CHENNAI: Migrant workers from states like Bihar, Orissa and Jharkhand streaming to the metros for better prospects is not new. The construction and hospitality sectors in Chennai, for example, have long been heavily dependent on the thousands of migrants who stream into the city every year.
However, it isn’t just unskilled and semi-skilled jobs that this now indispensable section of the city’s workforce is taking up. Migrant labour is now the majority in highly skilled industrial jobs too. Take two of the city’s oldest industrial estates — Ambattur and Guindy. It isn’t just their economic character that is changing, but the very demographic of the people who work in them.
Both have been suffering from a crippling shortage of qualified and skilled labour for the last decade. With a large portion of the native population looking at more lucrative opportunities now available in the auto-manufacturing belt around Sriperumbudur and Oragadam, smaller industrial units have turned to migrant labour to fill the gap.
“Most people from here are either over-educated, unwilling to work at these jobs or looking to work in better paying units in Sriperumbudur and Oragadam,” points out V Raju, president of the AIEMA. “Most of our (native) folk have also done minimum degrees and they do not want to work in jobs their fathers and grandfathers worked at,” he adds.
“In Guindy, the migrant labour constitutes over 60% of the workforce — closer to 70%,” says K V Kanakambaram, president of the Guindy Industrial Estate Manufacturers Association. The situation has seen a large percentage of the common workforce in manufacturing units in both Ambattur and Guindy start out as unskilled, but willing, migrant workers.
“They do not come to us skilled,” points out Kanakambaram, “But even small scale industries now train these people in welding, fabrication etc. They even operate CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines in our facilities now,” he observes.
All these jobs have traditionally been held by people from the core demographic of the city and its hinterlands. In fact, it was skills in these jobs that made Chennai and its surroundings an attractive breeding ground for most industries. “But most youngsters here are not interested in blue collar jobs like these anymore. And frankly, people who have done engineering would not want to work here,” says Raju.
“There is no longer any sizeable section of people who have done just Class 10 or 12. The shortage is still a huge problem for most of our units — both small and medium,” admits Raju.
Raj Kamal, 22, Gopalganj District, Bihar
Raj was just 18 when he got off a crowded compartment of the Sanghamitra Express at Chennai Central three years ago. “I had just Rs 1,000 in my pocket, which my family had saved for months to send me out of our village to get better work,” recalls the welder who now earns Rs 12,000 a month working at an industrial unit in Ambattur. When Raj landed, he had no skills and employers were willing to hire him only for heavy lifting and other menial jobs. “I observed people doing welding and carpentry and assisted them. Now I’m a welder. I can send back as much as Rs 8,000 to my family every month,” says Raj, who works six days a week for 10 hours each day as a welder. He also spends another two days helping out in a tea shop. And on his off day? “I love Tamil movies, especially Vijay. I learnt Tamil watching these movies,” says Raj showing a video of Pokkiri that he has on his phone. “I watch any Hindi or Tamil movie when I have money to spare. Otherwise, I spend the day sleeping,” he smiles.
Ram Kumar, 35, Bokaro District, Jharkhand
Ram has two children aged 8 and 9, and he hasn’t seen for nearly a year. “They’re both with their mother’s family in Jharkhand. I can’t afford to bring them here,” says the lathe operator who works in Thirumazhisai Industrial Estate. “It’s hard, but I send Rs 6,000 from here every month. I don’t think that will be enough if I bring them here,” he says. However, Ram doesn’t complain. When an agent brought him and five of his friends to Chennai five years ago, he only promised a salary of Rs 5,000 a month and work in construction. “But after a year, the agent abandoned us and I found work here. I started off lifting steel sheets. The work now is good and I can send back a lot more,” he says.
- Once considered an unskilled workforce, migrant labourers are now learning niche skills like lathe operation, welding and more, thereby filling up vacancies created by native workforce
- Native workforce, on the other hand, is moving out for better opportunities in the auto manufacturing hub, leaving migrants with better jobs and more pay