With wages unpaid and hardly any relief measures from the government, migrant workers in Tamil Nadu hit the streets recently, demanding their wages and arrangements to return home. A large number of migrant workers, the total number of which is unknown even to the government, have even started their homewards journey on foot or bicycles.
Though some arrangement has been made, the registration process for returning home is very complex and the workers are finding it tough to make use of it. They are also facing intimidation from their corporate employers to stay back and resume work.
Following such threats, trade unions have had to interfere to ensure that the workers’ demands are met with. While a portion of workers of Koodankulam Nuclear Power Project (KKNPP) have left for their hometowns, the workers of Adani Port Trust in Kattupalli are facing tough times in the workplace.
‘FORCED TO WORK WITHOUT WAGES’
The workers of the ship building and spare manufacturing sections controlled by Larsen and Tubro (L&T) (the port is managed by Adani Kattupalli Port Trust) were forced to work from May 5. The government of Tamil Nadu had permitted construction works to resume in the third phase of the lockdown. Since the workers were not paid the wages for April, they held a protest on May 7. However, language became a barrier for these migrant workers, most of whom hail from Odisha, Rajasthan and West Bengal.
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The company resorted to force with the help of the city administration and police to pressurise the workers to resume work. More than 7,000 migrant workers are employed by L&T, who are forced to live in temporary sheet roofed huts. With soaring temperatures in Chennai and without basic amenities, the workers’ sufferings have multiplied. Since the lockdown began on March 24, the workers had been trying to return home.
WATER AND GAS SUPPLIES STOPPED
After the workers protested, the company stopped their rations, gas and water supplies forcing them to starve. The company also refused to permit the workers to leave for their hometown and insisted they stay back.
The company’s desperate attempts were made in order to avoid labour scarcity since conditions for resumption of activities have been relaxed for industries. However, it continued to refuse the wages for the workers. The L&T administration was apprehensive of the workers leaving the city if they were paid their wages.
Understanding the magnitude of the issue, a team of office bearers of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) met the protesting workers. Vijayan, president of CITU North Chennai district committee, said, “The administration has stopped the essential needs of the workers, which is highly condemnable. Now after talks with the revenue officials, they have promised to restore them and pay the wages to the workers. They also assured to permit the workers willing to return home as soon as train services are made available.”
For want of money and limited train facilities, the workers have put their life at risk by deciding to walk or pedal to their hometowns from different parts of the state.
KKNPP WORKERS HEADING HOME
Around 1,350 contract workers of KKNPP Unit III and IV primarily involved in construction and electrical works have started from Tirunelveli to their hometowns. Their journey began after protests and clashes with the police in the KKNPP campus. The dismal state of affairs on wages, relief materials and desperation to go home forced them to protest in the campus itself.
More than 3,350 workers have registered through the online platform to return home, while there are around 6,500 migrant workers employed by and through the subsidiaries of L&T.
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Most of the workers were not paid the wages for the month of April by 12 companies. The KKNPP Contract Labourers’ Union affiliated to the CITU approached the Regional Labour Commissioner on the issues. The L&T accepted to pay the workers directly to which the subsidiaries raised opposition. The contractualisation of works in projects of national importance has resulted in exploitation of the workers.
‘STAY IN CAMPS FOR ONE WEEK’-CM
A contract worker told NewsClick that these companies underpay the workers. “The companies credit the salary in bank accounts and instruct the workers to return a large portion of it. This has been happening for years and the KKNPP administration has not taken enough measures to curb the practice. The workers who complain of this malpractice are terminated by the companies,” he added.
Chief Minister Edapadi K Palaniswami, after several protests erupted, instructed the migrant workers to stay in the camps for one more week on Monday, May 11. The announcement, which sounded a threat, comes at a time when the plight of migrant workers across the country have reached the worst ever situation during the lockdown. The non-availability of details on the number of migrant workers have led to the pandemonium in many cities across the state.
These workers were depending on the relief materials of the political parties, trade unions and NGOs to survive the lockdown period. The relief announced by the government on providing rations to the workers have not materialised as the numbers were not clear.
The migrant workers, who form a major workforce in the state, continue to be exploited. Due to most of them being employed in the informal sector, it often plays in favour of the employers, along with the apathetic attitude of the government in dealing with the migrant workers. Lack of data of workers and migrant worker policy need urgent attention to solve the miseries of the poor workers in the longer run.