Swirling dust and the rotting greens on the ground do not seem to matter to these labourers. They just continue to heave bags to earn their wages. Nearly 10,000 labourers unload bags weighing up to 80 kg each form the lifeline of the Kamarajar Flower, Periyar vegetable and Anna Fruit markets at Koyambedu. For most in the flower and vegetable markets, their day starts as early as 2 a.m. depending on the perishables that they handle.
At the command of the traders, the men carry load from trucks, weigh and sort perishables according to their quality. R. Annadurai, a 43-year-old, who worked in Dubai for five years, said he chose to come back to work at the vegetable market as he found this better. “I have six acres of land back home [near Ariyalur] but if I invest Rs.10,000 the return is just Rs.8,000. I work for sometime, earn and go home when there is work on the farm,” he says.
The minimum that labourers earn on any given day is Rs.350 and during festivals it can be as high as Rs.1,000 as they would have more bags and lesser hands to handle. Depending upon the weight, the labourers earn between Rs.3 to Rs.15 per bag.
Most traders in the markets are those who rose from the ranks of labourers. “I worked here for 3 years and learnt the trade. I then took a loan and started a small business, which I have run for 25 years, said A. Manahoharan, a wholesale trader at the flower market.
Many labourers are here in the market because their fathers worked before them. They have continued with the same bosses from the Kothavalchavady market. However, they do not want their children to continue the tradition as they do not get provident fund, insurance or pension benefits. “When we fall sick we manage with local medicine men. We cannot afford expensive treatment. Our owners can help us only to a certain extent,” said a labourer.
Thangavel, a 52-year-old, who has been working since 1978, has admitted his son Dharmaraj in a private engineering college. “He got the seat through counselling. I pay Rs.61,000 as fees but as he is good in academics and wanted to go to college, I have taken a loan.”
“Apart from three meals a day, we eat snacks like biscuits, vadais and samosas. We spend about Rs.150 on eatables,” said Selvam a labourer, who has been working for 25 years. Many labourers put in over 12 hours a day. They take a break once in two or three months and go home for 10 days. A portion of them are also addicted to alcohol or smoking or chewing tobacco products.