Migrant Construction workers left unemployed and stranded; Government sent them back to their hometowns.

The construction industry is the second largest industry in India, after Agriculture. It contributes approximately 8% of the country’s GDP. There are several other industries dependent on the construction industry in the country. Before the lockdown, there were about 18,000 projects where work was in progress and 30% of the workforce were not working due to the COVID-19 situation.

This industry was facing issues now the COVID-19 Lockdown has further broken it down. The investments in the construction projects are reduced and there was also a fall in the gross value added

Workers in a construction site  Photo credits- Yogendra Mangla (Engineer)

The impact of the Lockdown on the Migrant workers was terrifying. Due to shutting down of construction sites and factories, several migrant workers have lost their jobs and were stranded wanting to get back to their native places There were caravans of Labourers walking miles to get to their home towns, hundreds of them gathered and struggled to get to their states.

The construction industry instils a sense of confidence in its workers by its laws. These workers, with limited money and food, relied on the government’s welfare activities. The Building and Other Construction Workers (The Regulation Of Employment And Conditions Of Service) Act, 1996. It is social welfare legislation that aiming to benefit construction workers regulates and ensures their safety and health. However, 96% of the workers are not even registered under the Act. Cash entitlements were given to the workers registered under the Act, leaving a large population of the workers on their own. It shows the incompetence from the government’s side. In such contingency situations, it would be difficult to ensure that help and incentives to reach all the workers.

Among 3,196 construction workers across India, a survey was conducted that highlighted, 94 per cent of the workers do not have the Building and Construction Workers identity card necessary to avail the central government’s compensation. 

Construction projects engage a workforce of 8.5 million. With limitations on the spending capacity of the target group, there was a fall in the demand of the housing sector. Hence, there was low cash flow in the economy. It led to a shortage of labour and thereby hiking of costs further makes it difficult for the sector to revive itself. The low productivity of the sector and low cash flow led to people losing jobs.

In the industry, about 87% of the workers are casual labourers, indicating the informality in the recruitment due to reliance on a sub-contracting process. This process is deeply mired in the construction industry, these contractors who are given the responsibility to hire migrant workers known as labour sub-contractors. These contractors usually charge payments from the workers, initiating a debt-cycle.

According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey 2017-18, 58% of the workers rely on these contractors for jobs, 26% were left to find employment on their own and 13% were hired through referrals. There are a total of about 65 million inter-state migrants, out of which 33 per cent are workers. 30 % of whom are casual workers while another 30 % work on a regular basis in the informal sector, according to the NSSO surveys and economic survey.

The living conditions of these Labourers are miserable. Being labelled as ‘outsiders’, they resort to living in congested slums, small labour settlements and cramped living quarters. These places are prone to the spread of diseases as there is no access to basic facilities such as clean drinking water and toilets and not enough space to practice physical distancing, imperative for preventing COVID-19.

This is when the Government comes into the picture, they were aiming to make sure that no one is without food during this pandemic times. The Central and State governments are trying to support them by providing transport facilities. However, the waiting lists ran into thousands. Thus, the workers tried to travel in dangerous situations with their families. The labourers left so abruptly that they had no idea of safety and did not even wait for the govt’s assistance. With no regard for social distancing, they travelled in trucks and vehicles like a cement mixer. Some of them died on the way just to go home to their families. 

Mass Migration of Workers Photo credits- new frame

There was a lack of coordination between the state governments. For instance, the Bihar government protested the return of students to their hometown. Union Home Secretary Ajay Bhalla, Bihar Chief Secretary Deepak Kumar commented, “Such movement from Kota is not at all advisable in the present scenario. In Bihar, we are now medically examining the returning students as well as their guardians accompanying them, and instructions are being issued to quarantine them.”

The government also garnered external help. The gharbhejo campaign by LB Trust and Khaanachahiye, collaborated with Government and inter-state private transporters supported by influencers like Actor Sonu Sood, sent thousands of migrant workers back to their homes. 

Labourers who returned to their hometown in the Lockdown, now want to head back to their previous places of work, realising that the towns have no jobs matching their skills. Some trains head to Mumbai, with workers who had returned to their hometowns in panic and rush, but not fully filled.

The Supreme Court of India also intervened in the problems faced by migrants stranded in different parts of the country. It ordered the central and state governments to transport the remaining stranded migrants and focus on the relief measures to facilitate employment for returning migrants. But this time, their employers, developers and contractors sponsored their travel. 

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