Plight of Migrant Workers in Gujarat: Fueling the Economy, Irrelevant for Political System

Jagjit Singh

Here is a previous article by the author – Abandoned by state, exploited by seth: life of migrant workers in Ahmedabad

Vishal took his bath after the 12 hours night-shift and was getting ready to go back to his village in Bhind, Madhya Pradesh. He had just put his clothes and the bed-sheet in a small bag, which was to act as luggage in the chockfull second-class coach he was supposed to travel in unreserved, when his supervisor asked him to stay and ‘manage’ the machine while he takes the morning masala break (tobacco break). He hesitated, even protested, I guess in a tone a supervisor wouldn’t understand, but was anyhow given the task. He put his bag aside and started to manage the machine.

What I understood from his explanation of the mysterious machine (he couldn’t name it) was that the belt in the machine must be running all the time at a very high speed and it was while ‘managing’ the machine that the belt pulled his right hand inside and crushed it till the elbow. Afterwards, he opened his eyes in a hospital to see his contractor and a co-worker by his bed.

His supervisor, who was also his contractor, took him to a private hospital in Narol (Ahmedabad) where the doctors declined to accept the case and recommended him to be taken to a civil hospital. The doctor also called the Ahmedabad police and this is how this accident was reported in the official documents of the state. Before the police arrived the contractor and the seth convinced Vishal that they will take care of his treatment, and all the expenses until he comes back to work, and that he will be paid his salary every month too. He was also made to sign a document written in Gujarati that ‘the employer arranged for all the treatment of his injury and he has no further claims’.

So when the police arrived they already had an understanding and Vishal accepted his mistake and therefore the case was not pursued any further. Obviously, the ‘understanding’ didn’t work out and within few weeks he reached his village handicapped. The seth stopped taking his calls and the contractor refused to pay him anything.

On 19th September, one and a half month after I met Vishal, 6 workers died of asphyxiation after inhaling toxic gas while cleaning a chemical effluent tank at a factory in Vatva GIDC, Ahmedabad. The news captured the attention of few national as well as local dailies. The factory, named ‘Advance Dyestuff Industries’, located in phase-2 of Vatva industrial estate in had given a contract for cleaning the treatment plant tank to a private contractor. The contractor sub-contracted the contract to another contractor. When the workers entered the tank through a one and a half feet manhole they started gasping for breath and shouted for help. When other workers entered the tank for help they fell unconscious and collapsed. The police registered an offence under section 304 of the IPC for culpable homicide against the owners of the factory and two contractors for not providing proper apparatus to the workers to clean the tank.

There are numerous such incidents that have been constantly happening in the industrial areas of Narol, Vattva and other adjoining areas in Ahmedabad, and a big majority of these cases never get reported. When I met Kamal Bhai, who has been running a local Gujarati newspaper in the Vattva region, he was recovering from the severe beating he had got for writing against the industry in his newspaper. He showed me a plot where a migrant worker’s body was burned without any investigation after he fell from a building on a construction site during the work. The contractor paid his brother some money and sent him back to his village.

These workers are hired through a contractor and they get employed as helpers in the industry. A
helper is not given any training or provided with safety equipment and is mostly left under the command of a supervisor. In the garment processing units in Narol I saw men who had literally turned blue because of the chemicals. I asked them if the colour will go to which they replied ‘some of it might go’. In many cases, the supervisor is the contractor himself who had brought workers to the city.

On the fifth day at work Vishal was told by his supervisor to manage a machine he couldn’t name. The six workers were simply told that they had to enter a tank through a one and a half feet manhole and clean it.

Most of the migrant workers have an agriculture background and they remain connected to their roots in the villages. Migration to cities is a consequence of demographic explosion, rural distress, and agriculture crisis. In cities, migrant workers are labelled as unskilled workers and therefore they dominate the low-paying, hazardous and informal market jobs. Also, since they enter the job market at a very early age they experience no upward mobility and remain stuck in the most unskilled, poorly paid and hazardous jobs for their whole work-life span.

The migration from different parts of the country to the city of Ahmedabad has formed numerous exploitative routes. The force that drives and manages this mass of moving people is contractors. These are the ‘managers’ who can get any number of workers at any time of the year. They have networks in the villages as well as in the cities that are difficult to trace. The reason migrant workers are in high demand in many industries and sectors because these contractors create a pool of vulnerable workforce that can be subdued and disciplined easily.

Ahmedabad, which is the seventh-largest metropolitan in India with a population of over six million, is an important economic and industrial hub in India. There are approximately 1.3 to 1.7 million labour migrants in the city but the departments responsible for ensuring the safety of workers in the state has neither the will nor any intention to leave their comfortable chairs or fill other vacant and comfortable chairs. More than half of the posts at the Directorate of Industrial Safety and Health whose mission is ‘to have effective implementation of various legislations enforced by it and also to protect health and safety of workers’ are vacant, including those of joint and assistant directors. There is only one assistant director against the sanctioned number of eight: all the four posts of assistant director (medical) are vacant, while only one of the four posts of assistant director (chemical) is filled. Out of a total of 63 sanctioned posts for industrial safety and health officers who inspect factories, 20 are lying vacant. Of the 21 positions of certifying surgeon, only nine are currently filled. All four positions of industrial hygienist are vacant.

The contract labour system and a loose monitoring and regulating state apparatus has helped strengthened these unfair models and practices in the migrant job market. Most of these contractors are not even registered, and they manage and control groups of migrant workers like authoritarian commanders. They help the industry by hiring the workers directly without any written contracts and therefore the owners (and ultimately the state) become unaccountable to unjust practices and illegal activities under their nose. The wages go through these contractors cum supervisors and there are no records of the workers under such contractors in the official registers of the factory. This is the invisible work force, like ghosts they move from villages to cities and then get disappeared in the factories and construction sites and hotels in the cities.

The author is an independent researcher and photographer. He is also an Azim Premji University alumnus and has been involved with different grassroots organizations as a researcher. He can be contacted at (mobile – 9711709616)

This article is the result of field research and documentation work the author is currently doing for Bandhkam Mazdoor Vikas Sangh, Ahmedabad, India. The Sangh works with migrant workers in the City of Ahmedabad. Bandhkam Mazdoor Vikas Sangh is part of Aajeevika Bureau which is working on the issues of migrant workers since 2005.



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