Migrant workers face debt, job loss and separation from families

A year after the lockdown, jobs are not only harder to find, they pay less

Construction sites, industrial clusters, markets and homes in the National Capital Region (NCR) are abuzz with activity, but for the migrant workers who make a living in these spaces, life is far from normal a year after the country was locked down to curb the spread of COVID-19 in March 2020.

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Almost a year since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown on March 24, migrant workers in the NCR are facing wage cuts, mounting debts and uncertainty over their families’ futures, many of whom have not returned from the villages due to the pandemic.

Mangal Dev, a plastic moulder working in Delhi’s Uttam Nagar, says he only worked three months in the past year. Having found a job in February, he says, and is slowly trying to pay back ₹35,000 in rent dues for his ₹4,500-a-month single room in Sagarpur. Faced with months of no income, he says he made the decision to send his family, including two school-going daughters, back to his village in West Bengal.

“Had I not sent my family away, my condition would have been worse,” he says. His daughters have stopped going to school. “We are looking to get them married,” he says.

Not only was it difficult to find work in 2020, with factories shutting down or reducing staff, he says the salaries being offered now were well below the around ₹18,000 minimum wage for skilled workers set by the Delhi government. From ₹12,000 a month for 12 hours of work, which is what he was earning earlier, he says companies were offering ₹10,000 for the same. “Workers were willing to take even ₹7,000 or ₹8,000, but jobs were tough to come by,” he says.

According to the Union Labour and Employment Ministry, over 1.14 crore inter-State migrant workers returned to their homes during the lockdown. In a reply to the Rajya Sabha on March 17, the Ministry said “most of them have gone back to their original or workplaces and engaged themselves in productive employment”.

One such worker who made the long trip back home was Neb Singh, who is currently working at a construction site in Noida’s Sector-107. When the lockdown was announced, he was working at a portable toilet manufacturing unit in Goa. He managed to secure a ticket to go back home to Shahzadpur in Uttar Pradesh when the government started special trains for migrant workers. “I don’t have a ration card so was not able to get the food distributed by the government. I never received any aid from the government,” he says.

Having spent months at home without any work, he made his way to Noida last month. How did he manage without any income all this while? “Everyone has problems. The way the poor were surviving back then, they are doing now,” he says, with a shrug.

For another migrant in Noida, 16-year-old Reena, whose family is from Jhansi, the past year has brought many changes. Pre-lockdown, her elder sister worked as a domestic help and paid her school fees. Having lost income due to the pandemic, Ms. Reena says her family could not afford to pay the registration fee and she was forced to drop out of the school in Gijhod village in Sector 53. With no government school nearby, she says she had no option and started working as a domestic worker in a house recently.

“My parents are unable to work due to illness, so my sister runs the household. They decided to save on rent and we all went back to our village in June last year. My parents stayed in the village and I came back in December but have not been able to go back to school,” she says.

If not for the lockdown, she says she would have been studying in Class IX.

Fourteen-year-old Anjana Ahirwar, who lives in Aggahpur village in Noida with her brother and mother, says she too has had to drop out and start working in a house. Having completed Class VIII from a government school, she was planning on joining a private school as there is no government high school in the area. Her mother, who works as a daily wage construction labourer, has not had consistent work for the past year.

“Now, we can’t afford a private school. I have started working in a house. I will keep trying to get admission in any school,” she says.

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