Migrant Workers
Invisible but Irreplaceable? Migrant Labour BC 2019 and AC 2020
-- Ajit Patil

MIGRANT labour, displaced from the land and the rural economy in the 40 years BC (Before Corona) by the neoliberal agenda pushed by the ruling classes, had remained both invisible and irreplaceable till now.

With the Covid-19 lockdown, this huge segment of humanity seemed to suddenly walk out on to the stage. Images of the seemingly endless flow of workers desperate to “go home” to their villages forced themselves into public consciousness. This exodus is the largest displacement of people in post-Independence India.  

What the visibility of this disenfranchised section of the working class has generated in liberal public opinion is compassion. This compassion, has of course been conspicuously lacking in most state institutions, including the judiciary. But compassion, while better than apathy and cruelty, is not solidarity. Solidarity demands that we recognise that the lockdown marks an intensification, not a disruption of the systemic injustice and inequity to which these workers are subjected. Even in “normal” times, these workers have been carrying out the most degrading, dangerous, unskilled, laborious jobs in the organized, unorganized and service industries - working 12 hour shifts even before the government sought to formally legalise such working hours and conditions.  

Someone has described the workers’ “Walking Away” from the work ghettos of the metros and cities where they had worked silently and invisibly till now, as a Civil Disobedience Movement of sorts. They have defied the rules, the laws, the coercive machinery of the state and the persuasions and force of the ruling classes. The mere possibility of their disappearance from the cheap, utterly exploitative, profit driven systems has caused a measure of uneasiness in the ruling classes. The workers have paid the price of this disobedience with sweat, blood, and life. The ‘compassionate’ response neglects the innate anger, frustration, rebellion and the quest for recognition of their contribution to the society - all rolled in to one in this act of defiance by migrant labourers. Migrant workers are estimated by the Government now at 4 crores (a week before at 8 crores) and by observers at a more realistic 14 crores; no reliable data is available about the exact numbers in spite of the existence of the Migratory Labour Act which mandates such enrollment. Now with the planned withdrawal of the provisions of this law even this fig leaf will vanish for the naked kings.

Circa 2020 AC (After Corona)

Forced migration used to be an inherent feature of barbarism, slavery and feudalism. But the advent of colonialism by the European and other empires led to an unprecedented rise in forced migration (indentured labour). Africa, Ireland, Asia – in particular India - were victims of this colonial exploitation. Under the British, French and the Portuguese, Indian indentured labour went the world over from UP, Bihar, Tamilnadu, Goa and other parts of India. The first interstate migrants on a large scale was probably from Bihar, Jharkhand and Bengal to the Tea Gardens of Assam under the East India Company. The Intra state migration from the feudal rural hinterlands was the foundation on which cities across India were built.

With this rather restricted introduction I move ahead with some observations in the crossover time. This note is a product of firsthand experience of dealing with the humanitarian side of the migrant crisis as a member of the help group of AICCTU, which triggered some thinking, reading and observing, as well as some interactions with comrades and others.  

I sincerely feel that we must initiate a study of the migration and migrant labour on a pan India basis with active collaborations of comrades from both the states of residence and states of work. A Marxist-Leninist analysis of a mass constituting 40 percent of India’s working population is long overdue.

1.  The migration of labour and other classes started with the advent of establishment of industry, ports, urban centers well connected by railways during the colonial rule. And the migration was both interstate and intra state. In Mumbai it was from different provinces as well as from Konkan and western Maharashtra. Likewise in Kolkata it was from Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and East Bengal. This process was triggered by unequal development, and feudal and social exploitation. Migrant labour was mainly men. But sex workers in all major cities were both inter and intra state migrants – driven by poverty, drought and feudal customs.

2.  After independence, in the phase of development of capitalism, in the absence of the real land reforms taking place especially in the northern half of the country, the trend continued. The transgender community was added to the list of migrants in greater numbers. Recurrent droughts in various states, pauperization of the landless, agricultural labour, artisans in the villages, marginal farmers and concentration of large tracts of land in the hands of the few with ever diminishing size of land in the hands of majority due to sale and mutation continued to swell the ranks of migrants to the cities, of whom Dalits and Muslims being socially disadvantaged formed a major section. All of them were forced into densely populated, dehumanizing slum colonies. Dharavi, the biggest slum in Asia, has a density of 4-5 lakh people per acre if not more. 50 % percent of Mumbai’s population was living in slums occupying only 6 percent land area 10 years back and the aim of the builder- bureaucrat-politician lobby is to reduce the area to 5 % post new DC rules 2034. Thus the ‘social distancing’ was created in BC 2019 with no space for physical distancing in AC 2020! The model of capitalism encouraged interstate and intra state migration to create a reserve army of labour for Industry. Due to the unevenness of the capitalist development amongst the states, migration of labour from less developed to the more developed states continued to rise, in spite of regional chauvinist politics rearing its head against the migrants. The migrants from UP, Bihar, Rajasthan and Orissa were the first to migrate and settle down with families in many cases.  Migration of rural labour also began from the weaker agricultural states to the grain and sugar bowls of the country.

3.  But the floodgates opened after the 1991 onslaught of neo liberal policies and the slow devastation of the agricultural economy. The grabbing of natural resources in terms of Jal and Jangal in addition to land added the Adivasis to the ranks of migrants.

4. The typical work carried out by the migrants is : Construction of all sorts including Highways/ Infrastructure, Powerloom, Readymade garments, Jari Industry, Carpenters, Taxi and Auto drivers, Domestic work, Daily wage work in construction and house repair, Aluminum window, plumbing , electrical work, painting work, housekeeping in the service industry, contract Safai (cleaning) work, vegetable and thela vending, all type of contract labour, watchmen and security guards in restaurants, eateries and hotels, Cinema industry work, workers in retail shops, malls, AC and Fridge repairs, Pest control, Mathadis (One who lift and shift loads with Matha – i.e manually), barbers, tiling workers, sugar cane cutting workers from Beed working in the sugar belts of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra and Telangana, Ornament workers, gold and silver refinery workers, Agricultural labour in Punjab and Kerala from northern states, Sex workers, entertainment industry workers, call center workers…. The list is endless.  The skill sets differ and so do the income levels creating strata amongst them.
Some statistics say it all:

  • It is estimated that Kerala has around 2.5 million to 3 million migrant workers.

  • “In Mumbai alone 90,000 people mainly from Bihar, UP and Jharkhand were working as drivers in companies and have since left for their state,” according to SME chamber of commerce founder Chairperson.

  • While an exact estimate of the numbers is not documented, labour unions say around 3 lakh people have left Pune district alone. The majority of them were employed on contract in SMEs that act as vendors and sub-vendors to bigger units. These units Pune, Pimpri-Chinchwad, Talegaon and Chakan industrial belts and automobile hubs are at present unable to restart operations as their labour have left.

  • Chandrakant Salunkhe, founder president of the SME Chamber of India, estimated that migrant workers formed 40% of the 78 lakh workforce in the 14 lakh registered SMEs in the state. Around 80% of the workers were semi-skilled.

  • While authentic data about contractual labour in Maharashtra is not readily available, estimates say they constitute around 30-40% of the total workforce, with migrant labourers forming more than 90% of them.

  • One of the reasons why the industry has preferred to employ migrant labour in blue-collar jobs has been because of their flexibility …… Dilip Pawar, working president of Shramik Ekta Mahasangh a federation of unions in Pune and ex. Bajaj Auto worker- leader, said companies manage to employ migrants by paying them much less than prevalent market rates. “The cost of hiring migrants is generally lower as they come alone, stay in shared accommodation and are ready to work extended hours for less pay. This might not be possible with local people,” he said.

  • Pawar, for his part, strongly pushes for zone-wise fixation of minimum payment, which will ensure workers stick with companies. “For a zone like Pune, the minimum payment should be around Rs 25,000 per month which would allow the worker to have two square meals a day,” Pawar said. The government’s move to attract local youth would work only if the payment is lucrative, he said.

5.  Our experience was mainly with migrant workers from Jharkhand with some cases from UP, Bengal and Bihar. UP and Bihar migrant labourers had a better support system and were more resourceful, better connected. The workers from Jharkhand were mainly Jari, Garment workers and Daily wage earners. Most of them can be termed as unskilled. They worked in small industries set up by small owners from their own villages or nearby. Some had families, with most of them staying in groups inside the workshops. As late entrants in the labour market they were relegated to the lowly skilled and hence lowly paid jobs. Those who sought our help hailed from Dharavi, Antop Hill and Wadala’s sprawling slums. The majority of them were Muslims, Adivasis and OBCs. In the Muslims many were Ansaris. When I asked out of curiosity I was told that they are what in Maharashtra are called Dalit Muslims.  

6.  During the first days of the overwhelming demand for groceries, we resorted to charitable distribution. But the realization of absolute paucity of resources in terms of money, material and persons in the face of the huge crisis we felt a need to remind the state that it must take responsibility for the forced, unplanned clampdown. So we set up a databased system to share with and then demand dry rations from the government as a right. It worked well till the rice available with the state government from their central share lasted.  

7.  The migrant workers who have returned back or intend to do so in near future may not return back to the industrially developed states. Their continued stay back in already crumbling agrarian economy is likely to exacerbate the already deep social and economic contradictions. The communal fascist regime wishes to use the surplus labour available in this way cheaply for corporatization of the agriculture and putting up agrobased industries in the states from where the migrants hail. There are reasons to believe that the jobs in the industry and service industry will not be available in the formal and informal sectors in the near future. The construction industry is likely to suffer a severe blow. The recession in some sectors of Indian economy in BC 2019 shows signs of moving to an all engulfing depression in 2020 AC. The corporates are going to attack taking advantage of the situation AC 2020 to pass on the entire burden by bringing in Job losses, salary cuts, increased exploitation by extended hours working in both formal and informal sectors of Industry and service industry. They also have a dream of using increased automation, digitalization, work from home to usher in the Industrial Revolution #4. Besides the migrants, the contractual workers have already started reeling under the onslaught on jobs. They are being asked to take as high as 50% salary cuts to retain the jobs they have been holding for a number of years. Thus the contradiction between the capital in general and Fin Tech capital in particular with the informal sector of the industry, workers in the formal sector post corporatization of the public sector , migrant labour and contract labour is sharpening every passing day. The Communal Fascist- Corporate nexus will try to use this situation to create fissures in our core base. We must guard against this by organizing the returnees with demand for work, politically and socially.

8.  It is also essential to work amongst the migrant and contract workers left behind in the industrially advanced states. (We noted that almost all the workers were using smart phones and were WhatsApp savvy). We must also reach out to all those categories mentioned in point #4 and organize them. They are the most vulnerable and distressed sections in the developing situation A C 2020. It is heartening to note that the trade unions who were lukewarm in their response to the migrant crisis in the beginning have rallied behind and have lately taken cognizance of the need to organize this section of labour without which the organized labour cannot counter the onslaught of the capital.

Says Com Vishwas Utagi, Co- Convener of the Trade Union Joint Action Committee:

  • All types of migrant workers must be registered mandatorily by respective state government’s labour departments
  • They must be brought under the definition of worker under ID ACT or Contract Act to provide them legal cover.
  • Trade unions must organise them both at work and out of work. Today they are the worst affected - without ration card and without any source of income as economy is sinking.

9.  It is very important to underline the role of the women in the struggle of migrants. They suffer if migrants are away from home. If they accompany them the women work as domestic workers as well as work at their own homes. Many domestic workers are migrants themselves. The women have to bear the consequences of restricted spaces and public utilities, lumpenization in the slums, addiction issues of menfolk and sexual harassment. Their health gets the last priority. A large number of women from slums also work in service industry with long hours being a rule. Organizing various sections of working women by developing contacts at their areas of living needs to be looked at and new, innovative and all-encompassing methods around their existence evolved by our comrades. Wherever possible we need to organize the sex workers as well as transgender persons. Some beginnings are noted in Maharashtra in both these sections by some left leaning groups.


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