One of the least talked about factors in Mumbai’s success story has suddenly taken the front seat as millions of migrant workers are waiting to leave the maximum city once the janta curfew, imposed following the coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19), is lifted. The labour migration to Mumbai, which began sometime in the 1850s when Muslim tanners from Salem in Tamil Nadu came to Bombay (now Mumbai), has come to a halt as the shutdown has dried up income sources for migrant labourers.
Social distancing and coronavirus lockdown has crushed the lives as well as livelihoods of these daily wagers who pay high rentals for dingy accommodations.
With future uncertain, most of them have either left or are waiting to leave. Without migrant workers, the maximum city’s standing as India’s financial capital, and global megalopolis will be completely shaken.
The April 14 incident in the suburb of Bandra, where thousands of workers reached the railway station in an attempt to get back home, just shows their helplessness and desperation to leave under the current circumstances.
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"Industry after industry here owes its success to low-cost migrant workers who demand less, work more and come here for employment because of lack of opportunities at their native places,” says Sujata Gothoskar, labour rights activist and researcher, who has been a part of the women’s movement and labour movement for over four decades.
What jobs do migrants do?
From New York to London, most global cities owe their megalopolis character to migrants. “We must understand that Mumbai cannot remain a global city without this informal migrant labour, which is 40 or 50 percent of the workforce, and that needs to be protected by extending labour legislation to them,” says Vinod Shetty, Director at Acorn Foundation, labour lawyer and human rights activist. But COVID-19 has made labour legislation an even more distant dream for these workers.
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Migrants are mostly employed in the labour-intensive services, helping keep business costs under check. They work at low rates in construction sites, brick kilns, factories and small scale units and as sanitation workers, drivers, lift operators and maids.
According to the National Sample Survey 2007 and Census 2011, of the migrants in Mumbai, over half are of out-of-state migrants coming from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and other states. Over one-fourth of recent migrants are from rural Maharashtra.
“In addition to manufacturing and traditional services, migrants from rural Maharashtra are also likely to find employment in public and social services. However, for migrants from out of Maharashtra, the concentration is in construction, manufacturing and traditional services (like security guards, drivers etc) ,” as per NSS 2007.
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Mumbai’s Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, is a testimony to this. It houses 7 lakh people, mostly migrants and is a big source of traditional services providers.
Moreover, nearly 80 percent of the 44 million workforce in the construction sector is made up of migrants and Mumbai is no exception. Now, since the government has eased up lockdown restrictions for certain sectors, companies want to re-start work. “Since many migrant workers have left for their villages post thelockdown 1.0 announcement, we will have to wait and see how many are actually left back to resume work,” says Anuj Puri, Chairman - ANAROCK Property Consultants.
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High value addition at a low cost
Most of the construction workers in Mumbai now come from Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal. “When labour from a state becomes expensive, businesses look at other states. Migrants from UP and Bihar are not on construction sites now as they have been here for two or three generations and moved up to being auto rickshaws and taxi drivers in Mumbai,” Shetty says.
Mumbai’s nearly one lakh rag-pickers and most of the sanitary workers are migrants too.
“The hard labour and back-breaking work is done by migrants because they are desperate enough to do these jobs,” he adds.
Shetty points out that for security guards and mathadi workers (head loaders) the minimum wages are between Rs 12,000 and Rs 20,000. But most of them are not paid that amount because they come from villages where crops have failed, land is infertile, there aren’t enough employment opportunities and they want to earn whatever they can without confrontation.
If security guards on a 12-hour shift were to be paid as per the Security Guard Board Act, it would come to a minimum of Rs 18,000 but nobody pays that amount to migrant workers, he says.
Strangers in their own home?
Gothoskar says, “They (migrants) now feel they were being made use of and this city doesn’t care. This exodus will really show all of us how we actually need them,” she adds.
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After the current situation, it feels like many migrants may never come back, Gothoskar adds. Dileep Mandal, a carpenter from Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh, is a case in point. He came to Mumbai 25 years ago with his father, who has now moved back to the village due to poor health.
“I started as an assistant to my father and went on to become a master carpenter. I stayed here as I had developed a good client base. But now, I want to go back. I have never felt this insecure all my life. If I step out to buy provisions, the police chase me. My identity documents have a Gorakhpur address. So I am not eligible for public distribution of grains. And I have been cooped up in this room with five others since March 24,” he says.
With no money left after paying his rent, Mandal will now borrow from his old clients to buy a ticket for Gorakhpur after the lockdown.
Mumbai minus its migrants
What will Mumbai look like without these workers? The construction work for the Mumbai Metro Rail may possibly slow down or come to a halt as most workers there are from tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal.
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Gothoskar says the number of autos and taxis (including Uber and Ola) will more than halve as workers from UP and Bihar dominate this space. The absence of rag-pickers will put a load on municipalities to clean up the roads and other public spaces. For now, they have no means of making up for nearly one lakh rag-pickers.
And more than half the delivery boys – from e-commerce to food chains -- will disappear.
And none of us want that. Mumbai must retain its migrants as well as its mojo.
(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in financial, business and socio-economic reporting)
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