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Mon22Sep2014

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Duped and exploited: Orissa's migrant workers

By Sudarshan Chhotray

Close to 2 million people migrate out of Orissa in search of work every year. Only 50,000 of them are registered with the authorities, making it difficult to protect these desperate migrants from tricksters and exploitative employers

Thousands of migrant Indian workers landed in New Delhi during the last week of April this year, forced to leave Middle East and North African nations that have witnessed people’s movements for democracy. The unrest in Libya in particular threw many Indian labourers out of work. Forced to leave these countries, they returned to their homes and have been trying to find work in other countries. Many have been duped by overseas placement agencies. They were offered lucrative work assignments in London and elsewhere, promised work visas and air tickets.

Around 127 labourers from Orissa and other states paid between Rs 80,000 and Rs 120,000 to an agent in Delhi for visas and air tickets. When they got to the airport on May 3, 2011, bound for London, they found their tickets had been cancelled. With nowhere to go, they registered a complaint with the Kirtinagar police station in Delhi and after a long battle, and the intervention of volunteers, the Delhi police’s anti-human trafficking cell arrested the agent, Jatindra Singh. A group of 12 plumbers from Orissa returned to their state thanks to a labour officer deputed from Orissa.

These 12 plumbers from Orissa’s Kendrapara district are now desperate, as they had given whatever they earned in Tripoli to Jatindra Singh.

This incident illustrates the problems of migrant Indian workers, and particularly those from Orissa, where an estimated 1.8 million migrate every year. Protection and enforcement clauses and provisions provided in the Interstate Migrant Workmen (RE and CS) Act 1979, which is supposed to regulate the employment of interstate migrants and provide safe conditions of work, are insufficient and weak. Even deputed labour officer Pradeep Kumar Mohanty admitted: “We could not do anything in this case because overseas employment is involved, and neither the migrants nor the contractor had registered here or provided information to the department.”

Is there a need to amend the Act?

Mohammed Amin of Sramika Sahayog believes there is. He says: “Many migrant workers from Orissa have been rescued from brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Even women are not spared; they are duped by pimps and dalals (agents) and taken to New Delhi, Jhansi and parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala on the assurances of marriage or a good job.”

The Orissa state government has decided to set up a special labour cell to monitor interstate migration and keep tabs on contractors and agents involved in illegal labour practices: those found violating existing labour laws and sending people to various places without informing or registering with the authorities. The proposed cell will be headed by an assistant labour commissioner with support from district-level officers and assistant labour officers. A centralised database will be set up with the records of migrants and contractors, for monthly review and follow-up.

“Setting up a special cell is definitely a step forward. But what about the existing migration cell in the labour commissioner’s office, and an additional labour commissioner posted in Balugaon to register, monitor and take up day-to-day issues of migrants?” asks Anam Barik, an activist with the Pravasi Odia Sramika Surakhya Manch (POSSM).

He agrees that there is need for a special migration cell but says it should be equipped with adequate staff and an updated database and monitoring mechanism, besides enforcement and punitive powers. Earlier, the Orissa government had deployed two senior labour officers for Surat and Mumbai; they have now been withdrawn.

Keeping tabs on contractors is not enough; the government must do more for seasonal and regular migrants. Orissa should come up with a detailed plan on tackling the problem of exploitation of migrants.

One of the main issues is registration of all outbound labourers at the place of origin, and providing them with identity cards. Registration could take place at railway stations, bus stands, gram panchayat offices, even in villages with ward members.

In a recent statement, State Labour Commissioner Alekh Chandra Padhiary admitted that around 1.8 million people migrate from Orissa every year. Of these, only 50,000 are registered. As a result, it is virtually impossible to ensure that migrants receive a minimum wage, enjoy full labour rights, and receive compensation in the event of sickness or death.

POSSM estimates that there are over 2 million people working outside the state, including 700,000 in Surat, 300,000 in Gandhidham, Kandla, Bharuch, Olanga and other parts of Gujarat, 200,000 in Mumbai and Pune, 500,000 in Kerala, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai, and the remaining in places like Kolkata, New Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. Besides these, nearly 500,000-700,000 seasonal migrants shuttle between Orissa and other destinations every year.

Lakhs of migrants from Orissa have chosen Surat in south Gujarat as their place of work. Surat boasts a lucrative job market and is a booming industrial, textiles, and diamond/zari hub.

According to estimates, at least 700,000 people from Orissa are employed in Surat, mostly in powerlooms. The average wage per month is around Rs 3,000-7,000. Almost 75% are not registered -- they do not have basic privileges like provident fund, gratuity, bonus, pension, holidays, etc. They are not even issued an identity card or pay slip. They don’t enjoy facilities like a basic minimum wage, standard working hours, safe dwelling, clean drinking water, health facilities, basic education for their children, or job security.

Although many migrants live away from their homes for months, sometimes years (very few with their families), they are not provided a pucca house to live in or basic facilities. They live in Surat’s slums, without clean water, sanitation or electricity. And because they do not know the language, their children cannot go to school and are forced to work. The few Orissa schools there are, established under Odia Samaj’s initiatives, lack buildings (classrooms), teachers, and textbooks.

Surat’s slums reportedly house over 17,00,000 migrant workers from Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, besides wage labourers from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Maharashtra, and Gujarat itself.

Dense, dingy living conditions, long working hours and an oppressive work environment make the lives of many migrants miserable. The location of their slums is determined mainly by proximity to the worksite, available patches of land along roads and railway lines, open spaces adjacent to factory walls, low-lying areas, and the banks of rivers and canals.

Health is a major area of concern. Because of late working hours, inadequate shelter, poor nutrition, unclean drinking water, and poor sanitation, migrants contract a number of illnesses like cholera and viral fever. HIV/AIDS and other STDs are fast spreading among migrants to Surat.

Around Rs 3,000 crore per annum flows into Orissa by way of remittances from workers working outside the state. Of this, nearly Rs 1,000 crore is from Gujarat, Rs 100 crore from Andhra Pradesh and the rest from other parts of the country and abroad. But there is no smooth way of getting the hard-earned money to dependent families. Migrants still use the toppawalla network, peer networks and money orders to send money home. There is no banking network/system in place, and migrants are denied bank passbooks because they have no identification papers.

Most migrants to Surat from Orissa are from Ganjam district. Although Ganjam is considered a developed district in Orissa, shrinking natural resources, decreasing agricultural land and regular floods and drought have impelled the migration. Ganjam, Bolangir, Sundergarh, Nuapara and Koraput are other districts with high migration.

The condition of migrants to south India is not much better. People from western Orissa, particularly Bolangir, travel to Hyderabad, Chennai and Bengaluru in early summer to work in brick kilns where they are subjected to serious exploitation by the owners and contractors. Even women are not spared. Almost every day there are reports of exploitation and torture of migrants from Orissa’s KBK (Koraput-Bolangir-Kalahandi) region.

Banshidhar Behera of the Western Odisha Voluntary Association (WOVA) says: “On average, nearly 400,000 people migrate annually from the Koraput-Bolangir-Kalahandi (KBK) region. Just before Nuakhai, a huge festival in the region, contractors from the southern states camp here, give advances to labourers and take them away.” He adds: “Many tribal and other villages wear a deserted look during this period.” Reports from the field suggest that the migration economy of western Orissa is around Rs 80 crore.

Orissa’s KBK region has become synonymous with poverty and backwardness. There are daily media reports on the sad plight of migrant labourers, encroachment on tribal lands by non-tribals, forcible eviction of people from their homes, and alienation from natural resources.

Recently, the Planning Commission came up with an Eight-Year Perspective Plan for Orissa’s KBK district (2009-10 to 2016-17), at a projected outlay of Rs 4,550 crore.

But despite a plethora of programmes and projects like the RLTAP (Revised Long-Term Action Plan) for KBK, Biju KBK Yojana, WORLP (Western Orissa Rural Livelihoods Project), OTELP (Orissa Tribal Empowerment and Livelihoods Programme) and WODC (Western OrissaDevelopment Council), special attention by the Planning Commission and other state and central agencies, and provisions under the National Rural Health Mission, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, the region has remained underdeveloped.

(Sudarshan Chhotray is an independent journalist, researcher and documentary filmmaker based in Bhubaneswar. He works on the issues of migration and climate change)

Infochange News & Features, June 2011