When Mantu Singh returned to Maharashtra on June 25 with a group of other migrant workers, who had returned home in April after the lockdown was imposed, he was hopeful of finding work quickly, and sending money back home to his family.
Despite the apprehensions of his family in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi about returning to a Covid-19 ravaged city, what really swung it for Singh, and the others, was what the contractor was offering – promise of safety measures at the construction site in Satara and prompt payment of wages.
A little over a month later, however, 11 members of the group, including Singh, took the long journey back home again after their employer defaulted on paying their salaries.
“We were assured that we will be paid for the 14-day quarantine period and then the regular payment as per our work,” said Singh, who had returned home for Holi before the lockdown was imposed. After the 14-day quarantine, when the group asked to be paid for that period, the contractor brushed them off.
But still they went on to work at the site. Even for this, the contractor made no payments. The payments were to be made daily initially, but every day, he asked them to wait one more day. When the wages did not come, the group decided to return home.
All they got was nearly Rs 8,000 per person when they were leaving. According to Singh, they are collectively owed Rs 69,000 as wages.
Desperate to find work after the five-month lockdown, in the face of dwindling savings and the inadequate financial support from the government, many like Singh are returning to find work in the state, only to find they are worse off than before.
Organisations associated with workers said that many are being promised wages for the period of quarantine or increased wages and ticket fare to return.
“Once workers return to the city, employers tell them about their poor financial condition and deduct the ticket fares and quarantine wages from their salaries. Many who have come back have also complained of not being paid on time and being paid less than they used to earn,” said Deepak Paradkar of the non-profit group Aajeevika Bureau.
Vishal Rai, a Mumbai-based worker employed in the garment sector, said he was being paid Rs 18,000 per month before the lockdown. “My employer in a garment unit in Saki Naka said that I could only be paid Rs 16,000. I had to agree as there is no work. Now, we have been told that we will not be paid for our weekly offs,” Rai added.
Chand Mohammed and Habibul Shaikh, both residents of Murshidabad in West Bengal, too, got onto a train with money for the tickets arranged by an NGO. The two, who work on construction sites, along with eight others, reached Mumbai 40 days ago but did not find work for over a week.
“Every day, we would wake up and call every contractor we have ever worked for in the last five to six years. Most have themselves returned to their villagers or told us that work is yet to pick up. We have finally managed to find work with a contractor in Chembur. We were told that lockdown restrictions have eased and there is a shortage of labour. But we are getting paid less than what we used to get paid earlier,” Mohammed said.
While the group earned around Rs 450 to Rs 500 per day, now they get Rs 350. Shaikh said they are all under heavy debts taken back home, as there was no money left to eat after they returned home. In Mumbai, the high cost of basic supplies, including vegetables, has also pushed the group to eat plain rice on most days.
Jamila Begum of Ghar Bachao, Ghar Banao Andolan, who had helped the group come back to the city, said that she receives calls daily from workers who have returned to their home states, asking if they can find work in Mumbai.
“There is no work or schemes providing financial assistance to them at home, they say. They have mortgaged their family’s jewellery and if they fail to find work, whatever little land they have, will be sold. Those who have returned are unable to even get access to universal PDS, as their ration cards are back home,” she added.
The BMC has also scaled down on the number of community kitchens being run during the lockdown as well as the distribution of food packets. Labour department officials said that each district collectorate has been tasked with counting the number of workers returning to the workforce.
Workers, however, said their details were not taken by any authority.
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