, the order has had the effect of increasing police brutality towards migrants.
Two days after the order was passed, the helpline received a call from a group of 120 workers who were attempting to return from Karnataka and Maharashtra to their villages in Rajasthan. At the Maharashtra-Gujarat border, they were apprehended by the Gujarat Police, who questioned and brutally assaulted them before stuffing them into a container truck that was to take them back across the border. Suffocated inside the truck, they began banging the insides, due to which the truck driver abandoned them on the road in Palghar district, Maharashtra. The group included women and children, and was left without basic supplies or any means to get anywhere to seek shelter.
Interestingly, when Sanchit, who arrived in Mumbai from Jharkhand only a month ago to work in an automobile parts assembly line, found himself without food since the factory’s mess had closed down and approached his employer, he was given a singular response: Why didn’t you go home as well? He explained, “Everyone else was local, so they had no issues, they just went back home. It was just us, a few from Jharkhand, others from West Bengal and Odisha, and one from Bihar—we were stuck.” Similarly, Dolaram, who was stopped by the police when attempting to arrange rations in Mumbai, was asked: “Why are you still in the city, everything is going to be closed for the next 2-3 months.”
With short notice and little means to act independently, urban local bodies are unable to identify and reach out to migrants who have been systematically excluded from both citizenship and labour rights in their work destinations. While each of these stories reveals particular mental, physical and emotional tolls, they all point out to migrant workers’ dependence on informal networks to access sustenance in the cities. Left out by the state and abandoned by their employers, migrants rely on their small employers, petty contractors or marginal landlords, who are themselves dependent on incomes earned through the exploitation of migrant workers for their subsistence. Without work and wages, migrants cannot afford to purchase minimum consumption from these informal networks that cater to them. Even ordinarily excluded from public provisioning—their ability to sustain in the city has been exacerbated by the pandemic and lockdown. Those that they depend on for their survival are themselves reeling from the effects of wage losses, closed enterprises, and scarce food in the markets.
In other words, the pandemic has revealed a centuries-old system, where the poor contest the poor for access to scarce and unequally distributed resources in an urban economy, which does not guarantee unconditional survival to migrant workers. The physical and mental tolls of the pandemic are therefore compounded on to the existing costs for migrants, suggesting that the movements in large numbers towards their rural homes are not exaggerated but rather are created by our very systems of employment and provisioning of food and shelter.
Migrant workers come from the most socially marginalised categories of citizens, over-represented by Dalits, Adivasis, Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and religious minorities. They also overlap with the most impoverished and vulnerable categories of the workforce, earning the lowest incomes. They form impoverished rural populations, for whom the withdrawal of state support to the agricultural sector, lack of decent rural job creation and alienation from land, water and forest resources which have been seized by rural elites and large corporations, have meant that distress migration for low wages and poor terms and conditions of work is the only means for survival. It is telling of India’s policy priorities that this vast section of its population—10 times larger than India’s international migrants—was left to fend for itself, while the government took proactive measures to ensure the safe return of Indian expats before sealing off its international borders.
What can be done
The government must take urgent measures to mitigate the disastrous consequences of the pandemic and lockdown on migrant workers. As a first step, the universalisation of PDS, where migrants can access rations without residence-based identity documentation or any eligibility barriers is imperative. Safe shelters, with food and health care facilities, can alleviate the challenges faced by migrants who have been evicted from their worksites and living spaces. To be able to reach out to migrant populations, urban local bodies should identify migrant clusters in the city and regularise them for the provision of essential services such as food, water, sanitation and health care. This can be done in collaboration with civil society organisations and trade unions, while police cooperation can be sought for delivery of essentials to migrant clusters, with strict orders against the harassment of workers.
In addition to these measures, special steps are necessary to prevent the intensification of the wage and employment crisis in the country. Legal aid cells with phone-based services at the Central and State levels will prove useful in resolving cases of non-payment or unfair deduction of wages, and forced retrenchments. In addition to this, a special relief package for micro and small enterprises will assist small and marginal producers in retaining and providing for the workers that they employ.
Similar to unemployment benefits under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), the government must ensure the payment of minimum wages to daily-wage, piece-rate and home-based workers for the loss of work for the period of time it takes for the effects of the pandemic to get resolved. Since many migrant workers are not registered as workers or do not have operational and accessible Jan Dhan accounts, local-level identification and cash disbursements can be a solution.
The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown has only exposed and aggravated an existing problem, that of the devalued and invisibilised labour of millions of migrant workers and an economy that demands the mobility of workers across State borders but cannot ensure their sustenance and safety in the regions where they migrate for work. The recognition of their presence in cities has come too late and with catastrophic results for this invisible army behind the country’s explosive urban growth.
* This article uses cases which came to Aajeevika Bureau’s labour helpline, which it runs in collaboration with the Rajasthan government, since the announcement of the lockdown as well as the findings and perspectives from the organisation’s research and field operations since 2005. Names have been changed to protect the identity of the workers who reached out to the organisation for assistance.
** Aajeevika Bureau is a non-profit organisation which is involved in research and policy advocacy, as well as delivery of legal, skills, health care and financial services to informal and migrant workers. It was established in 2005 and works in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra.
Nivedita Jayaram works with the Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions (CMLS), Aajeevika Bureau’s research and policy unit. She has been involved in research projects relating to migrants’ interface with urban governance, occupational health and safety in the unorganised sector, as well as the gendered implications of migration.
Raghav Mehrotra works with CMLS and has been involved in studies on the relationship between debt and migration, migrants’ informal networks to access public provisioning in cities, and safety in Mumbai’s informal manufacturing sector .