CHENNAI: When the city shut down and stayed indoors fearing the novel coronavirus, migrant labourers were left alone in the streets. Some of them were not paid for the work they had done months before cities came to a grinding halt.
Some of them were thrown out of their rented houses. Most of them had no money to either stay or leave. Left with no options, they started walking towards home, thousands of kilometres away, one step at a time. Finally, when governments arranged trains and allowed private buses, there was an exodus.
Data says that 2.5 lakh migrant workers have left Tamil Nadu. Many of them, speaking with Express, shuddered at the thought of returning to the State for work. Now that industries and businesses have also started reopening, the city and its people are starting to feel the pinch -- realise the contributions of their invisible labour in keeping this city going.
Many businesses are hopeful that a fresh set of hands may arrive when things return to normal, but little is being said about improving working and living conditions of these 'guest' workers. The busy pocket of Guindy Industrial Estate, home to hundreds of small scale units, now looks desolate. The units have opened up, but there are hardly any labourers around.
"Many units are now functioning with a mere 10 per cent workforce," says KV Kanakambaram, president of a manufacturers association there. "There were around 3,000 migrant workers here and many have left." The local workers are also unable to return to work, as public transportation is still not functional.
Construction works left midway are likely to stay that way for sometime. The sector is facing about 70 per cent labour shortage, says S Sridharan of CREDAI. "We can review the exact numbers only after the lockdown has been lifted, but many have left for home. They are unlikely to come back until train services resume," he says. Complicating the concerns of builders, is the escalation of cost of cement and other construction materials.
However, the workers did not just up-and-leave amid the lockdown. Express reported at least three cases where the labourers in the construction sector were denied wages due since March. They were made to stay in and around work sites.
The frugal rations being provided, lack of work and money, and deep worry about the situation back home forced many workers to leave when a chance presented itself. Most of the migrant workers Express interacted with along the NH-16, leaving the city by foot, were from construction sector.
The beauty industry has also suffered badly. "Close to 50 per cent of our workforce was from Northeastern States," says CK Kumaravel of Naturals Salon. Unlike the contemporary situation, Kumaravel has been supporting his staff, who, as a result, have not left from here.
Yet, he’s worried that if the crisis prolongs, they might leave. “It all depends on the lockdown. If it continues, they may want to leave.” Kumaravel also plans to reduce staff strength at his outlets by breaking them into two shifts, to ensure social distancing.
Industry bodies feel this dearth would be a temporary phase. "It may not last more than three months. Anyway, there aren’t many orders now. Industries can manage with the reduced workforce. In about three months, when they attain 90 per cent of their production capacity, the remaining workforce will come back and boost the capacity utilisation," says K Hari Thiagarajan of the CII.
Thiagarajan also feels these workers "may not have other alternatives" so they will come back. "They won’t get paid as much as what they earn here back home," he says.
The industrial hub of Tirupur, which employs around 2 lakh migrant workers, is as badly affected as Chennai. Nearly 20 per cent of the workforce left when the curfew was imposed, claim local industry sources.
Now that industrial units there have been allowed to operate with 50 per cent workforce, local labourers are back in demand. "The orders are limited, which is a pain. But when they increase, we can always train local labourers," says P Mohan of the Tirupur Exporters Association.
But, that is not the case with spinning mills. "Migrant labourers are the backbone of our business.We are devastated, and have no idea when we can reopen," says N Murugesan of the South Indian Spinners Association.
In Erode, around 17,000 workers had registered with the district administration to be sent back home, of which 10,000 are now back in Bihar, Odisha, Jharkhand, UP, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan. The impact of their leaving has been on bleaching, dyeing, printing and construction industries. Textile processors association's K Veerakumar says over 90 per cent of workers in 400 textile processing units in Erode are migrants from northern States.
In Madurai, where an estimated 80,000 migrant labourers are employed, only 10,000 have registered to go home. Of them, 5,348 have already left by special trains and buses. A contractor in Madurai, who has been tasked with building a flyover in the city, says 240 of his 250 workers have left for Bihar and Odisha. "Then 10 others are from Jharkhand, and are waiting for a special train to be announced to leave."
Now, works are being carried out by these 10 workers, and 70 others hired locally, from Melur, Alanganallur, and other places. "Migrant workers will return, but it will take about 6-9 months. The advantage with them is that they are willing to work overtime. Local workers, on the other hand, want to return home every evening. The migrant workers also do not take much leaves as they live close to the work sites," says the contractor.
The contractor, working on a government project, is unaware of the stipulated working hours for labourers, and violates it blatantly.
S Rethinavelu of the Tamil Nadu Chamber of Commerce explains how the entire process works. "Migrant workers are brought here by employers through contractors are middlemen. The places from where they are brought are chosen on a rotational basis. Now, we understand that there are many workers in Bihar, UP, and Odisha looking to come to Tamil Nadu as the pandemic has destroyed their livelihood. It would be nice if governments can arrange something like Shramik trains to also bring them back to their work sites," he said.
"These labourers are leaving their native States due to lack of opportunities there. If governments create opportunities, and give preference for local candidates in each State, the migrant crisis can be averted to an extent," says R Suresh, an assistant professor with the Alagappa University.
Migrant workforce is the building block of what the West now calls the ‘Gig Economy’. As said by associations and business owners, the only reason they are in demand is that they come cheap. For a flat monthly payout, they work overtime, they stay near the site and hence do not or cannot take leaves, and, working in a foreign land, they also lack social and public support to argue their cause if they are treated unfairly.
It’s this denial of rights that has come back to bite industries and businesses in the COVID era. With lack of basic housing, money, and rations, leaving was the only choice for many labourers. Will the situation change after COVID? Will industries offer a few benefits here and there to retain the workforce? Only time will tell.
(With inputs from Jeyalakshmi Ramanujam, Lalitha Ranjani, Vignesh V, Azeefa Fathima, Deepak Sathish, Chandhini, Sowmya Mani, and Thinakaran Rajamani)