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.
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.
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.
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.
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.