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Saturday, April 1, 2023

Workers of the State, unite!

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Devidas, 12, from Latur district in Maharashtra, has been in Tiruppur for the last six months. Devidas, his parents, and three brothers live in a tin shed that is part of a row of shacks on a farmland. A line of temporary toilets and wash space and a few taps connected to water tanks are the bare facilities at the settlement for migrant workers.

The recent fake videos and rumours about north Indian labourers, especially those from Bihar, and the so-called violence perpetrated on them did create fear at least among a section of the migrant workers about their safety, though they themselves have not faced any threat so far, says Fr. William SJ, Director of Jesuit Migrants Service.

Despite their very basic living conditions and periodic fake news causing ripples in their life, this has become a way of life for Devidas and his family. His parents leave for work before the break of dawn and return home in the afternoon. The camp, which houses over 700 families from Karnataka and Maharashtra, has nearly 70 children who spend their time at an informal school, playing, building vehicle models and learning to read and write, while their parents are away at work. Though Devidas studied till Class VI at his home town, he is unable to attend a regular school in Tiruppur because he does not know Tamil, the local medium of instruction.

At the SIDCO Industrial estate at Kurichi in Coimbatore, Rakesh Yadav, 24, has been employed at an engineering unit for almost six months. This graduate from Bihar is among the migrant workers who operate CNC machines. “I will earn only ₹7,000 a month in Bihar. Here, I am able to earn at least ₹5,000 more,” he says. Three of his friends from Bihar will reach Coimbatore on March 20 to join the same unit.

Six lakh workers

Though the exact number of migrant workers in the State is not known, the number of workers registered on the Labour Department’s portal is six lakh. T.S.S. Krishnan, Chief Executive Officer, Appaswamy Real Estates, says migrant workers entered the real estate and construction sector in Tamil Nadu during the early 2000s. “This was the time when multi-storey buildings were coming up everywhere, and these projects required a large number of workers. The migrant workers aligned themselves with contractors and started coming to Tamil Nadu from 2002. We then had the information technology boom during which huge parks were coming up, and these projects also involved migrant workers. From 2009, most of the projects in the real estate sector are handled by migrant workers,” he says.

Editorial | Home and away: On rumours and fake news about migrant workers in TN

According to K. Jeganathan, chairman of Builders Association of India, Tamil Nadu, labour shortage faced by the construction sector in 2011-12, when government and private construction activities boomed, led to employment of more workers from other States. However, even now, migrant workers are only 10%-20% of the total workforce in the construction sector. Since these workers stay at camps near the construction sites, employers are confident of labour availability and completion of projects on time, he adds.

Be it the fishing sector in Thoothukudi, farmland in the delta districts, coconut farms in Pollachi, or the factories at industrial estates, there is a proliferation of migrant workers in the agri, manufacturing, infrastructure, and service sectors. They are from different States — Odisha, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Assam. In sectors like jewellery, workers from West Bengal came to Coimbatore almost 30 years ago, while the number of migrant workers in textiles, construction, and engineering started increasing in the last 15-20 years.

Better salary and continuous employment are the major factors for Tamil Nadu to attract semi-skilled and unskilled workers from other States. “I am here for the last 11 years working for a contractor at a cement plant. I have personally faced no problem with the locals,” says Achintha Karmakar, 33, from Malda district of West Bengal, employed in Virudhunagar district. The workers are given accommodation and drinking water. “Our management has provided us a cook to make food for us. We work with labourers from all States and also local youths,” he says.

L. Sunil, manager of the engineering company that has employed some 200 migrant workers, says that besides their basic needs, the workers are given weekly off and leave. “We even give them allowance for travelling home,” he says.

For Jaivir of Jharkhand and his friends, the brick kilns in the southern parts of Tirunelveli and the areas bordering Kanniyakumari district are the home away from home as their welfare is taken care of by the brick kiln owners, they say. They are provided shelter with basic amenities. The nearby primary health centre and the government hospital at Valliyoor or Nagercoil provide them with better and free healthcare (compared with what is available in their home State).

C.K. Kumaravel, CEO and Co-founder, Naturals Salon and Spa, says his salons have over 6,000 migrant workers and many of them are women. “The migrant workers in our industry have excellent grooming sense, they are customer-friendly and have the ability to adjust themselves to a new environment. More important is their language skills — they learn the local language quickly. These are some qualities that prompt the salon industry to work with migrant workers,” he says. “We have never addressed them as migrant workers. We have always given them titles such as stylists, smile providers, style directors and salon directors. Likewise, the State government should think of giving them a different name [in Tamil] rather than calling them migrants. We do not call our engineers who go abroad migrants, right?,” he says.

The migrant workers are willing to work eight hours a day plus overtime. They stay at a unit for at least 8-9 months. When they go home for Holi or Deepavali and return, some switch jobs, says P. Nallathambi, president of the Coimbatore SIDCO Industrial Estate Manufacturers’ Welfare Association. Many of these workers have shifted their families to Tamil Nadu, too. “Jawahar, a contractor who brings workers to our units, has married a Tamil girl, got a plot and settled down here,” he says.

Lack of local labour 

Asked why Tamil Nadu depends on migrant workers rather than local workers, the view expressed by many firms/industries is that local workers are unwilling to take up odd jobs. Many of them are educated and prefer white-collar jobs. Even people in the smaller towns want to move to larger cities for employment and hence, the local industry depends on migrant workers.

These workers, however, do face challenges, says A. Aloysius, founder of Social Awareness and Voluntary Education, a non-profit organisation in Tiruppur. The living conditions for most of them are appalling and there is no collective leadership or forum for them to represent their grievances. There are minor wage disputes, complaints of sexual intimidation at work places, or crimes like chain-snatching. The workers look for a forum to voice their grievances and someone who will help them to take up these issues with the authorities concerned, he says.

According to N. Selvaraj, general secretary of Tamil Nadu AITUC Construction Workers’ Union, just 1% of the workers registered with the Construction Workers Welfare Board are migrant workers. The norms are simpler for the migrant workers, and the employers should register them with the Board, he says. An official of the Labour Department points out, “At present, it is not mandatory for employers to register the details of migrant workers on the portal. But we are urging them to do so.”

Fr. William, who has been working with migrant workers since 2014, says the workers face issues because they do not know the local language fully. This is the reason they are unable to benefit fully from free healthcare or education in Tamil Nadu, and face discrimination at some places. Further, as they live away from their families and work for long hours, they develop health problems.

When the fake news of assaults on migrant workers spread like wildfire, the State had a challenge. It had to reassure both migrant workers and the local population. The industry and the government acted swiftly to bring the situation under control. Tiruchi City Police Commissioner M. Sathiya Priya said WhatsApp groups were formed at each station to stay connected with the migrant workers. The Commissionerate also activated a round-the-clock helpline.

Tulsi Nath, a worker from Bhagalpur in Tiruchi, said the police had asked the migrant workers not to panic about the videos and messages and urged them to reach out to the police at any time. Messages were also communicated in Hindi.

Yet, some sectors have been impacted as many workers have returned home. “There is no problem among local and migrant workers or because of migrant workers. But the videos created fear, especially among the families of the workers. About 30% workers usually go home for Holi; this year, it is 50%,” says Mr. Nallathambi.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the fake videos turned the focus of all stakeholders on migrant workers. Fr. William says registration of migrant workers and issuing identity cards to them should be made mandatory. Further, measures should be taken to build confidence among the locals about these workers.

(With inputs from Sangeetha Kandavel in Chennai; N. Sai Charan in Tiruchi; P. Sudhakar in Tirunelveli; and S. Sundar, R. Jayashree and B. Tilak Chandar in Madurai.)

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