File photo | Migrant labourers wave from a train as they leave for Barauni in UP, during the nationwide lockdown, in Amritsar, 10 May | PTI
Migrant labourers wave as they leave via a Shramik Special Train (Representational image) | PTI
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The Indian public discourse around migrant labour largely ignores the main reason why the labourers have been so desperate to go back home: their employers stopped paying them wages.

One survey in May found that almost 8 out of 10 migrant labourers had not been paid at all during the lockdown.

No wonder they’ve come to hate the cities and factories because of the way they’ve been treated by their employers. Migrant labourers across India have told reporters they won’t return to see such humiliation again. “We’ll live on salt,” they say.

In the prosperous western and southern states, labour contractors, factories and small companies washed their hands off migrant labour the moment India went into lockdown.

On 29 March, the home ministry made it legally compulsory for salaries and wages to be paid even during the lockdown period. Yet, many of our disgraceful capitalists didn’t even pay wages for the month of March, not even for the days the labourers had worked. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, a survey found 63 per cent labourers hadn’t been paid wages they were owed from before the lockdown. In Gujarat, the diamond industry hasn’t been paying workers despite repeated government orders.

Governments, NGOs, middle-class volunteers, political parties and even the police have been busy feeding migrant workers meals. Yet this charity, this munificence, would not have been needed if employers hadn’t abdicated their responsibility.

These employers are mostly small businessmen and they also seem to be rather small-minded. They are your ‘micro, small and medium enterprises’ or MSMEs. These capitalists have refused to bear the cost of paying even a month’s wages to migrant labourers who are the engine of their economic enterprises.


Also read: Don’t blame Covid or financial package. Politics is holding India’s migrant workers hostage


The wages of sin

No doubt these same entrepreneurs have had it rough thanks to Modinomics since 8 November 2016. But a month’s wages?

What did these capitalists do when they suffered a setback when Modi sent the economy into a tailspin with demonetisation? The sucked it up, bore the losses, called the BJP names in private and hailed Modi in public. Then, what did they do when a confusing GST stalled the economy? They whined about it over their single malts at night and probably bought electoral bonds to donate to the BJP in the morning.

Migrant labour? They don’t fear workers like they fear Modi. Migrant labourers don’t affect the morning mood at 7, Lok Kalyan Marg. Migrant labourers have nothing to do with tax terrorism. It’s not as if any government is going to identify and penalise the employers who fired lakhs of daily wage labourers across India.

News reports tell you how these migrants haven’t had money to recharge their phones and talk to family back home, or money even to buy tickets once the government started special trains. If this is how you treat people, what do you expect in return?

What our heartless capitalists will get in return is an acute labour shortage when they try to finish those half-built buildings, or switch on the machines in the factories. The clock on these walls is going to be stuck on 22 March for a while even after all restrictions have been lifted.

Surely, you ask, this anger will subside and migrant labour will return because they’ve got to feed themselves? Sheer economics will make sure they will swallow their pride, pack themselves like sardines into the general compartments and travel back from Saran to Satara?

At some point, yes, but not anytime soon. The fear and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic along with the humiliation of the sub-human treatment is not going to make workers want to take those trains again for a few months. They’re going to make our small and small-minded capitalists beg for their sweat and blood.

We have already seen a trailer of this when Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa wanted trains for migrant labour to be scrapped. “The builders said that the labourers were given all essential facilities,” said Yeddyurappa. All ‘facilities’ except for a small thing called wages. One Karnataka company even went to the Supreme Court to request that the home ministry notice asking for paying full wages to be quashed.

The labourers will give in one day and return, but that day may not come before October, according to Chinmay Tumbe, economist and author of India Moving: A History of Migration. The next few months will see labour shortages in the prosperous industrial hubs and urban growth centres. This is bound to raise the cost of labour. That’s when our capitalist class will realise how they’ve shot themselves in the foot. If demand-supply and economic value is the only language they understand, that’s the language labour will and must reply to them in.


Also read: UP-MP labour reform: Wooing investors post-lockdown or taking advantage of Covid crisis?


Saving the bribe money

Meanwhile, labour exporting states will have a massive crisis at hand. Already reeling with high unemployment, they will have many more mouths to feed. From Rajasthan in the west to West Bengal in the east, we will see a huge labour surplus.

Seeing the anxiety of state governments over a looming unemployment time bomb, India’s capitalists are pushing for abolition of labour laws. The skulduggery is to be admired. Some people should be in jail for not paying migrant workers. Instead, they are using this opportunity to be allowed greater exploitation of labour.

Yet, it’s not the labour laws that created this crisis. This crisis has taken place because labour laws are not implemented. Had the Migrant Workmen Act of 1979 even been barely implemented, governments would have been in a better position to help the stranded labourers.

The central government, for instance, asked state governments to spend Rs 31,000 crore lying with them for the welfare of construction labourers. State governments don’t even have a database of migrant workers they can reach out to.

Surveys show migrant workers don’t even know the name of their employers, letting the shady labour contractors disappear with the money. For example, Chennai Metro workers say they haven’t been paid but the Metro authorities say they’ve been paying the labour contractors on time. Who will catch these labour contractors and bring them to justice?

It is a myth that labour laws have held back the Indian industry. They’ve, at best, held back formalisation. Some in our business class have managed to do well despite labour laws by simply bribing labour inspectors. If our labour laws worked, we wouldn’t have had this crisis. Let’s see how many millions of jobs are created now that the much-maligned and un-implemented labour laws are put aside.


Also read: Jobs are a memory for millions now. If migrants don’t return, productivity will be a memory


PM Garib Vinash Package

This is not to put all the blame on the business community and give the Narendra Modi government a clean chit. Yet, the Modi government’s biggest failure is not the refusal to let migrant workers go home, or to be cruel enough to make them pay for tickets when they don’t have money to buy food.

Narendra Modi and Nirmala Sitharaman failed in their duty to work with MSMEs to make sure wages are paid. When activist Harsh Mander asked the Supreme Court to order the government to pay minimum wages, the SC said it didn’t want to interfere. The government told the Supreme Court it was taking good care of migrant labourers, of course.

Many countries are shelling out money for workers. Some have been directly giving money or rebates to companies, unemployment allowance or direct benefit transfers. And not just rich Western countries. Even a developing country like Brazil is giving informal workers $120 a month. Narendra Modi is putting a princely sum of Rs 500 in Jan Dhan accounts — a baksheesh of $6.6. Meanwhile, he is unwilling to suspend the government’s plan to spend thousands of crores to rebuild the Central Vista.


Also read: Vande Bharat vs Bharat ke bande: Can Narendra Modi be losing his political touch so soon?


This also exposes the fraud called the ‘PM Garib Kalyan package’. So wonderful has been this plan to do ‘kalyan’ (welfare) of the ‘gareeb’ (poor) that they’re dying walking on the highways after having been paid zilch by employers. The truth about this so-called Rs 1.7 lakh crore package is that most of it was existing schemes, throwing not even peanuts into the pockets of migrant labour.

Between the government and our small companies, no one has been willing to pay lakhs of migrant labourers. They’re just happy to pass the buck on to each other. The government is being called out for this, but our business community must also be called out. This is Indian capitalism’s hour of disgrace.

The great labour crisis of 2020 will not leave politics untouched. Remember that it was migrant labourers in Gujarat who went back home to their villages and spread the word about heaven-like Gujarat for the Modi campaign in 2014. These are the crores of rural poor whom the BJP will have to assuage now.

The result will be more socialism and greater populism. We have already seen how the pro-poor rhetoric helped Modi despite the failure of demonetisation. In the years to come, we will likely see a lot more of it, and our Seth-jis could thus suffer even greater apathy from the government. Modinomics is exactly what they deserve.

The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.

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65 Comments Share Your Views

65 COMMENTS

  1. So highly generalised & pathetic outlook. Can you tell me why there was a rush in Delhi on 25th or 26th of March itself. Is it non payment of dues. I paid my workers full for March , April, MAy but still some of them fled in MAy end for fear of Corona in Delhi. The worst sufferers are those workers employed by labour contractors as in such cases the actual employer does not have records of the workforce. And thanks to all those who churned us for 70 years, the person who is in power now have to digest the poison.

  2. Are your print ,whatever this nonsense newsprint, is for truly labour concern or finding a reason to blame the government. Your job is to bring the issue, place the problem and provide solutions, not taking bribes from the opposition and then write. You bloody writer, your job is to bring change not getting fucked up

  3. Couple of years back, when somewhere in our country, there was an uproar against Migrated Workers for depriving local people of jobs and they were attacked.
    That time, I put my views on this way ” Just for one day let all migrated workers to put their tools down and keep off from work.
    And our economy will come to grinding halt.”
    That is reality now.
    In our country no rich person will sell his uber luxery car, give up their huge mansion to pay the migrant labours their salary without work.
    This is a big tragedy for the country.
    It is exposed now, that how we have treated our workers?

  4. Shivam Vij is good at trivializing all important issues. No doubt, employers ought to have pursuaded and joined hands with governments to pay at least living wages to the migrant workers for retaining them. Neither did it. But, sarcasm, caustic talk, anger take away the seriousness of the topic. The writer feels pleased by abusing Modi, capitalists and States and his job is done. This writer is incapable of examining any issue 360 degrees. While he rejoices that capitalists will be hit by labour shortage, he fails to appreciate that most MSME employers don’t sit on a pile of cash so that they can keep paying wages without any revenue for themselves. The writer must remember that much as you hate capitalists, they are an essential part of economy. Without them, there are no jobs, nor tax revenue.

  5. I am an entrepreneur and I manage around 25 labour in my clothing manufacturing business. I paid them for whole March and half April,gave them considerable amount of advance, now tell me how can I sustain them for the next 5-6 months, when myself have been hit so hard. Haven’t earned a single rupee in the main clothing season which used to be the backbone of my annual turnover. There is a huge uncertainty of early revival.

  6. It’s absurd to read the Comments section , attacking MR Vij
    What he has written is The Absolute Ground Reality as far as contractual/ migrant worker crisis is concerned . Even in the best of times these poor people have always been at the mercy of the unscrupulous greedy contractors .
    This is coming from someone who has heard enough horror stories of how contractual workers are treated and witnessed it personally as well .
    Critics . Please don’t shoot the messenger . It’s Not Fake News . But the sobering reality .

  7. This is a typical IYI – Intellectual Yet Idi0t who has no idea about the topic on which he’s writing and worse, he may not even know that he has no idea.
    This author should write at the max a 4 years kids storybooks.

  8. This is a typical IYI – Intellectual Yet Idi0t who has no idea about the topic on which he’s writing and worse, he may not even know that he has no idea.
    This author should write at the max a 4 years kids storybooks.

  9. Mr. Vij, writing a piece of shit is easy. You have no idea about the plite of entrepreneurs. Can you creat five job?. Can you employ five people,? Can you live with uncertainties? A small businessman does not know whether he can feed his family tomorrow. He has no fixed or assured pay. Proof that you can feed five families and than write whatever you want to.

    There is limit to intelligence but ignorance has no limit.

  10. Trust deficit between the small hearted small businessmen and hungry helpless havenots will cost the country heavily in the post lockdown period. People may take sides but fact is this that laboureres have suffered badly due to callous approach of the moneymakers who will also be bailed out by Govt. in the phases but the labourers will be forgotten in the development drive.

  11. Hello Mr. Shivam, I am sure you’ve never ever been an employer yourself. How can and why should an employer distribute free money to his employees when he himself has been affected with corona trauma equally. If government wants they can give wages to migrant laborers.

  12. I always make a point to read your (Mr Vij) political articles and most of the time they made sense to me – I am also a liberal.
    But this article reeks of your glee on a calamity and ideological bias. You have not attempted to understand how these small companies depend on day to day cash flow. Like a trade unionist you are trying to push the welfare aspects of the society into the plates of the business owners.
    We as a voters for the state have failed to make the govt build a social safety net – food, healthcare.
    Everybody is on their own. That is the reason the middle class is saving like crazy instead of spending or investing on things with little risk.
    If the business goes down, and if the owner keeps paying, he will be on the street with a begging bowl along with his employees.

  13. This man Shivam Vij knows some dark secret about Shekhar Gupta and hence has the Editor in his hold. Otherwise, a seasoned journalist like Shekhar wouldn’t let this kind of rubbish seep into his publication. It is as though this fellow Vij thinks he knows everything; he feels entitled to sit in an easy chair and pontificate.
    For a piece to be qualified to be called an “article”, every statement made should be backed with facts and figures, verifiable anecdotes, quotes from impartial and acknowledged experts. This man takes an anti-Modi thought that is best an one-line tweet and blows it into a thousand words.
    Oh, what a pile of bovine excrement!

  14. I believe government has some responsibility towards all those poor migrant labours. It’s really pathetic to see how those labours were living their livelihoods during lockdown. May be they will return again if not able to find any alternative livelihood in their native.

  15. The labour class were denied wages by their employers but these employers will certainly get the wages, they so much deserve, for the sin they committed and this time, it will be these labours who would do the honour. The migrants have gone through hell in a very short span of time and they are traumatized and it seems no amount of cajoling can assuage their hurt pride and battered ego. They are humans afterall and it should be borne in mind that a poor man does not forget things easily. He remembers the graciousness of others and he does not forget the insults and injuries that he sustains at the hands of others. He will not forget how his childrens went without a morsel of food for days on end, without any respite, he will remember how he was made to stand in the queue for hours after having travelled for hours only to be returned empty handed after the food packets had exhausted, he will remember how he took his child piggyback with his wife on tow and how he was forced to travel for hundreds of miles under the scorching sun, he will not forget how many of his co-travellers and colleagues had succumbed to exhaustion before reaching their destinations, he will remember only too vividly how upon reaching the suburbs of their destinations they were subjected to gross inhuman treatments when they were herded and huddled like cattles and disinfectants sprayed upon them as if they were lifeless and inanimate objects, they will take due care to remember how uncannily and uncrupulously, seizing opportunities shamelessly the state governments had declared a moratorium from observing the labour laws of the land just to benefit the entrepreneurs and industrialists who were their patrons, wellwishers and cohorts in their unholy game of political thuggery. There is so much for them to remember and so many unanswered questions for which India remains answerable. This pandemic was a disaster for all but it also proved to be a boon in disguise for some. Only time will reveal who could be these fortunate ones.
    (Md. Israil)

    • Md Ismail do one thing, open a company on loan ( minimum loan of one crore) and give salaries for 2 years without profit. Then come and give your super logical speeches. All the best!

  16. Shivam Vij has to be one of the luckiest guys in the world, he writes nonsense all the time and yet he gets paid by media outlets coz “ideology”.

  17. This is failure of the state. Yet, again, the so-called experts dont seem to blame the disastrous socialism that Indian state followed. On one hand the socialist state doesnt roll out enough support quickly, on the other hand it couldnt provide proper housing to the poor migrants, couldnt provide a universal safety net which many capitalist countries did. So stop with blaming capitalists for everything under the sun. European leftist narrative has been sidelined in europe itself, we need not bring it here.

  18. So should a bourgeoise with computer be writing about labour at all?

    And it is all about Modi, modi. Nothing substantial.

  19. This idi*t never ran a business and never did anything worthwhile in life but has the gall to spout nonsense on those who do.

  20. Supporting the cause of poor, helpless workers, cheated by unscrupulous employers is the right thing to do. No matter what label – left, right or centre – you attach to the action.

  21. With a potent mix of social conservatism, (fake) machismo substituting for nationalism and liberal bashing, the business class and urban upwardly mobile are safe in the BJP pockets. What has perplexed me is the worker class’ willingness to go along with this charade. This kind of mentality can only offer platitudes like Jan Dhan, Garib Kalyan etc without actually achieving any improvement in their overall economic situation. Worse is that this same middle-class is exorbitantly taxed by the govt to keep providing such platitudes. This is an incompetent govt, perhaps the worst since VP Singh.

    • Now, now! Highly anti national comment, one class of readers will bay for your blood for letting the cat out of the bag.

  22. So typical of a leftist (less liberal in this article). Why is the author not commenting on the competitive edge lost to smaller emerging countries such as Bangladesh and Vietnam which have already surpassed a big country like India in textile exports? The reason is the same labor laws which give too much power to the trade unions which claim to speak in favor of workers but all they end up doing is closing down the factories – remember the 1980s great textile mill strikes in Mumbai? What happened then is the same thing happening over and over again. But this author claims he is speaking in favor of the workers while in reality exactly the opposite ends up happening. I understand workers need to be given their rights on wages, strikes, forming unions. But please remember it is the capitalist or the company which is risking a whole lot of money to earn profits. If they are not able to achieve that in India, they simply move to China or next Bangladesh or Vietnam or Indonesia – the list is long. But, these leftists don’t understand that. They are still living in their maxist utopia.
    Except for the victory of such forces in Independent India, India would have become a developed country by now and would have been able to ensure better conditions for all its citizens – including labourers.

      • Easy to give out sermons and high sounding principles. But check with Americans about labor exploitation. Simple point is: if there are no jobs – there is no exploitation – everyone would be happy, right? Wrong! We don’t live in marxist utopia wherein there is no poverty, no inflation, no unemployment, no exploitation, no crime. Such a place doesn’t exist. We have to work with the current world and the competition all around us – from China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and try to get the best outcome. We tried this socialist non-sense for more than 4 decades at the end of which where did we land? Balance of payments crisis. Read https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1991_Indian_economic_crisis before defending the same socialist, communist, marxist policies.

      • Really? Who told you that pithy lie??

        Every nation has become rich by exploiting people under its care – be it the imperialists of Europe, the slavery of America, the illegal migrants in Europe today, the slave wages in China or even the prisons in America…all exploitation .

        Communist blowhards should realize that their rants and ravings about workers and dignity of labor is all nonsense before a hungry man!

    • Of ourse !!Why not ? One has to be a leftist…and leftist only yto expose these criminals of society ! The MSME..the rich and mighty..the notorious govt. at center…all are united to crush those workers !!Ugly face of capitalism in India in collaboration with BJP govt.But…the days are numbered for these criminals ,you see!!

      • First, Are you a god or judge? Ok coming to point entrepreneurs will give salaries even if no profit. Will you clear their EMIs and loans? Especially for SME ?

        Second look into your life and fix those holes…. Idiotic loser

    • So what is wrong with being “a leftist news organization”? Aren’t you paid by BJP tyo write such stupid comments?

  23. This man Vij is blind as a bat as an analyst. What does he mean by ‘ the capitalists deserve…..’. He should know the term is ‘MSME entrepreneurs’ and not businessmen. There is a world of difference between these two. Entrepreneurs are tough and driven people, and will rough it out to survive. There are already hardened veterans of these problems. If the trained labor do not return, they will train fresh people upto required skill, and which they have been doing all their life. In the long run they do not loose much.

    • These so-called ‘MSME entrepreneurs’ don’t have an entrepreneurs’ bone in their body! Nor they are tough or driven people! It is like so-called BRAVE soldiers: In reality, not every soldier is brave, or even knows fighting! ” …… they will train fresh people upto required skill”? If anybody needs training and skills, it is these so-called”tough and driven” entrepreneurs! How are they then going to train and skill “fresh people”? And when these illiterate migrant workers don’t want to go to them any more, why any “fresh people” would want to go to them?

  24. After so many attempts the author has finally got something right. India’s capitalists as a rule treat employees and customers badly. Their core competency lies in managing the government and it’s gargantuan bureaucracy. Constantly looking for protection from competition so they can continue selling shoddy goods and services to captive consumers. With neither pride in what they do nor any ethics India’s capitalists give a bad name to business and entrepreneurship. Of course India’s labour class too are not free of blame. Instead of trying to improve their own lot with education, skills development, family planning etc they thoughtlessly end up becoming serfs. And with a government that exists for it’s own sake, the present situation is a disaster that was waiting to happen.

    • Maybe you are looking at the licence & permit raj times? Today this is not case, at least in the engineering field. And it is no longer a captive market, with imported goods available widely and in quantity at reasonable rates. The local industries have to upgrade their technology and skills to stay relevant, competitive and retain liquidity.

      • Irrelevant comment. This has nothing to do with the license permit raj and everything to do with blatant violation of laws, heartless exploitation of helpless people and a pliable administration willing to turn a blind eye.

    • Reading your comment, it looks like there is no escape. ‘govnt exists for its own sake’, ‘Indias labour class too are not free of blame’ and ‘Indias capitalists as a rule’ are bad anyway. I think a business man will always think of making profit, otherwise he will not be able to sustain his business. The problem I think, is with the labor class. They need protection of their job, decent income irrespective of whether they work or not, so on and so forth. In PSUs, an unofficial estimate is that ~70% of staff are not doing their job. But nothing can be done about it due to strong employee unions. consequently, most of the PSUs are in loss. No businessman will want his company to be like an Indian PSU. therefore, the need of the hour is labor laws which will give confidence to the business man. because, they are the ones who generate jobs, not the government. i agree that labors should get basic protection, but hire and fire should be allowed. I am working in govt sector and i am of the opinion that ‘hire and fire’ policy should be implemented here as well. the feeling of “job safety” is one of the reasons for laziness and complacency.

  25. PM did not talk about these migrant laborers as he feared migrant leaving. He thought they will simply endure and stay wherever they are and start working. No one expected they will yake extreme step of just leaving and walk away. No wonder Karnataka CM arm twisted them but failed

  26. Mr Shivam Vij, the Author of the Article has forgotten his own many Media Capitalist Barons’s atrocity of reducing Pay, asking Journalists to stay at home without salary, lay-off of many Journalists. etc. In Migrant Labors case, it was Principle ” No work,No wages”.. Small Scale Industry Units,Builders etc had stopped work & not earning money to pay wages. What happened to Media Baron? Did News Papers production , stopped Printing & selling stopped ? Nothing changed. Why Media barons heartlessly reduced salary? Why some Media owner threw out Journalists from Job? What right Mr Shivam Vij has to criticize other Industry when he is silent on his own ruthless,heartless Capitalist Media Baron? Come on Mr Shivam,don’t be hypocrat, have guts to criticize your own Media barons illegal activities.

  27. Hamare Shivambhai ko itna gussa kyon aata hai … The economy has been sinking like a stone long before the coronavirus was conceived in its mother’s womb. Many / most MSME owners – one doubts any of them can afford a single malt – are themselves on the verge of ruin. Further up the food chain, those who make large donations to CARES or buy electoral bonds are themselves in despair. Not as badly off as Anil Ambani, perhaps. For the government to have wanted to charge returning migrants rail fares shows emaciated public finances. Total mess. The man who headed the economic team for five years was busy managing the headlines and doing gup shup with his friends.

  28. “Shoe I am ” you STUPIDO stop hurting the FAMILY. MAMAMIA!!! they consider you the adviser to my BABY BOY . And make fun of him.

  29. Some contractors not paying their labourers = all capitalists are heartless. RIP logic!!

    When “experts” who have never managed payroll, let alone run a business start pontificating, you know that this country will remain a poor country in perpetuity.

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