Migrant workers themselves live in squalor, with 450 of them managing with 20 toilets and an open bathing area. Occupying just over 225 sq. ft., each hut is crammed with 10-15 migrants, reeling under scorching heat. Sunitha Sekar and Pavan Dahat report from a labour colony

At the foot of a beautiful mountain near Tirusulam is a bumpy narrow stretch bordered by a row of tin-sheet huts. Occupying just over 225 sq. ft., each hut is crammed with 10-15 migrants, reeling under scorching heat.

Migrant workers who reside in the labour colony at Tirusulum live in deplorable conditions. For about 450 people employed at various construction sites across the city, there are just 20 toilets and an open bathing area. Some residents of the locality said that, earlier, workers would defecate in the open near the Tirusulam railway tracks. This stopped after iron fencing was raised around the colony after a few alleged cases of railway track deaths of these workers. S. Sai Lakshmi, a resident of Tirusulam said, “Until two years ago, the workers resorted to open defecation since there were no toilets for them. This resulted in a couple of railway track deaths. Later, guards were deployed near the tracks.” Ironically, the Tambaram Railway Police said no such cases of death had been reported.

Most of the workers hesitate to bring their families here as safety is an issue. R. Mahesh Yadav, who hails from Bihar, said, “I can't imagine living with my family in such a condition.” His apprehensions are justified considering a five-year-old girl of a construction worker was raped at Egattur in 2009. The paucity of water is another worry. “The situation was not this bad a couple of years ago. Initially, the contractor would send us more than five water tankers but now we have to manage with just three,” said S. Ashish, a migrant from Odisha.

To add to their woes, they say they are under close scrutiny by locals and the police. The labour contractors were asked to create a database of migrant workers after the Velachery encounter earlier this year. P. Pradeep from West Bengal said, “After the incident, the police told us not to venture outside the colony after 10 p.m. We were also asked to submit our details, including a photograph.”

Most workers are reluctant to reveal their wages fearing a reprisal. After assurance of anonymity, a 20-something migrant from Bihar, said, “While I get paid Rs. 140 for eight hours of work, a local receives Rs. 300 for the same job and working hours.”

A contractor, who did not wish to be named, denied this and said unskilled workers were paid Rs. 250-270 while the skilled ones earned about Rs. 370 for eight hours. He said migrant workers from north India are hired for the obvious reason that they come at a cheaper price.

The Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulations of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996, and the Building and other Construction Workers' Welfare Cess Act, 1996, mandates that all States collect a cess for the welfare of construction workers.

Geetha Ramakrishnan of Unorganised Workers' Federation, said, “According to the Building and Other Construction Workers Act, 1996, the Tamil Nadu Welfare Board has to collect one per cent cess from all construction sites. But the board collects only 0.3 per cent at present. Earlier, cess was never collected from construction sites of central government undertakings. Only now have they begun to collect it from them.”

Section 6 of The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, says that the employment of a migrant without registration is prohibited. Ms. Ramakrishnan said that many labourers were not registered and the process itself had become difficult as the Village Administrative Officers did not bother to verify the identity of migrant workers.

The indignities of poverty force these workers to gravitate to the city for employment so much so that they readily accept any living condition. Their sole aim is to send home a sizeable amount. But even that seems like a far-fetched dream now, they say.

(Names of the workers have been changed to protect their identity.)

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