Working Class
Ghettoization Of Migrant Workers In TN

In Tamilnadu, in a short span of 3 days, one accident claimed the lives of 10 workers from Assam and injured more than 50 workers, and the other took the life of a Bihari worker and injured 10 others.

One accident on 6 August took place at the Jeppiar Institute of Technology near Sriperumbudur where a stadium under construction collapsed. The cement column which collapsed was not cured properly; and the supporting wall for the column was not built, yet further construction was carried to meet a deadline. The workers took shelter near the column when there was rain and the uncured column collapsed. The injured workers said that they were demanding safety helmets for quite some time and that the contractor was saying that it would be arranged soon. The workers also said that had they worn helmets causalities would have been much fewer. 6 workers died in the debris and 4 of them died in the hospital. Jeppiar, who is a well-known education baron in TN, running many colleges in Chennai and Kanchipuram districts, announced a compensation of Rs.2 lakh to those killed and Rs.50,000 to those who were injured. Jeppiar, Mariam Selvam (the Director of the college), and the contractor and supervisor were arrested after 3 days, and the bail petition of Jeppiar, filed on health grounds, was rejected. He is now in Vellore prison.

The other accident occurred on 8 August on a worksite of the Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL), when a crane collapsed and fell on the workers, injuring 10 of them. Later one died in the hospital. The accident drew attention only because it could not be hidden and it occurred in full view of the public. The crane operator is absconding. The L&T site manager and the contractor were arrested. In another instance, a migrant worker’s seven year old son fell into a sewerage tank and died on the premises of a college run by Jeppiar.

Several such accidents in which migrant workers die or become incapacitated, go unnoticed and unreported when they occur in the wilderness of MNCs and their subsidiaries. For instance, 9 migrant workers who were working for a subsidiary of Hyundai, Hwasin, near Sriperumbudur died in an accident when they were taken from a work spot to their living places in a vehicle arranged by the contractor. The contractor managed to cover up this accident as one that occurred when the workers took a private vehicle on their own.

In February this year, 4 from Bihar and one from West Bengal, one of them a student, were killed in an encounter in the name of nabbing burglars. There was an attempt by the TN government and the police to brand those from other states as burglars and murderers. The police in Tirupur and Coimbatore districts even went on an enumeration of migrant workers, and the Chennai City Police demanded that house owners in the city must furnish the details of the tenants.

Such profiling of migrant workers drew severe criticisms and there was no further step in that direction by the government and the police. This time around, following the deaths of migrant workers in accidents, many columns in the print media highlighted the pathetic working conditions of the migrant workers.

In many cases migrant workers are brought by sub-contractors, often belonging to the same state, and the only channel of communication for the migrant workers ends up with that particular contractor. Communication beyond this point becomes almost impossible, as an invisible wall other than the language is raised between the migrant workers and other workers and general public in the state. The sub-contractors who bring them to the state, invariably warn them of any communication about their working conditions with the ‘locals’. These locals are none but TUs or concerned individuals who may initiate a rapport with them.

In Sriperumbudur area, migrant workers are brought by contractors to work in the MNCs and their subsidiaries by contractors. These migrant workers are deployed not in one particular factory but in different factories. They have to work in any factory, do any work, any time in the day, for as long as it takes till the target is achieved. Hundreds of these workers live in something like a tent.

If the working and living conditions of migrant workers are not in violation of the existing legal stipulations, why are they prevented from communicating the locals, and why are TUs or concerned people not allowed to interact with them? In the CMRL work, no one is allowed to talk to the workers generally, and even after the recent accident entry was denied even for media to talk to the workers in the work place. Nobody knows about the kind of working and living conditions of the migrant workers in those dark holes. It is not at all possible to know about violation of their rights in the work place. This author once could have a glimpse of these young workers’ ‘rest room’ from a shop in the first floor in the opposite side. The ‘rest room’ is a 20x10 tin shed with 3 wooden benches and there was no sign of toilet or wash facility. This is a mega project connecting important centers of the city and hundreds of vulnerable migrant workers are engaged in this work which is ridden with accident prone operations.

Inter-state Migrant Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979, and the TN Rules of this Act, which are on paper from 12 September 1983 onwards, are yet to be of much use to these workers so far. Even in the CMRL accident, the CM has announced compensation, but there is no sign of legal compensation due for the deceased workers’ families and the injured. It was reported that workers themselves do not know about the details of the injured workers. These rules stipulate issuing pass books with personal details of the worker and the details such as date of appointment, date of joining, attendance, gross salary, deductions, signature of the contractor, name and address of a close relative of the worker etc. These rules also stipulate that in case of accident, information about the accident with details of accident and steps taken should reach the authorities and close relative within 24 hours. These rules provide for decent living places, canteens, crèches etc.

In Tirupur alone, there are 4.5 lakh migrant workers and all over TN their number is estimated to be 12 lakhs. These rules are observed only in their violations and as a rule, no identity cards are issued to them, no registration is made by any agency in the state, very low wages are paid, no specific work day is fixed, no proper medical care in case of accidents, and no mechanism is in place to voice their grievances.

TN’s development is built on the corpses of these migrant workers. It is not possible for migrant workers to get free treatment in the government hospitals here as they are outsiders and even that paid treatment can prolong only for a week. They cannot afford the private hospitals here and are forced to go back to their native places irrespective of their fitness to travel. The new assembly building of TN, a dream project of Karunanidhi, which is now waiting to be converted into a hospital in Jayalalitha’s rule, was built by migrant workers whose miseries went unrecorded. Now MNCs in TN have developed a taste for the sweat and blood of these workers and are getting them ghettoized.

No civilized society can allow these squalid conditions to continue. A minimum demand of implementing Inter-state Migrant Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979 and TN rules, raised in a consistent way, can shake the comfort level of the rulers and the industries exploiting migrant workers in the state. Demand for enumeration of migrant workers, not from the angle of the TN police, but from the angle of welfare of the migrant workers should be raised to get a picture of the conditions of their employment. TUs and concerned individuals must have the freedom to visit them and monitor their working conditions.

Jayalalitha, who for the past two months, has been away in her Kodanad resort, and filing defamation cases against those criticizing her stay in Kodanad, announced a compensation of Rs.1 lakh to those killed and Rs.25,000 to those who were injured in CMRL accident. However, she had not said anything about those workers dead or injured in Jeppiar College. Suddenly waking up to the reality, the Labour Minister of TN said steps will be taken to safeguard the welfare of migrant workers in the State. He candidly accepted that the State government does not have any data about the migrant workers.

In November 2011 AICCTU released a hand book detailing the provisions of the Inter-state Migrant Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act and TN Rules and since then serious efforts have been made to organize the migrant workers on their issues. On July 28, migrant workers organized a demonstration on their issues under AICCTU banner. An AICCTU team visited the injured workers in the hospital and the work site in Jeppiar college accident case. AICCTU released a poster immediately demanding Rs.20 lakh compensation for the families of the workers killed and Rs.5 lakh for those injured, action on the college authorities and strict implementation of Inter-state Migrant Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979 and TN rules. AICCTU also held a demonstration stressing these demands on August 10 before the Kanchipuram collectorate.

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