‘We look different, speak different’


In a 2016 survey conducted by the Tamil Nadu Government, 10.67 lakh migrant workers were accounted for |Source: Frontline

CHENNAI: Rakesh (35) wishes he could go back home more often. “I try to go home at least once a year, for two weeks. I miss my daughter the most. She just turned five,” he said.  

A native of Darjeeling, West Bengal, he came to the city two years ago in search of a livelihood. Back home, he tended his field but soon realised it was not enough to look after his wife and child.  

He works as a waiter in Murugun Idli Shop, a restaurant in Besant Nagar. He lives with 40 other workers from states like Bihar, Orissa, Jharkhand, in rooms below the restaurant. It gets congested, said Rakesh. “But, it’s also people who know your language, so they become your friends. The locals, on the other hand, do not like outsiders and want nothing to do with us.”  

Similar stories can be found across the city. Physical assault, psychological and verbal abuse, housing, deplorable working conditions and absence of health insurance are the major issues faced by inter-State migrants involved in the manufacturing sector across Chennai, Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur districts, according to a recent survey conducted by the Loyola Institute of Social Science Training and Research (LISSTAR),Loyola College and the Indian Social Institute(ISI), Bengaluru.

A major factor for the migration of such workers is agricultural distress. Around 90.8% of the respondents were from rural agrarian backgrounds, while 96.7% had come to the State in search of a better livelihood.

In another corner of the city, Ranjan Mandal (55), a cook, lives in a tin house on the banks of the Adyar River in Lock Road, Kotturpuram, with about 200 other construction workers from Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal. They work as well as live at the construction site being developed by Appaswamy Real Estates.

Along with his parents, Ranjan had come to India from Bangladesh during the Hindu-Muslim riots in the 1960’s and settled in a village in Orissa. “The government had given each family about 2.01 acres of land but that was not enough to sustain ourselves. After the death of my parents, my wife and I travelled in search of work. We were in Andhra Pradesh before this. We shifted to Chennai only a few months ago,” he said. Ranjan and his wife, Kalpana (35), cook for the workers and earn Rs.10,000 per month. “Chennai can be harsh. We look different and we speak a different language, so people are scared of us. But we stay on because we get paid.” 

Murali (60), a native of the city and the security guard on the site, says the same. “Especially for the younger workers, it’s the first time away from home. It’s the first time many have seen the sea. The locals treat them terribly and think them to be dangerous.” As it is a residential area, the workers are treated with even more suspicion, he said.  

According to R. Karrupusamy, the Director of the Rights Education and Development Centre (READ), an NGO in Erode, the State has to register and monitor the welfare of the migrants. “The Interstate Migrant Workmen Act (1979) lays down the rules for workers, employers and contractors. But it is rarely followed on the ground,” he said. The State also has to keep a check on the minimum wage that is being worked to the workers. “Daily wage workers have to be paid between Rs. 300 to Rs. 400 according to the work they do. More often than not, they are not paid the correct amount. There have been instances when migrants are not given the same as the locals.” 

Moreover, the government has to keep a record of the number of migrants working in the State. In a 2016 survey conducted by the Tamil Nadu Government, 10.67 lakh migrant workers were accounted for. “But, there are many more. Proper registrations don’t take place. Many contractors bring in workers illegally,” said Karrupusamy.  

Each factory has to have a proper Internal Complaint Committee in place to address cases of harassment in the workplace. “But the committees do not function properly nor are the issues of the migrants taken up,” he said. Out of the 4,000 factories that the organization surveyed in the State, not one case of sexual harassment had come up. “These factories are predominantly filled with migrant workers. Most of them are scared to place a complaint and even if they do, it is not taken seriously,” he said.  

But, while life is tough, most do not bother going back, said Rakesh. “We have to listen to our managers and our bosses. We have no choice. It’s the only way we can get paid and ensure a livelihood.”  

Inputs from Bhavini Mishra.