MUMBAI/CHENNAI, India – When power loom operator Lokanath Swain boarded a bus home after a 40-day wait in the Indian textile hub of Surat, he took a silent vow — to never return to his workplace of two decades.
Like millions of migrant workers left jobless by India’s strict coronavirus lockdown, Swain was left penniless and facing starvation and could only afford the 1,700 km (1,100 miles) trip back to eastern Odisha state after his family wired him money.
Countless workers in India have walked thousands of miles home after losing their jobs, many dying in accidents along the way, and the ordeal has made them reluctant to return to work despite India easing restrictions to reboot industrial activity.
“Nobody was understanding our problems there. My employer did not lift the phone when I contacted him to ask for my 10 days’ wages pending with him. They are big people. What can we do?” Swain, 45, said by phone.
“I thought I would not survive until the time trains would resume. How long can a starving man survive? May be one or two days,” Swain said from a quarantine facility where he is housed near his village in Ganjam district of Odisha state.
Swain is among the often invisible army of about 100 million migrant workers in India — or 20% of the workforce — who leave their villages for jobs in cities, where their skills are needed in manufacturing, construction, or the hospitality industry.
About 80 percent of these migrant workers are men who send their earnings back to their villages to support their families.
Reports compiled by aid workers show that more than half of the stranded workers who contacted them in distress during the lockdown were out of food and money, with nearly four out of every five not paid by their employers.
About 13 percent of 17,000 migrants in contact with the volunteers of Stranded Workers Action Network, a collective of relief workers, said they would seek work in their home towns in the future.
“What is the point of returning now? My employer abandoned me. I would rather stay with my family even if I earn half of what I earned there,” Swain said.
In the melee of millions of homebound migrants are construction workers, gem polishers, masons and skilled artisans who deftly stitched sequins on garments — specific skills that made migrant workers essential to several key industries.
Although informally employed, their skills oil supply chains feeding domestic and global markets and their earnings support rural communities, with economists warning their reluctance to return could mean labor shortages that hit the Indian economy.
Aware of their dependence on migrant workers, many industries and state governments are now grappling to find ways to lure back workers or to train local residents in the often skilled work conducted by this traveling army of employees.
India’s government, also aware of the magnitude of the problem, this month said it would spend 35 billion rupees ($463.06 million) on food for migrant workers and offer them jobs in their villages under a rural employment program.
“The government is concerned about migrant workers,” India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told reporters.
Trade union leaders and campaigners said delivery of aid and jobs will be patchy in the world’s second most populous country of 1.3 billion people, and industries would have to grapple with a labor shortage, at least for the next few months.
“The bitter experience they have had has left them traumatized and we know that most of them will not even think of coming back to work in the near future,” said realtor Kishore Jain from Bengaluru, where trains were stopped to stall construction workers from leaving, triggering protests.
“Bringing them back is going to be our biggest challenge,” said Jain, who is the Bengaluru chapter president of Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India.
‘Curses to be a migrant’
Migrant worker Rakesh Kumar said he always earned his living in Bengaluru as an electrician, but the lockdown and halting the trains turned him into a beggar.
He described standing in queues for food every day as “a humiliation for a lifetime”.
“The government did not give us anything and the food we got was from charities. Even to get that, we faced discrimination, with locals getting first preference,” he said. “Being a migrant became a curse.”
Migrants are an often invisible group in the population, never factored into urban planning nor included in the city’s population, and rarely counted for either in their villages.
There are estimates on their population but no official statistics, with no central registry of migrant workers despite legislation 40 years ago to establish such a database.
In Surat, migrants form 58 percent of the population, the highest migrants-to-locals ratio in India and 70 percent of the city’s waged workforce, a study by migrant rights non-profit Aajeevika Bureau shows.
Yet 98% of migrants surveyed for the study, which was released this month, had never interacted with any official in a political party office or local administrative bodies.
The lockdown made them visible to urban dwellers for the first time in recent history in India as they emerged from construction sites and sweatshops to go home.
Unaccounted for in cities, they have poor access to state aid and health care offered to rural communities as they are rarely ever present in their villages.
“These workers have multiple identities — they work on construction sites and then go back home to work in agriculture,” said Amita Bhide, dean of School of Habitat Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
Migrant workers typically return home for festivals or during the harvest season.
But this time around, many have returned home to stay.
“Once I get home, I will look for a job nearby. Why would I want to repeat this experience?” construction worker Rakesh Kumar said. “I will never come back.”
Industries facing a potential labor shortage are planning various ways to navigate the crisis.
The western state of Maharashtra has asked “sons of the soil” or local citizens “to grab employment opportunities” created by the exodus of migrants, while the real estate industry was planning on training local workers.
The northern state of Uttar Pradesh — the home state of millions of migrants — this week said it would set up a migration commission to connect those who have returned with jobs and to regulate their hiring by other states.
India’s diamond polishing and cutting industry, which employs over 1.5 million people — all migrants — plans to send batches of rough diamonds to local factories near villages of migrants once the global markets open and trade begins.
The construction industry in southern Indian state of Karnakata is trying to retain workers who have not yet left and plans to “skill new workers or mechanize certain jobs,” said Jain from the real estate association.
Apparel and textile associations said they were managing with available staff as they were not running at full capacity.
“About 30 percent of our workforce is on its way home. (But) when production increases and orders start coming in, we will feel the pinch,” said A Sakthivel, chairman of the Apparel Export Promotion Council.
The Apparel Export Promotion Council estimates the industry has incurred up to $35 million in losses due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
Since most migrant workers leave their villages for factors ranging from drought to lack of jobs and poor farm wages, their desperation to learn skills makes their quality of work superior to that of locals, heads of industry bodies said.
“They believe if they learn this skill, they will escape the hardship of their village,” said Dinesh Navadiya, president of Surat Diamond Association, adding that the industry now had no choice but to shift work to villages.
India has announced a slew of measures to regularize employments of migrant workers, from offering universal minimum daily wages over 200 rupees ($2.64) to starting a process to get all inter-state migrant workers registered so they can get aid.
Labor economists mapping the migrant workers’ journeys said workers will be reluctant to undertake long distance trips again despite industries and trade unions predicting that a lack of jobs back home would eventually force many to return.
“Migrants will be forced to evaluate what would happen if another coronavirus-like crisis hits. Long distance migrations may not work till the time they feel safe in the event of factories closing again,” said labor economist K.R. Shyam Sundar, professor at the Xavier School of Management.
Those who have reached home are evaluating their options.
Electrician Imteyaz Alam, 37, who has spent his life in Mumbai, reached home in eastern Bihar state after over 50 days of the lockdown when train services resumed.
“I am praying to Allah to find work here. My heart does not feel like returning. If I have to die, I would rather be with my family. But if I see my family starving, I will have to forget the hardships,” he said.
Trade unions said the country’s rural job guarantee program will not be able to sustain the millions of migrant workers returning home, offering wages lower than they earned in cities.
“The nightmare for migrant workers will continue because the factors that made them leave villages to find employment outside have only worsened,” said Tapan Sen, general secretary of Centre of Indian Trade Unions with six million members across India.
Campaigners expected a lack of jobs in villages and a growing agrarian crisis, due to water scarcity, floods and fluctuating yields, to fuel migration again after a few months.
“There will be some work on farm lands for now because of the monsoon to keep migrants in their villages,” said Liby Johnson, executive director at non-profit Gram Vikas that works with rural communities in Odisha state.
“But the exodus will begin by end-November. Poor people can’t afford to keep scars.”
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