Mumbai: Maharashtra, one of India’s most industrial states, is facing an acute labour crisis. As a result, the state government is planning to bring back migrant workers who left for their native places due to sudden lockdown announced on May 24. However, the challenge is huge, as almost 65-70% of the labour force is still in their native places, stalling work in industries as well as in mega projects, such as the Metro and airport building.
According to the state's directorate of industrial safety and health, which comes under the labour department, a total of 28,54,881 workers are registered in Maharashtra by 36,623 factories. Out of these, only 11,101 factories were able to restart work till June 30. As of now, only 6,42,557 labourers are working in these factories. This means that out of the total registered labourers with the directorate, only 22% are back to work. Also, only 30% of industry has been able to restart work till now. This data with the directorate pertains to industries where at least 20 workers are employed.
Overall, as per the state industry department, a total of 38,60,333 workers were registered with it during September 2015 to February 2020. Out of these, only 15,54,488 workers or 40.26% are back to work. This data includes workers engaged in mega projects, such as the Mumbai Metro, Navi Mumbai Airport, Samruddhi Mahamarg and others.
According to the state’s home ministry, 16,000-17,000 workers from other states have been returning daily to Maharashtra. The total number of labourers who returned from June 6/7 to June 30 is more than four lakh, across sectors. The home ministry claims that registration all workers is being done compulsorily.
As per the state's directorate of industrial health and safety, Pune 2 zone is witnessing the highest return of workers as of now. There are 1,072 industries in this zone and the number of workers right now is 86,380. A total of 1,68,530 workers are registered in the zone. Vasai in Palghar district is the next highest, with 68,532 workers returning to work out of the total 2,49,044 registered workers.
The shortage of labour and new lockdown guidelines has halted work in many companies that had restarted.
Kishor Petkar works in Tejas industries of Badlapur, which is associated with making furniture for mega stores. He stays in Thane, which is approximately 37 km from Pune. In normal days, Petkar travels by local trains. But this is not possible now because local trains are carrying essential workers now. His company has arranged a car for him and two other colleagues, who went to work only for 10 days in June, as Thane city is another coronavirus hotspot. So, there will be restrictions on the movement of Petkar and his colleagues. "I think, we will have to stay back at least till July 12, when a further decision about the lockdown in Thane will be taken," he said.
Vijay Keluskar works in Jagdamba Electrics in Nalasopara. His firm provides electric panels to companies like Godrej. Vijay stays in Vasai. He had been travelling in his own motorcycle to reach his workplace since June 8, but now he has been asked to stop work. "I am ready to go but our company has asked us to wait till there is clarity on the new rules and guidelines of the lockdown. I think I will have to wait till at least the first week of July," he said.
Milind Kedar, a supervisor in Ulhasnagar's garment factory, had gone to Dhule, his home district, in April. His manager keeps calling him up, asking him to return to work but Milind, who stays in Kalyan, says he is scared to due to the fear of coronavirus. "We keep watching news on TV. Every day the number of patients in Kalyan and Ulhasnagar is increasing. Who will risk one’s life in such a condition," Milind told NewsClick over the phone.
What’s the Way Out?
Labour unions in the state feel that a special allowance must be given to workers who are on duty in such a situation. "The workers are already facing salary cuts despite the Central government's appeal to employers not to do so. Many of people are coming to work as they fear losing their jobs. A special allowance for those who are working now would somehow compensate the losses workers have faced in the past three months," said Vishwas Utagi, a senior trade unionist and joint convenor of the Trade Union Joint Action Committee, an umbrella body of labour unions.
The state government admits that the challenge of bringing back labour is immense. "The most important concern for the workers is safety. There is fear of COVID-19. So, workers are obviously afraid of come back to industrial zones like Pune, Thane, Nasik etc. We are taking all necessary steps to ensure their safety," said labour minister Dilip Walse Patil.
Industrial psychologist Vrushali Raut said the experience of the past two months was the main reason why workers are wary of returning. "Labourers have gone through intense psychological pressure in the past three months. First, governments literally abandoned them. They had to leave the cities on their own due to fear of corona. Now, compared with that, the number of patients is higher. In such a scenario, workers are not ready to believe the government's assurances. Hence, reverse flow of workers is very low," said Dr Raut.
The state industry department has issued guidelines that factory owners have to comply with and give a written undertaking on the same along with application of license. The guidelines include providing gloves and sanitisers to employees. If travel is provided, then only three persons in four- wheelers and one person on each seat in bus is allowed.
"We can't afford industries to keep shut. But, at the same time, we are strictly implementing guidelines everywhere. The license to reopen the industry is given only after inspection of basic safety infrastructure. This is our effort to give confidence to workers to return to work," said Minister of State for Industry Aditi Tatkare.
The other issue that factories as well as workers will face in July is uncertainty of government policies. While Maharashtra has extended the lockdown across till July 31, the state government says this will be unlock 2.0. It has already announced 'Mission Begin Again'. But, the city administrations are issuing contradictory guidelines. A strict implementation of lockdown has been announced in Thane, Navi Mumbai, Vasai -Virar, Kalyan Dombivli, Mira Bhaynder and Bhiwandi cities -- the industrial backbone of Maharashtra. If the implementation will be strict, how will workers reach workplaces? So, the ambiguity in state government's policies is also creating confusion among workers.
Urban Development Minister Eknath Shinde has admitted that it has become tough for the government to ensure workforce back in industries. "Contractors are trying to call workers. But workers have asked them to wait at least till the end of the monsoon. This is delaying the work," said Shinde.