The Condition of Migrant Laborers in India

Posted on April 24, 2012 in Society

By Ashish Kumar:

Nandan Nilekani, in his much-acclaimed book Imagining India, enumerates how the South Indian states have marched ahead with the beacon of development in the first 50 years of development while most of the North Indian states have lagged behind. He then goes on to prophesize that now it’s the turn of North Indian states to climb the ladders of development. As for that, we have to wait and watch. But, the rift in the levels of development is there for sure. And that rift has given rise to a copious amount of migrant laborers abandoning their forefathers’ abodes and migrating to bustling urban towns in search of greener pastures only to be swindled by the contractor, faced with inhuman working conditions topped by wrath and skepticism of local population. These workers are ubiquitous- clinging to some concrete mess at 10th floor’s height or carrying bricks or mortar in the steel-container on their head in each of the developing towns of India.

Phenomenon of globalization and liberalization of Indian economy has made the financial benefit the thrust of every business and hence the demand for cheap labor has shot-up. So, the manufacturing and real-estate construction industries get cheap labor while the labor gets some semblance of job with a petty salary. The boom in number of migrant labors has given rise to a large unregulated labor market where the financial capital has a final say in deciding the wages and working conditions and not the market equilibrium. So, in short there are two drivers of phenomenon of migrant labors- urbanization and modernization drives labors to move towards the city which is a rational decision of an individual, other one is capitalist demand for cheap labor.

Years of maladministration has created an army of under-educated and under-skilled labor force in states like Bihar, UP, Orissa, Rajasthan and West Bengal and in the wake of equally pathetic state of agriculture in these states, these youths just want any other job in any other state. The contractors or the middle-men charges hefty amount from both sides and promises the laborer a bright future which is only next to bleak. They migrate in herds and live like herds. They share rooms-10-15 in a single room, eat unhygienic, under-nutritious food, struggle to cope with the local language, culture, save from the pittance they get as salary and send it home and sometimes even die miles away from their closer ones and the best they get is that their body is transported to their family.

Issues related to migrant labors and their condition can be summarized in following points:

Absence of labor unions– There is no unity among migrant labors and hence they can’t raise their voice against any unjust behavior imparted on them. No labor unions also mean that there is no authority in place to regulate their appointment and to make sure that they get paid in accordance with the efforts they put in. This also implies that there lacks a legal framework or threat to deter the perpetrators of injustice against these labors. Although, the right for such migration has been provided to every citizen of India as a fundamental right to Livelihood (Art 21) and also Right to Freedom of profession (Art 19 clause 1 sub- clause) and laws such as Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Act, 1979 have been passed, the condition of these labourers remains far from humane.

Local resilience and scepticism– The employment opportunities for the local labourers get reduced due to entry of migrant labourers and local labourers naturally don’t feel good about it. The migrant labourers are also ignorant of local language and culture and have a hard time coping up with it. Local people visualise them as uneducated and uncivilised and consider them an intruder. They often wrongly relate poverty and abjection of these labourers to the crimes in locality. Local police and authority share the same notion that they are all perpetrators, hooligans and rowdies. Police raids and atrocities in the slums residing such labourers become a commonplace after each instance of crime or violence. Recently, in Chennai, there was a bank-robbery and on investigation one of the perpetrators was found to be a migrant labourer from Bihar. After few days, local people in one locality of Chennai chased a guy, nabbed him ultimately and then beaten him badly. His only fault was that he appeared like a Bihari migrant labourer. Not to talk of the raids and all the restrictions posed on these labourers after these incidents.

Pathetic living conditions and Low wagesMigrant labour, as already explained, is an outcome of the demand for cheap labour. So, the contractors pay them a pittance and suck their blood making them work in inhuman conditions. The slums where they reside are unhygienic and 10-15 people live in a single room. This poverty and hand-to-mouth existence often lead to these labourers retorting to extreme measures like indulging in crime.

No Safety standards– These labourers often work in very difficult and dangerous positions and terrains. The construction workers have to work at high altitudes, falling from which may cause ultimate death. The industrial workers have to operate gigantic machines mishandling of which might result in loss of life. No safety standards are maintained wherever such labourers are engaged. No or just a petty insurance is paid for the loss of life at work. Pleasantly, some state governments have come-up with accident benefits for the family of victims of accident.

State governments need to come-up with similar schemes. As we have to accept existence of migrant labourers as a bitter truth, efforts must be taken to organise this ever-surging labour market as chaos and disorder are never optimal. Formation of labour unions and a legal framework for protection of their rights is required. The mind-set of local people needs to change. Not every one of them is a criminal. They should start accepting them in the mainstream and prevent their alienation.