Migrant crisis in Karnataka reveals dark underbelly of Bengaluru's economy, and how recruitment agencies exploit labourers

The social profile of the migrant workers and the modus operandi of the labour industry in Bengaluru is a disturbing tale, one that is never discussed as part of its proud economic activity

Bhaskar Hegde May 07, 2020 17:41:18 IST
Migrant crisis in Karnataka reveals dark underbelly of Bengaluru's economy, and how recruitment agencies exploit labourers

The Karnataka government has decided to resume trains for migrant workers stranded in the state, after facing sharp criticism from trade unions, civil society groups and the opposition Congress. Despite the U-turn, the decision to prevent migrants from leaving the state, has brought back the focus on the dark underbelly of the booming economy of the ‘Silicon City’ of Bengaluru and how it is vulnerable without the migrant labourers.

Karnataka seemed to have woken up to the migrant workers crisis, perhaps after Mumbai and Delhi episodes, wherein lakhs of migrant labourers walked back to their native places in north India.

Migrant crisis in Karnataka reveals dark underbelly of Bengalurus economy and how recruitment agencies exploit labourers

Representational image. PTI

The authorities from the Karnataka government first identified the labourers, around a lakh in number spread across the city, and then swung into action. It distributed food packets and many of them were put up in marriage halls as short-term measures.

Thereafter, it held talks with the Indian Railways and planned to send these workers to their home states. As a result, hundreds of workers from states like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, availed the facility while several thousand migrant labourers from the Hyderabad-Karnataka region were sent to their native places through state-run Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation busses.

A crisis-like situation cropped up when more and more labourers, mainly from north India, started moving towards city railway stations to get trains scheduled for their home states.

One such lot, comprising of nearly 6,000 workers hired by a gutka factory near Tumakuru, came to Bengaluru and camped near the Bengaluru International Exhibition Centre, 20 kilometres away from the central business district of the city. By that time, however, the trains had stopped. This led to a hue and cry as opposition Congress leaders started issuing statements criticising the government’s ‘inhuman’ attitude towards a genuine problem.

To stir the conscience of the public, former minister and Congress leader, Krishna Byre Gowda had posted a video these of workers walking on Ballari highway. In the video clip, they were seen speaking: “We are from Uttar Pradesh. We want to go back to our native place. We will walk.”

Gowda told this journalist that it was inhuman to refrain these labourers from going to their native places.

“You can check the dictionary and find out for yourself the meaning of bonded labour. The government has encouraged bonded labour which is illegal and inhuman. What is wrong in arranging transport facility so that they (migrant labourers) can go to their native places and come back after two or three months?” he asked.

The crisis forced labour unions to take up cudgel as well as many of them held a virtual protest on Twitter posting their pictures seeking justice for these migrant labourers.

Labourers, a dark underbelly of a vibrant economy

The social profile of the migrant labourers and the modus operandi of the labour industry in Bengaluru is a disturbing tale, one that is never discussed as part of its proud economic activity.

Based on the origin of this work force, there are two groups of labourers. One group includes thousands of people from Hyderabad-Karnataka region, mainly from Kalaburgi, Yadgir, Koppal, Bidar districts, who come to work in the construction industry in Bengaluru city. Many of them, in spite of having small land holdings, can’t grow second crop in their farm land situated in the arid agro-climatic region situated in the northeast side of the state. They are not skilled in any of the economic activities of the city and so, they prefer to work in construction industry where they can utilise their masculine power to compensate the skills required for the construction industry.

The second group comes from north India, and are semi-skilled. For instance, people from Rajasthan take up contracts of tile-laying work while those from Uttar Pradesh's Gorakhpur and surrounding areas prefer to do painting work. There are two categories among those from West Bengal and the North East. One section of labourers from this region work in ‘Chinese kitchens’ while a large set works in housekeeping.

Labourers felt the pinch of the COVID-19 crisis when the agencies which hired them failed to pay. None of the agencies agreed to come on record to talk about their business for the article.

A north Indian who runs an agency of contract labourers of over 600, says: “Many of the companies and industries who got our services, did not make payments during this lockdown. But, I paid my workers for a month.”

Another entrepreneur too echoed a similar view and said, “I keep Rs 500 per person per month from the contract amount. When I do not get funds from business houses, how can I pay them?”

There seems to be no robust data on how many labour recruitment agencies work in Bengaluru.

Tekendra Thapa, a labourer from Nepal works in the upscale Koramangala area, felt the pinch too but not to the extent that many other labours have. He has been attached to a housekeeping staff of a bank.

“I prepare food at my room,” says Thapa.

When asked whether he wanted to go home, he said, “No sir. No transport facility, so I am not bothered.”

Thapa came to Bengaluru seven years ago only because his uncle is here. Similarly, Johorulam, who is from Tripura, works as a security guard. He too landed in the city a few years ago because some peope from his native place were already ‘settled’ here.

“For the last 40 days, I had lunch downstairs where one local group served food. Now, Ramadan has started, so I prepare my food in the evening,” he said.

When people like Thapa and Johorulam come to Bengaluru, they approach labour-recruitment agencies for jobs. Since many of them are in the age group of 18-22 and have no prior experience in any field, the agencies exploit them and send them as housekeeping staff or on security duty which may not need any specific skills. It is almost clear that these labourers were at the receiving end when the agencies that hired them turned their back on them.

Passing the buck on the business houses/industries who failed to make payments, the recruitment agencies disappeared from the scene instead of helping the labourers. The end result? The labourers suffered. These agencies will re-activate themselves after the lockdown and since there is no strong regulatory mechanism, they will do 'business as usual'.

Government changes its stand

Karnataka revenue minister R Ashok, who had brokered peace with the gutka factory workers has a different point of view. He denies that the state government has refraining migrant labourers from going to their native places.

“Please mention that our government is ready to send them back. We will not stop them,” he says.

Asked about how the 6,000-strong labour force was convinced three days back, Ashok said, “We told them, even if they go back, they will be quarantined for two weeks. We gave them food kits that will sustain them for 45 days. I spoke to the owner of the factory who agreed to pay the salary at once. They agreed and went back.”

Then why did the Karnataka government suddenly stop the trains?

Sources in the government revealed that the states from which these people have come from, have refused to take them back. They fear, these people, on landing there, may worsen the coronavirus problem.

“I would like to request my Congress friends that they should convince West Bengal chief minister Mamta Banerjee to take the people from her state. She has made it clear that she would not take back Bengalis working outside at this juncture. We will send trains if she agrees,” said Ashok.

The author is a senior journalist and political commentator, based in Bengaluru

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