From Cynicism to the red carpet: Migrant workers of UP-Bihar!

Besides all the identities- identities left behind at their villages, identities that were imprinted on the govt papers- one identity that remained at the fore, was the identity that branded him a ‘migrant UP- Bihar labourer’, in a hyphenated fashion. Not official, but the most prominent, nevertheless.

They were there, sowing paddy fields in Punjab , working in factories and Mines in Karnataka, polishing diamonds in Gujarat, at construction sites in Maharashtra, driving autos, working as house help- virtually everywhere, doing the maximum chunk of blue collar jobs. And yet they existed invisibly. If anything, their presence could only stir the strings of unease in the hearts of upper class /upper middle class. They turned their nose up at the sight of a family huddled together under a tarpaulin sheet near a construction site, almost without fail, ‘because of these people our city is so filthy’!  ‘Dignity of Labour’ was a term that they thought only belonged to the textbooks and to the drawing room debates, if wanted to showcase one’s ‘concerned facet’! ‘These people’-they would shout from the very rooftop of the houses, that were cleaned, scrubbed, and maintained by the migrant house helps – ‘are responsible for all the crimes in our state/city’! So much so that rallies were held to oust them from the states that considered them a burden on their system and economy.Really!!!!

But they never noticed all this discrimination against them in their own country, for they were busy sustaining themselves daily through toil and sweat. Meagre savings would be sent home. Home, they were forced to leave in the hope of opportunities, livelihood, and better life, for they did not find employment in their town or state. Cost of agriculture had turn too high and that was when if the crop would survive the annual floods and drought. They were not skilled in other areas to sustain themselves. So, sowing in Punjab and working at construction sites along with other blue-collar jobs seemed the only plausible option. They chose to ignore the exploitation they were subjected to, even if they felt it.  Their existed without any socio-economic-legal rights. The migrants thought that it was them who needed the big cities and its people. The city people seemed to agree, conveniently rather.

And then Covid 19 came like a thunderbolt. Everything was locked down, leaving thousands of migrant workers unemployed. Even though, no one was left unscathed, it was the daily wagers (in other words UP-Bihar workers), who were hit directly by this pandemic and the consequent shut down. Nobody cared as to how they would sustain themselves or their welfare. Nothing new, they had never thought about them earlier either. Then the unthinkable happened- something that the people of those cities wanted.  Battered by unemployment, uncertainty, health scare, and hunger, en masse reverse migration started, on foot- trudging across hundreds of kilometres! Of course, they made good media stories but that was that only- a good engaging human story! Still no help came from the factories, builders, individuals (exceptions are always there though) they worked for!

But somewhere in the dark cloud of this painful journey-literally and otherwise, a thin silver lining had begun to form.

Post unlock 1.0, when factories reopened along with other such labour-intensive sectors, they realized that they did not have the hands to run those factories, machines! Punjab fields looked forlorn without the hands which would sow them, filling their heart with much needed life! Companies reported labour shortages at ports and factories, potentially exacerbating an economic slowdown.

Finally, the magical and long-awaited moment (not exactly moment but still…) happened. Moment of truth- the overdue acknowledgement came through. Covid 19 crisis has made India to sit and realize the efforts and work of the migrant workers.

The role that existed in a shadow, is ultimately being recognized. State after State is facilitating re-migration of its work force. Companies, factories, and industries are going extra length to get them back, some even arranging for the flights. What a sharp contrast to the way they had returned home not so long ago!

Certainly, with things not much changed in their home states, most of them do want to return to the place of their work, but this time not incognito, not unwanted, not in a shadow. This RED CARPET was long due and its time that big cities and its people take out the term ‘dignity of labour’ from the textbooks and drawing room debates and put them into practice by providing these migrant workers better wages, better living conditions with other benefits that any organized sector enjoys! Plus point of this- Your ‘highly evolved senses’ wouldn’t revolt at the sight of a family huddled together underneath that tarpaulin sheet (pun unintended)! Also, the huge number of IAS officers from these states , holding important appointments, can for once address this and bring about rules that ensure the  socio-financial- legal rights of these migrant workers.

Copyright © Aradhana Mishra

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  1. Industrial racism exists in countries all across and all this is a gift given to society by so called capitalist culture. Capitalism is sown deep in roots and that has yielded to hierarchies in the system. In India it has become easier for capitalism to find its existence in the existing hierarchical social system. What defined social structure in India gradually became economical structure.
    Covid has been a great equalizer. It does not really care who is white collared or who is blue collared.
    Are all the workers are wanted again? Yes they are. Whatever grounds they are on. The reality is that they are wanted than never before. There is another truth that is finding its ground and that is there are other greener pastures to those who are really hard working. To the owners the choice that exists and that they should be intrigued with is ..… how to get back their workers and for that what to lay on ??

    1. Hello Flora,
      Actually no system is foolproof. While capitalism has its own demons, Socialism thrives on dictatorship. And more often than not that becomes rather just a façade, while carrying on with the business like a capitalist. For eg China. USA, pays better (rather very good) to its labour force but gets most of its manufacturing done outside with cheap labour , to save money…! As far as hierarchy is concerned, as a matter of fact, it exists in all social structures, in one form or the other, across countries. What makes Indian workers vulnerable and subject to exploitations is the sheer number! Here supply far exceeds the demand… ( and that’s the reason, vultures like USA and other affluent countries get their dirty works done in the poor and populated countries). But with Covid, realization is dawning upon people that they are important part of the entire supply chain of the economy. As they say, Charity begins at home… so we as Indians, should start respecting labour before we ask any one else! Again your words are thought provoking … and encouraging at the same time. Thank you!
      Take care

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