For migrant workers, a year of suffering
Why is manufacturing so heavily dependent on exploited labourers, who are effectively bonded workers? There are laws regulating the employment of migrant workers but they are not enforced.
March 25th marked the first anniversary if the national lockdown, imposed to curb the spread of the pandemic. The nation was only given a notice of four hours, and panic ensued. Because incomes turned uncertain and transport services were suspended, hundreds pf thousands of migrant workers started to walk home over the following weeks. The great exodus from the cities showed the insecurity of the lives of migrant workers.
Migrant workers, often, get no security from the State. Among them are brick-kiln workers who live amid the forest of tall chimneys belching smoke between Badri and Jhajjar in Haryana. The state recently announced a measure protecting jobs for citizens of Haryana but provided no protection for the migrants. I reported on the plight of the brick-kiln workers some three years ago, and went back very recently to see how they had survived the lockdown.
The brick kilns are antiquated, and their business model is dependent on a plentiful supply of cheap labour. As soon as I got out of my car, a group of men, women and children who mould bricks by hand and lay them out to dry before baking gathered. They were from Bihar’s Gaya district.
One small boy had no trousers, and a girl was playing with a dead mouse. The workers were housed in hovels with barely room to stand up. The walls, made of loose bricks, bulged dangerously. The tin roofs trapped the heat. Workers told me there was one hand-pump for one hundred families, no drinking water and no lavatories. Yet, they continued to live in these miserable conditions because there is no work in Gaya.
There was no work between March 2020 and February 2021 in the brick-kiln; the workers earned no wages in those months because they are paid on a piece-work basis. The government’s minimum wage provides little protection. During the lockdown, employers gave each family ₹1000 every 15 days to buy food, but that money was to be deducted from their earnings when they were paid. A thousand rupees didn’t go as far as it should have, because their ration cards were registered in Bihar and they were not aware of the new provision on portability of ration cards.
When I asked whether government officials came to ask about their welfare, a worker replied, “Official come but they only speak to the manager they don’t meet us.” The manager was present throughout my inteview but he never contradicted the workers.
The only encouraging development I saw was a young woman teaching a large group of children, sitting on the ground under a tree. She was not a government teacher, but belonged to a civil society organisation.
Why is manufacturing so heavily dependent on exploited labourers, who are effectively bonded workers? There have been campaigns against child labour and bonded labour ever since I can remember. Kailash Satyarthi won the Nobel Peace Prize for his campaigns against the exploitation of children, but children still work alongside their parents in brick-kilns. There are laws regulating the employment of migrant workers but they are not enforced. Do the bric-kilns survive because of the corruption of India’s bloated Inspector Raj ? Are brick-kiln workers perhaps ignored because they are not voters in Haryana?
Then again maybe the renowned linguist, philosopher, and social activist Noam Chomsky was right when he said, ”What is striking in India is the indifference of the privileged.”
The views expressed are personal