Migrant workers find the going tough

COVID-19 fears hit prospects of work

Ripun from Murshidabad last went to work at a construction site in Ernakulam on Saturday. The ₹900 he is paid as daily wage usually pays for his meals and rent of ₹900 a month for a room in Perumbavoor that houses seven others on most days. And, he sends home the remaining amount.

But with COVID-19 fears hitting the prospects of work, his wages from last week were not sent home. With no sight of work for the next few weeks, the money he had saved to send home will have to tide him over. Since he already had a ticket booked to go home next month, he has decided to stay, despite nearly half the people he knows heading home in fear, he says.

Majeed, also from Murshidabad, works as a ‘helper’ doing odd jobs at the Perumbavoor market. He has no fixed employer, he says, and has not been hired from the market for three days. He has been trying to eat a little less since money is going to be hard to come by and wonders if he can make the room rent that will be due next week.

According to a circular issued by the Labour Department on Tuesday, employers and contractors will have to ensure that migrant workers are provided food and shelter in the wake of COVID-19-related lockdowns on non-essential work. This will be enforced by the District Labour Officer (Enforcement) in collaboration with the Health and Local Self Government departments and the district administration.

“Most employers are likely to protect their workers in this situation and offer facilities,” says District Labour Officer (Enforcement) V.B. Biju. Otherwise, workers will leave, and companies will be left with no workforce when they can resume operations. But a large number of workers not attached to companies will have to bear the brunt of not having a steady wage for a few days, he adds.

One in every three migrant workers in the district falls under the category of “footloose” labour, says Benoy Peter, director, Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development. That includes Majeed and Ripun who do not have a safety net.

“With some hotels also closing, we have received calls for help from workers who are running out of supplies,” says P.K. Joshy, Ernakulam district secretary, Kerala Migrant Workers’ Union. “We helped where we could, but government intervention will be required to provide ration or something of that sort,” he observes.

While most workers attached to plywood companies near Perumbavoor live on the company’s premises, they are unlikely to be paid wages for the time the company remains shut, says Rajendra Naik, who works at a plywood company. Without wages, they will not be able to send money home. Arrangements have already been made for food, and if the situation persists for a while, the companies will consider offering wages, says Azees P., general secretary, Sawmill Owners and Plywood Manufacturers’ Association. The Community Kitchen programme announced by the government on Wednesday is likely to address the issue.

The Perumbavoor Municipality and surrounding panchayats are at present handling the issue based on distress calls. “If workers are struggling to get food, they can approach local councillors for help. Health workers regularly visit areas where migrant workers live,” says Sathy Jayakrishnan, Chairperson, Perumbavoor Municipality. Soumini Babu, president of Rayamangalam panchayat near Perumbavoor says the local body has provided food to families that reached out for help.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 9:05:01 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/migrant-workers-find-the-going-tough/article31168127.ece

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