COVID-19: Food, shelter assured, but not livelihood for migrant workers in TN

Tamil Nadu being one of the largest industrial estates in the country, receives thousands of migrant labourers every day from north India

While hundreds of them appeared ready to walk back to their villages hundreds of miles away, several packed themselves as sardines in buses and trucks plying on the road.

The coronavirus outbreak has a major impact on one of the most vulnerable communities in Tamil Nadu, the migrant workers. Due to the lockdown, they are neither able to return to their homes nor can they continue living in their workplace, because of the companies shut down.

Tamil Nadu being one of the largest industrial estates in the country, receives thousands of migrant labourers every day from north India.

The construction and manufacturing are the two major sectors in which these migrant workers are placed. According to researchers, about 50 per cent of migrant workers are working and residing in Chennai, Kanchipuram and Tiruvallur districts, while 17 percent of workers are in Coimbatore, Tiruppur and Erode districts.

Many of the workers employed as unskilled labourers and are generally living in a condition of poverty with no pucca houses, water, and sanitation.

“After the COVID-19 outbreak, companies in Chennai, Kanchipuram and Tiruvallur districts closed. The workers started coming to Chennai Central to take a train and reach their home. Unfortunately, the trains also stopped leaving the migrant workers stranded on roads and railway stations” said Bernard Sami, senior research fellow, Loyola Institute for Social Science Teaching And Research.

He pointed out that the lockdown has affected the migrant labourers in two ways.

One, the worker gets affected because he is not going to get his wages and two, his/her family suffers as a domino effect.

Sami also says, either the Tamil Nadu government or the state from which the migrant worker belongs to should help them monetarily until the situation improves.

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As far as Chennai is concerned, the stranded migrant workers are put up in eight shelters of Greater Chennai Corporation where they get basic needs like shelter, cooked food, and dry rations.

“The Corporation has said that its labour department has started registering these migrant workers and they will soon be provided some sort of financial assistance” he added.

Vanessa Peter, policy researcher, Information and Resource Centre for the Deprived Urban Communities said that one of the steps to be taken for the welfare of migrant workers and urban homeless people in this time of crisis is to enhance their immunity.

“Generally, the wages earned by the migrant workers are very less in which they can’t afford nutritious food. However, in this time of the pandemic, many NGOs have started providing cooked food with some vegetables to them. They also hand out eggs and fruits. That will help them increase their immunity so that they can protect themselves from the disease” she said.

While the contribution of NGOs seems noble, the Chennai corporation’s ban over distributing of cooked food by volunteers has affected both the parties adversely.

“The migrant workers are deprived of nutritious food on one hand, and on the other the cost to be born by the volunteers has been increased. If we distribute cooked food, we need to spend Rs.60 for a person, but when we donate dry rations like rice the cost will be around Rs.4,500 per family” Peter added.

While the migrant workers in the city are taken care by the Chennai Corporation, the workers living in the other parts of the states like Tiruppur are looked after by the respective companies where they were employed.

Speaking to The Federal, Raja M. Shanmugam, president, Tiruppur Exporters Association said since the company itself is reeling in financial stress, providing monetary relief to the migrant workers is proving to be difficult.

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However, they do it for humanitarian causes, he added. “All those migrant workers are asked to stay in the company hostels. We are providing food three times a day. That is what we can do utmost” he said.

He also added that they have requested the government to distribute the funds from Employee State Insurance Corporation to aid the migrant workers.

According to him, Tiruppur alone deposits Rs.100 crore per year to Employee State Insurance Corporation.

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