New Delhi: In mid-October, machinist Bipin Ramesh Sahu, 38, was flown back to Surat from his southern Odisha village by his former employer, a textile mill owner. Sahu, among the 6.7 million migrant workers to lose their jobs and return home during the lockdown in India, assumed that his employer's eagerness to re-employ him meant better living and working conditions in Surat--more humane shifts, safety gear, wage cheques instead of cash, maybe an annual bonus and even provident fund.

Back at work in one of India's biggest migration destinations, Sahu found that nothing has changed. He still has to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week without any leave or break--for Rs 15,000 a month. He still has no safety gear to protect his hearing from the deafening rat-tat of the powerlooms. And the only place he can afford to rent is a room in a shared accommodation where over 100 workers sleep by rotation. Housing conditions for poor workers in cities like Surat are harsh and allow them no comfort or dignity.

In April, workers from Ganjam, Sahu's home district in southern Odisha, had protested against the Gujarat government for not allowing them to go home even though they had no jobs, shelter or food left once the lockdown was imposed. Sahu had hoped that this act of unionising would get workers like him better terms at work when they returned. "No one came to help us then and no one is helping us now," he said.

Nearly 50% of workers are back in the cities they left at the start of the lockdown, creating oversupply of labour, said Sanjay Patel of Aajeevika Bureau, an NGO focussed on migrant workers. They are in no position to negotiate the work conditions Sahu dreamed of. "They have no bargaining power as they return and mill owners are setting terms," said Patel.

In the absence of any official data, surveys by civil society organisations indicate that more than two-thirds of migrant workers want to come back to cities. Sahu estimated that in Barida, his village, at least 2,000 migrant workers are planning on returning to the cities that employed them--in buses, trains and occasionally by flight. There are no job opportunities at home while cities hold some hope of economic revival, he said.

In a three-part series on how the COVID-19 crisis has impacted livelihoods, we are examining how workers are adapting to the changing circumstances. In the first part of the series, we looked at workers who have stayed back in villages, focusing on southern Rajasthan. In this second part, we investigate the return of Odisha's migrant workers to Surat and other migrant destinations, and the work and living conditions they have returned to. In the concluding part, we will explore how the lives of women workers have changed due to the pandemic in Uttar Pradesh.

Nothing has changed in 'migrarian' states

There are two reasons why workers like Sahu are returning to cities like Surat. For one, Odisha was ill-prepared to retain its returning workers, especially poor districts like Ganjam, Bolangir, Koraput and Kalahandi, leaving workers with no employment options in their hometowns. Secondly, the festival and wedding season in India that lasts October-December is boom time in cities like Surat where the textile industry generates plenty of seasonal job opportunities.

Labour rights groups like Aide et Action and Aajeevika Bureau have suggested that the number of migrant workers from Ganjam in Surat is close to 800,000 though another report pegged their number at 600,000. But with poor wages, no social security, overcrowded accommodation and precarious conditions at work, migrant workers will continue to struggle to survive in cities, said Gayathri Vasudevan, chairperson at Labournet, a social enterprise that works on enabling livelihoods.

Odisha has more than 2.5 million migrant workers, according to informal estimates. Since the 1990s, the state has seen the emergence of what is described by researchers as "migrarian" livelihoods, with migration and agriculture as the major providers. In April 2020, data collated by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) showed that the unemployment rate in Odisha was 23.8%, higher than the national average of 23.5% for the period.

Like most states that send out migrant workers, Odisha was not geared to provide employment for returning workers. The state also has a patchy track record with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS), with chronic complaints of delayed payments to workers.

Bipin Sahu has been working in Surat for more than 20 years. His father was a machinist at a loom too and had lost his hearing after a lifetime working on noisy machines, a condition reported commonly by workers in the sector. Textile weavers are the most at risk of hearing loss, according to a study the National Institute of Occupational Health.

"I can't sleep at night, the khat khat rings in my ears all the time. They will give us a few hundred rupees and earn thousands of rupees from our sweat and labour. They did not even pay us for a day after the looms closed in March," said Sahu.

Still living in the open, informal settlements

Housing continues to be a problem for workers like him. One of the issues the lockdown brought to light was the condition of shelters in cities, as IndiaSpend reported. Most workers stay in open spaces, within worksites or rented rooms in informal settlements. The government reacted to the crisis by launching the Affordable Rental Housing Complexes (ARHC) Scheme 2020 under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana so that migrant workers could pay less rent and save money.

"This scheme was long due. But it will take time for public rental housing to start making a difference. Meanwhile, this issue continues to plague workers as they return to cities," said Sudhir Katiyar, secretary, Centre for Labour Research and Action.

Unlike most migrant workers from Odisha, Sahu had brought his family, his wife and four children to Gujarat 10 years ago. His family has decided this time to stay back in their village for fear of the virus. But Ganjam itself had turned into a COVID-19 hotspot after workers returned home. By July end, the district had reported 10,000 cases of infection. The district administration reportedly managed to control the situation by October.

Sahu had to take a loan of Rs 90,000 from a moneylender in his village in July to send his children to an English medium school in his village. "If I had found work back home, I would not have returned either," he said. He tried to look for work under MGNREGS, but failed. That work was only being allocated to those who were connected to the local administration, he alleged.

"The administration in Surat did not help us, nor did we find help at home," he said.

Precarious work conditions

The migration of young male workers from Ganjam started in the early 1980s as workers who lost their jobs in Kolkata's jute mills moved to Surat through informal social networks of relatives and friends. Despite being one the world's fastest growing cities with migrants making up over 70% of the city's workforce, Surat's working conditions have remained precarious.

"The names of workers are not registered in any database, their wages are not fixed," said Umi Daniel, a researcher on migration in Odisha and director at the NGO, Aide et Action.

Powerloom owners violate labour laws by registering their units under the Shops and Establishment Act and not the Factories Act, which protects workers in case of accident and death. "Injuries, accidents and deaths from operating the machines take place but are not reported. We have recorded 13 deaths from electric shocks in the last two years," said Patel of Aajeevika Bureau.

The powerloom sector has thus far not reported accidents or deaths since the lockdown. But activists across the country have raised alarm over the uptick in industrial accidents in India post lockdown. "Working conditions have become worse than before," said Jagdish Patel, director of People's Training and Research Centre, an organisation that works on the issue of occupational safety and health. "We have noted 50 deaths and 95 industrial accidents this year across the country, an increase from last year. It could be that safety procedures are being overlooked, and less number of workers are working for longer shifts to keep up the pace of production."

Debt migration

Most migrant workers in the country are expecting to get back to cities after Diwali. Many of them have been out of work for more than six months and have fresh debts to pay off.

Take the example of Bolangir in western Odisha, the most underdeveloped region of the state, prone to chronic drought that triggers distress migration. Workers from here and the neighbouring districts of Kalahandi and Koraput mostly migrate to work in brick kilns in cities in south India. It is estimated that 200,000 of them leave every year around October and November to work for six months until the monsoon.

This year, for the first time, there is uncertainty about how many will find employment as the construction sector is reviving slowly. "After Dussehra, they need money to sustain themselves. It is a wait-and-watch situation for now, though we are hearing that contractors have started approaching them," said Saroj Kumar, a programme officer with Aide et Action.

There is no wage system in place for these workers. They are employed on the basis of the 'dadan' system wherein migrants are recruited by labour contractors and middlemen who pay them in advance. Most of these workers are from Dalit and tribal communities and referred to as "debt migrants". "It is a system of bondage and some of them are also trafficked," said Daniel.

Hotalal Parabhoi, 37, is from Bolangir district. He has been working in brick kilns in Chennai for nine years, along with his wife and three children. Unlike southern Odisha, in this region the trend is of family migration as women and children work alongside men. In 2019, Hotalal and his wife Sangeeta were paid Rs 20,000 each in advance by the contractor to work in Chennai. But this year, the couple have yet to be summoned to Chennai.

"This year, we have been told by contractors to wait until Diwali. My wife is scared to return and of getting infected by corona," said Hotalal. The family grows wheat on its farm, less than an acre, but the yield is not enough to live by.

Hotalal has borrowed Rs 10,000 from a moneylender. He found work for five days, digging a football field, under MGNREGS for Rs 300 a day. But now there are no such options. "If I don't find work this month, I will have to leave Odisha to look for it," he said.

Hotalal is worried about how he will make his way out of Odisha. "Workers from eastern states like Odisha, West Bengal, Jharkhand and Assam are desperate to leave, there is no work back home, but they are the most affected with the lack of transport services," said Vasudeven of Labournet. "Not all employers can afford to pay for their return. We are not understanding the criticality of transport and the economic impact that will have."

Skilled workers are having a slightly easier time resuming work in cities. Ramesh Behera, 36, a trained mason from Bolangir, had cycled his way home from Mumbai during the lockdown, covering 1,600 km in nine days.

Behera, who worked at a building site in Mumbai, had returned to the metropolis in September in a car his employer had sent him. Now he is in Hyderabad, working in the city's outskirts and earning Rs 20,000 a month. Of this, he sends Rs 15,000 home. Staying in Bolangir was not an option anymore, he said, he had to find work in the city after paying Rs 25,000 to get his five-year-old son admitted to an English medium school.

Cities have given him a lot, said Behera. "I had to convince my family to let me return but there is no work at home. And I like living in the city: My employers have treated me fairly."

(Kumar is a Delhi-based independent journalist. She writes on social justice and gender.)

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