Asked if she was aware that May 1 was Labour Day, Renuka (30), a domestic help from Bagalkot, replied in the affirmative. To another question, she said, she came to know about it from a calendar. But, she did not know what it was all about.
Like Renuka, several other young women and girls, who migrate to Mangalore along with their families, work as domestic help here, while the men are employed in a range of menial jobs.
For a migrant population that works on the roads, at construction sites and as domestic help in Mangalore, Labour Day means little. .
Vighnesh (24, name changed), a mason from Bagalkot district, said a private firm had declared holiday on Saturday for “Karmikara dina” (Labour Day). The firm gave its workers safety equipment such as helmets, shoes, safety belt, and uniforms, unlike his previous employer. Benefits for him, it appears, are a matter of decision of the management but not a right he can claim for.
When asked what happens in case of an accident, Vighnesh, who lives in Shediguri, recalled an incident that occurred two years ago at a construction site near Ambedkar Circle, in which a worker's hand was almost severed.
Asked if they had made any attempt at organising — a goal of the labour movement — and seeking compensation from the firm, he said the project engineer convinced the workers not to lodge a complaint, and they thought that the victim would be taken care of.
However, the firm paid Rs. 6,000 to Rs. 7,000 against his medical bills worth Rs. 16,000. Fellow workers contributed to clear the balance.
Vighnesh said that several factors came in the way of forming a union.
In case some problems arose, not everybody would stand by the person in trouble. Moreover, as most construction sites employed people from diverse backgrounds, communication was an issue, he said.
Besides, many of these families had agricultural land back home and they returned to their lands during monsoons. This periodic movement between places makes it impossible for them to create and sustain a union. The rising food prices make things more difficult as workers in the unorganised sector have to cope with their meagre wages, with little hope of an increment.
Addyappa, who has been working on road construction and repairs for about 11 years, said they had recently asked their employers to increase their wages.
The contractor responded with an increment of Rs. 50 and bringing it up to Rs. 250 a day for men and Rs. 150 for women. Despite the 10-hour work day, he said the workers were given a break of one hour for lunch. He has not heard of Labour Day nor does he know that he need not work for more than six hours a day.
Addyappa, who was at home as he is suffering from chikungunya, said he had spent Rs. 1,000 in two days on medicines. He said that he used to approach his “dhani” whenever he needed extra money for such emergencies. “We try to repay the debt within a week. After that, we have to pay interest,” he said.