They fled their workplaces from Rajasthan in whatever way possible, fleeing the COVID-19 infection. But barely two months later, the migrant workers from Odisha’s Balangir district have returned to their workplace right across the country, to stave off hunger.
Damodar Pradhan, 40 and Bikash Patra, 30, from Dunguripali and Badimunda block of Loisingha respectively, had no second thoughts in boarding the bus sent by their employer — a carpet maker — to take them back to the Bikaner-based facility.
Eighteen workers from different blocks of Balangir undertook the 1800-km journey back to Rajasthan earlier in June even through fear of COVID-19 infection was uppermost in their minds.
In coastal Jagatsinghpur district, some youths contacted a labour agent for work in a bag-making unit in Udaipur. Within a week, a bus reached Ersama block to eight workers back their workplace.
With economic activity slowly limping back to normal in different parts of the country, desperate employers have connected with equally desperate workers from Odisha. The fear of infection pales before the lack of livelihood options in the State.
“My brother and my four brothers are all migrant workers as our one acre of ancestral land cannot feed all members. I could not find any work that suited my skill in Balangir district. And I could not keep sitting in my home waiting for the situation to return to normal. My brothers will follow soon,” said Mr. Pradhan.
Along with Mr. Patra, he agreed to become captive workers in the carpet manufacturing unit in Bikaner. On reaching the workplace, they underwent a COVID-19 test. And after testing negative, they joined the workforce. “This time we have been assured better payment with a condition that we cannot step out of factory premises,” said Mr. Patra.
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In Jagatsinghpur, 22-year-old Sisir Swain said the Udaipur-based bag maker had, for the first time, paid advance wages for three-month before employing them.
“The State government may have given advance rice and ₹1000 in view of COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from feeding oneself, there are lots of requirements to be met through hard cash. I did not find cash-earning avenue in my own area,” said Mr. Swain, a resident of Sompur in Ersama block.
According to a news report, L&T, the construction contractor for Gujarat Metro Rail Corporation (GMRC), had flown back 23-workers from Odisha to work on the underground section of Ahmedabad metro in June.
Workers in Ganjam, the most migration prone district of Odisha, are also getting impatient to return to workspots as their savings are depleting fast. However, uncertainty clouds their return due to spreading COVID-19 infection. Ganjam alone accounts more 25% of the cases from the State.
Umi Daniel, head of the Migration Information and Resource Centre (MiRC), Aide et Action, an international voluntary organisation, said both employers and workers were desperate as different sectors had started opening following easing up of lockdown.
“This time, the government must keep it mind that labour migration should be streamlined. Workers should return to their workplace through registered labour agencies so that wage as well as working hours could be fixed,” said Mr. Daniel.
He expressed concerns that that under desperation to return to workplace, workers should not choose anything coming in their way.
“The State government should come up with a platform for both employers as well as workers to ensure migration takes place through the legal process. It will make sure that workers will not be subjected to pain and agony which they experienced while returning home after lockdown was announced,” said Mr. Daniel.
More than seven lakh people mostly migrant workers had returned Odisha following COVID-19 lockdowns.