The Centre’s nod for industries to resume operations after months of lockdown has done little to ward off their woes since the exodus of migrant workers during the shutdown has created a crisis of migrant workforce across the country.
Cheap workforce from other states is a major requirement for industries, ranging from construction sites to beauty parlours, and their crisis is now haunting these businesses.
In Tamil Nadu, Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami’s call for employing local workers in place of the migrant workforce doesn’t seem to have gone down well with the industries.
For instance, the manufacturing sector was largely relying on the migrant workforce. In the last decade, only a few people from Tamil Nadu were employed in industrial estates in Chennai that cater to the automotive industry, says Balachandran, vice president, Ambattur Industrial Estate Manufacturers’ Association.
“Workers from north Indian states like Bihar and Odisha manage with whatever accommodation they find in the city. They mostly live in groups and spend little on food, besides saving some for the future,” he says. Normally, these industries pay their workers around ₹12,000-14,000.
This salary will not suffice a native worker who would know his way around the city and have relatives here. So, even people from other districts don’t prefer to work in industries here, says Balachandran. He adds that a major chunk of the native workforce in industrial estates comprises of people who had joined 10 years ago.
“Going by what the chief minister says, many people, who had lost their jobs due to the lockdown, should have approached us by now. But that has not happened,” he says. Even the native labourers working in industrial estates last for only a few months, he adds.
However, he is confident that the migrant workers who had returned home will come back soon. “Due to the spike in COVID-19 cases in Chennai, their families have been stopping them from returning. But once the pandemic begins to recede, they will come back,” he says.
But this is not the case with other sectors. For instance, the beauty industry depends on workers from the northeast to a great extent. After the spread of COVID-19 intensified in Chennai, most of the migrant workers from the region left for their hometowns on Shramik Special trains.
Recently, the All India Manufacturers Organisation (AIMO) said a study conducted by it had revealed that a large number of migrant employees from the northeast had expressed fear and insecurity in returning to their workplaces, which are away from their home states, due to the “harrowing experience” that they faced during the lockdown period.
Meanwhile, a lot of migrant workers had been engaged in unskilled jobs as well; many of them worked in the construction sector on low pay. While their return to the city is uncertain, employing native workers for menial jobs will not be an easy task.
“Only 30 per cent of the migrant workforce stayed back in the city. So we have been trying to bring workers from other districts as construction activities have resumed,” says S Sridharan, the chairman, Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations of India (Tamil Nadu). But we can bring them to the city only after the lockdown ends, he adds.
Unlike other industries, the construction sector will not face the issue of training the new workers as most of the jobs involved in this sector are unskilled. But that is the major reason why the native workers had refrained from opting for these jobs. Only the non-availability of native labourers had pushed the employers to hire migrants, says Sridharan.
In fact, the first set of migrant labourers came to Chennai for construction works in the early 2000s. Until then, construction activities were done in small-scale by local builders, says M Vijayabaskar, professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.
In the post-liberalisation era, not just private-sector projects, but also large scale public-sector projects are being carried out by private players. These private firms started bringing workers from different parts of the country, says Vijayabaskar. While some of the migrant workers stayed in the city, others moved to different cities after the completion of their projects, he says.
On the other hand, the native workforce that had been employed in the sector did not find the remuneration attractive after the influx of migrants. Also, people in Tamil Nadu were relatively more educated, and so, they expected jobs that are more dignified. They afforded to wait and kept acquiring additional qualifications instead of taking these jobs, says Vijayabaskar.
People also started finding their way into the international labour market. What had happened in Kerala four decades ago, has now started happening in Tamil Nadu too, he says. “Even if the work is low-skilled, they would go to southeast Asia or the Gulf to earn more.”
Employers too don’t tend to recruit native workers as they fear unionisation. They deliberately choose workers from other states who generally don’t make it an issue when they are thrown out of their jobs, he adds. “They are hardly unionised.”
But as the employment options have more or less come to a close, Vijayabaskar believes that native workers will now be willing to accept jobs that they had denied earlier. “Even in rural economy, a bulk of the household income comes from non-farm employment. Only a very small share comes from agriculture,” he says.
So, some people, who had been depending on non-farm employment, will be forced to take whatever job is available. Though the native workers will not be demanding a higher pay anytime soon, Vijayabaskar says they will start raising demands at some point of time and the state government will be forced to respond.
So, along with the change of the workforce, the state will also have to witness a shift in its nature.