NEW DELHI — The police acted promptly when a desperate plea for help by a group of workers stranded in a state-owned industrial estate outside Chennai circulated on social media last week.
“We have not received wages for all of April,” said a worker in the video. “Rations are irregular, and many of us are going hungry... We have served this nation with our hard work. Now we are in trouble. Please help us.”
The police visited the workers that very evening, and instructed them not to make videos about themselves, several workers told HuffPost India.
In the neighbouring state of Karnataka, the state government tried to prevent workers from returning home at the behest of the local builder lobby; in Uttar Pradesh the government waived practically all labour laws for a period of three years; in Gujarat, ice cream manufacturers asked the government to slash minimum wages; while in Madhya Pradesh the state government made it easier to hire and fire contract workers.
Nearly 7 weeks ago, on March 24, millions of workers across the country found themselves stranded at their factories, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a punitive national lockdown to stem the transmission of the novel coronavirus, and snapped all transport links without prior notice. With factories shut, work suspended, wages unpaid, and food in short supply, these workers were brought to the brink of destitution.
Now, as the cash-strapped central and state governments look to resume economic activity by restarting industrial units, the workers who simply want to return home, find themselves trapped once more — this time under the pretext of reviving the economy.
To be sure, few governments have been as blatant about their motivations as the Bharatiya Janta Party-led government in Karnataka, but interviews with workers, rights activists and state administration officials make clear that having done little to protect stranded workers during the lockdown, those in power are making it as difficult as possible for workers to leave industrial units as rail services slowly resume.
“To forcibly hold workers in place like this because they happen to be poor, and because their departure will be bad for your profits and your industry - can we call this anything other than a system of bonded labour?” said Yogendra Yadav, a political scientist and the national president of Swaraj Abhiyan. “This is one of the most vulgar moments in our nation’s history.”
In Tamil Nadu’s Kancheepuram district alone, over 30,000 workers are stranded according to a recent report in The Hindu. Automobile giants like Yamaha Motors Ltd., Hyundai Motors India Ltd., Ford India Ltd, and Royal Enfield run assembly lines here peopled by hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from across the country. The district, which has become one of India’s leading manufacturing hubs, includes a sprawling industrial park in Sriperumbudur developed by the State Industries Promotion Corporation of Tamil Nadu (SIPCOT).
The lockdown, workers from states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha living on the SIPCOT estate told HuffPost India, felt like a period of extended incarceration.
“It feels like we all have been locked up in a prison,” said AM, an assembly line parts checker in an auto unit, speaking over the phone on the morning of May 6. AM, who asked for anonymity, is currently stuck in a 10 feet by 10 feet room, which he shares with other workers in the village of Palnallur, in the SIPCOT estate, over 2000 kilometres away from his native Mau in Uttar Pradesh. Another migrant worker employed in a packaging unit in the SIPCOT estate told HuffPost India on May 8, “We have not been paid since March 23. It is impossible to continue like this here.”
“This government has started running flights for Indians who are in other countries to return home. But we are trapped here with no way for us to return to our villages in other states.” said Dilip Mohanty, a worker from Odisha employed at a unit called SM Automobiles in Sriperumbudur. “Do the lives and safety of poor people like us not matter? Do they want to push us to suicide?”
State administration officials say their hands are full. In an interview on May 7, Atulya Misra, Tamil Nadu’s nodal officer for inter-state movement said a May 3 order of the Modi government distinguished between “real migrants” who were stranded far from home, and those who were from other states but worked and had places of residence in Tamil Nadu. The workers in the industrial parks, now without employment and unable to return to home states, Misra implied, belonged to the latter category.
“Economic activity is returning, and most units have begun,” Misra said, when asked for how long workers were expected to endure a ‘no work, no wages’ situation.
“Like everyone else, we are also concerned about our life and our safety,” said Mohanty, the worker from Odisha, alluding to the rising number of Covid-19 cases in the district and nearby Chennai. “Just let us go home now. We will return when the situation improves. We will return because we need to work here. ”
‘Centre has monopolised decisions, socialised the losses’
On April 29, after over a month of holding them in place, the Modi government said migrant workers could return to their home states.
Just two days earlier, on April 27, the prime minister had held a video conference with chief ministers. Press releases by his government on that meeting’s “key takeaways” include “distancing” and “staying alert”, but made no mention of vital matters requiring national coordination, such as the distress and the movement of inter-state workers.
“The centre has monopolised the decisions, and socialised the losses, maintaining a complete silence as poorer states like Jharkhand, Odisha, UP, Bengal and Bihar grapple with the impacts on migrants in this lockdown,” said Rajendran Narayan, a professor at Azim Premji University and a member of the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), a group of volunteers providing relief to migrant workers.
Trains to carry migrant workers back to their home states have begun services in the first week of May, but there is little clarity about their schedules, and several workers said it was impossible to know if and when they will get a place on these trains. Workers said they had called the helpline numbers of the Tamil Nadu government and their home state governments several times to no avail. State officials say they are still coordinating with their counterparts in other states.
Misra, Tamil Nadu government’s officer in charge of inter-state people’s movement said his government’s first priority was patients, and travellers stranded en route in Tamil Nadu.
“The picture is changing every day. State governments are grappling with a pandemic, as well as logistical and humanitarian issues,” he said. “For example, the Odisha Chief Minister had a video conference with our Chief Minister some days back and has agreed in principle for workers from Odisha to return. But it will take time. Receiving states cannot give minute to minute consent because they also have to prepare at their end.”
Niyaj Aslam, a worker from Jharkhand’s Garhwa district who works as a welder for the Thai Summit unit said he had got tired of calling the numerous helplines in the past 10 days.
“We have registered on the Tamil Nadu government website, which was very difficult for us because everything was in English, which we cannot read or understand. We have registered on the Jharkhand government website,” he said. “The only way we can get out is when they start trains for us. Nobody is telling us anything about that.”
Courts have added to the day-to-day confusion. This Thursday, the Odisha High Court said “the state government should ensure that all the migrants who are in queue to come to Odisha should be tested negative (for Covid19) before boarding the conveyance.” A day later, on Friday, the Supreme Court stayed this ruling.
In early May all state governments designated IAS officers and put out helpline numbers to coordinate migrant movement from one or more states. But workers like Alam and relief groups say these systems are broken.
In Jharkhand for example, Avinash Kumar, the state’s Secretary of Rural Development, is the designated officer for movement from Tamil Nadu. He is also Jharkhand’s nodal officer on the issue of return of all stranded persons to the state.
When HuffPost India called Kumar’s cell number, the calls were automatically diverted to a state helpline. The person answering the call said, “We have no information on trains from Tamil Nadu. 24 hours before a train is to leave, the worker will get an SMS, if he has registered on our website. I cannot say anything more specific.”
Last week, three workers from Odisha who live at the SIPCOT estate borrowed two motorcycles from locals and headed out in search of a bus which might take them back to their villages in coastal Odisha. After a futile search spanning five hours, they returned to their rooms despondent.
“We found one bus owner who agreed to take us, but he wanted Rs 1.5 lakh and would only allow 25 people to board it,” said Manas Das, one of the three workers who was part of the search. “He also wanted us to get permission from the authorities here and in Odisha for the bus to move, as well medical certificates for all of us.”
Das said he did not know how to arrange for all this paperwork and visits to the local police station did not help.
“Also the fare works out to Rs 6,000 per person. Who has that kind of money now?” Das said.
“We are far from our people, our village and land, and do not speak the language of this place,” said Alam, the worker from Jharkhand. “There is nobody here to help us, and so we feel even more desperate to return home.”
Abandoned with no pay
When the lockdown was announced on March 24, the Modi government issued guidelines, which included asking employers to pay salaries to workers through the length of the lockdown. It is hard to say how closely this has been followed.
Most workers in Sriperumbudur’s factories are employed through labour contractors, who have largely been absent through the lockdown.
“When we ask for wages for April, the contractor says how can they pay us when they have got no money from the top?” said a worker from Thai Summit.
Vinnie Mehta, the Secretary-General of the Automotive Component Manufacturers Association of India (ACMA), which represents 850 organisations across the country, told HuffPost India on Friday that with several of their member factories located in the ‘red zones’, “conditions are very precarious and the future is unclear.”
“With nil sales in the month of April, the industry has completely run out of working capital. Several of our members are staring at insolvency,” Mehta said. “It is not that companies are unwilling to pay - the challenge is how to pay?”
The Tamil Nadu state government’s circular of May 3 states that industrial units will be permitted to begin with 50% labour, but it is unclear how and when most units will begin work and more importantly, begin to pay salaries. A bulk of the workers HuffPost India spoke to had been provided no information on when work might resume.
A worker shared with us a message he had got from his contractor, which said that the government’s latest lockdown extension had pushed the unit’s possible start date from May 4 or 5, to May 18 or 19.
Meanwhile, as their contractors disappear on them and their employers abandon them, workers are left relying on volunteer organisations for basic needs like food. On April 23 for instance, workers from auto parts manufacturer Thai Summit called an emergency helpline run by Swaraj Abhiyan.
“The workers told our helpline that there was no food and things were desperate,” Christina Swamy of the Swaraj Abhiyan’s Tamil Nadu chapter recalled. “We asked him how many workers were there without food, and he said over a 1000!”
Thai Summit did not respond to an email from HuffPost India; the story will be updated if they do.
Henri Tiphagne, a human rights lawyer in Madurai said his colleague drove to the villages of the SIPCOT park and found that the worker’s story checked out.
“We found about 1600 workers in the villages of Selaiyur, Araneri, Maambakkam, Vallam, Kandigai and Palnallur. They were employed by contractors for units like Thai Summit, which manufactures ancillary parts for bike companies like Yamaha. For 40 days, they had barely got any relief from the administration,” he said.
Tiphagne argued that the Tamil Nadu state government’s policies to attract industry had turned Sriperumbudur into a manufacturing powerhouse over the past 15 years, but authorities had turned a blind eye to statutes protecting minimum wages, contract workers, and inter-state migrants. “Pre-corona, all these laws were being routinely violated in the industrial estates. With the lockdown, the crisis for the workers has reached a head.”
Most of the migrant workers who spoke to HuffPost India did not have ID cards from their employers, which has contributed to their exclusion from pandemic relief efforts. “The contractor used to sign us into the unit, and sign us out every day”, a worker from Odisha, who worked as a helper in an auto unit for Rs 5,000 a month told HuffPost India.
The abandonment of migrant workers Tiphagne points to is not limited to Tamil Nadu. On April 3, the country’s Chief Labour Commissioner Rajan Verma wrote to his regional counterparts that “a huge number of migrant workers are impacted due to the lock down in view of spread of COVID-19” and urgently sought data on their numbers within 3 days. On May 5, in response to an RTI request from transparency activist Venkatesh Nayak asking for this data, Verma’s office replied “no such details are available.”
In late April, Tiphagne moved the Tamil Nadu High Court and the State Human Rights Commission, demanding that the administration and the employers provide urgent relief to the stranded workers.
“On the weekend, I got a call from an official in the state government saying why are you embarrassing the government,” Tiphagne recalled. The following Monday, on May 4, district officials arrived in the SIPCOT estate, and distributed some dry ration kits to the workers.
“They would barely last for 150-200 people and there are over a thousand of us here,” said a worker from Odisha’s Bhadrak district, who asked not be named. Several workers concurred. Mohanty said, “In over 40 days, we have been given 10 kg of rice, 1 kg of dal and 1 litre of oil. Even that, every room did not get. Some did.”
With a large COVID-19 outbreak this week in the Koyambedu wholesale vegetable market of Chennai resulting in its shutdown, food prices have also gone up now, workers reported.
“Potatoes are at Rs 80 a kilo and onions at Rs 100,” said a worker.
Workers asked how long could they subsist on erratic handouts of dry ration.
“We need money to buy gas to cook. We need money for vegetables. My family helped me out by sending me Rs 10,000, which I shared with a few others here,” another worker from Odisha said.
On May 5, hearing Tiphagne’s complaint, the SHRC asked the state government to submit a report within two weeks on the conditions of the migrant workers. The Kancheepuram Collector did not respond to multiple calls and a text message from HuffPost India.
Musician T M Krishna, who is a volunteer in a relief effort since the lockdown began, said the distress of migrant workers in Sriperumbudur is illustrative of conditions of migrants across Tamil Nadu.
“As per our survey, 63% of migrants have not been paid their wages. About 95% of them want to go back to their home states,” Krishna said, explaining that his organisation had been helping about 20,000 migrant workers across Tamil Nadu. “There is total confusion here with ad-hoc decision making and no proper planning or communication.”
“The state government has been severely hamstrung in its relief efforts and in sending migrant workers back because of the lack of financial support from the central government, which includes the withholding of GST revenue that is due to the state,” Krishna said.
“These workers have come from poorer states and helped to create economic wealth here in Tamil Nadu over the last several years,” said Swamy from the Swaraj Abhiyan. “Now when they are in distress, it is terrible that governments have just abandoned them.”