Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act 1979 safeguards and protects interests of such labourers

The recent death of four individuals hailing from Bihar and one from West Bengal in an “encounter” with the police in Chennai and their alleged involvement in two bank robberies has turned the spotlight on a huge number of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled interstate migrant labourers who work in various parts of the State, including Madurai, sans any official record of the change in their residential status.

The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979 provides for sufficient safeguards to protect the interests of such labourers but the irony remains that most of them are not even aware of the existence of such an enactment for they are uneducated and employed as casual labourers in lodges, restaurants, flour mills and construction projects among others.

The credit for inclusion of North Indian delicacies such as Pav Bhaji, Bhel Puri, Paani Puri, Channa Batura, Tandoori items like Kulcha, Naan and even Chinese cuisine like Fried Rice, Noodles and Manchurian in the menu of a number of restaurants in the city must go to these migrant labourers. Beyond that, they are also masters in construction related jobs, especially creating designer false ceilings.

These men migrate from their hometowns in search of greener pastures and most of those who work in lodges and restaurants hail from Assam. B. Ranjan Das, a 21-year-old school dropout, who took up the job of a cooking assistant in a restaurant here just four months ago, says that he came down to Madurai on the recommendation of his friend working here for the past three years.

Difficulty in finding employment with a good salary package in his native is the prime reason for his decision to board the train. One of his brothers is working in a chair manufacturing company in Bangalore. Das is in the process of learning to cook from his friend I. Raju Bhujal (22) who was once an apprentice but now a master chef of the restaurant.

These two are also assisted by M. Santosh Magar, a 25-year-old, who has an obligation to earn enough money to get his two sisters married. The three youngsters are unanimous in their opinion that Madurai is much better a place to live and work than their natives. “People here are good. They move with us very well. We are happy to work here. There are no qualms,” Bhujal adds.

The telecommunication revolution has come in as a boon for the migrant workers as their families living thousands of kilometres away need not depend upon the telephone of their workplace any more to contact them. “I have a mobile phone with me, so my parents can call me anytime. In that way I feel that the distance between us is not an issue to worry about,” Dass points out.

N. Ravishankar, a hotel owner here, says that people like him prefer to employ such migrant workers because they would not take leave from work frequently. “Finding labourers is the most difficult task these days. Our local men do not come to work regularly despite heavy payment. They will be on leave on one pretext or the other. But these migrants will have no such issues.

“They are paid Rs.15,000 for a group of three and provided with food as well as accommodation. A majority of them does not stay in a particular hotel for very long. They keep shifting jobs. Once an apprentice becomes a master cook or a captain, as we call them, he would shift to another hotel or restaurant for a better pay and his assistants here would be elevated to the post of masters,” he points out.

R. Vijayarajan, owner of a Dhal (gram) mill, concurs that unavailability of local labour makes businessmen like him engage migrant workers. “It is an irony that our men from places such as Usilampatti and other rural pockets go to other States in search of jobs and people from there come here. It is because both are not comfortable working in their own places,” he says.

There are also contractors or agents who supply migrant labourers to employers. Chapter IV of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act makes it mandatory for the contractors to furnish particulars of the workmen to the specified government authorities both in the State from which the workmen are recruited and in the State in which they are employed within 15 days from the date of their recruitment.

The contractors must also provide to every inter-State migrant workman a passbook affixed with a passport size photograph of the workman indicating in Hindi, English and the language of workman, the name and place of the establishment wherein he is employed, the period of employment, proposed rates and modes of payment of wages and such other details.

The legislation provides for these and many more safety measures such as fixing minimum wages, providing displacement allowance and licensing of contractors.

But what is required is strict implementation of these provisions in their letter and spirit to keep track of the hapless labourers who move around from place to place in desperation to eke out a living.