Lost Labor: The Struggle of Tamil Nadu's Entrepreneurs Without Migrant Workers

While the hospitality sector is hit the hardest by migrant workers' exodus, the garment industry is slowly returning to normalcy in Tamil Nadu'.
Migrant workers are gradually returning to work in Tamil Nadu
Migrant workers are gradually returning to work in Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu: A well-known Malayalam adage asserts that the true value of sight is often unappreciated until it is lost. Such a saying resonates with the essential role played by migrant workers in Tamil Nadu, whose absence has been acutely felt in various work settings, particularly in factories, construction sites, and manufacturing units. Indeed, more than 55% of the labor force in these domains is composed of migrant workers hailing from the eastern and northern regions of India.

Sadly, a wave of fear and apprehension swept over migrant workers in Tamil Nadu following the circulation of counterfeit videos on social media in February, portraying assault on these workers. This provoked an exodus of these laborers, particularly those from Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal etc who chose to return to their hometowns. However, the timing of this development coincided with the festival of Holi, and the migrant workers expressed their intention to return to work promptly following the celebration.

With the passage of nearly 20 days since the festival, a tentative approximation reveals that approximately 2,00,000 migrant workers have yet to resume their laborious duties, dealing a significant blow to various industries, particularly the garment and textile units in Tiruppur & Coimbatore as well as the hospitality sector in Chennai and other parts of the state which is known as Land of Temples and hence a hub of spiritual tourism . The repercussions of this exodus have left entrepreneurs and exporters filled with unease, harboring doubts and concerns over the future of their enterprises. It is feared that the failure of the migrant workers to return could precipitate a sharp decline in business operations, resulting in substantial losses for these industries.

Hoteliers cleaning tables, sweeping floors:

The dire situation caused by the conspicuous absence of migrant workers has dealt a severe blow to the hospitality sector, which has been hit the hardest. According to M.Ravi, President of The Chennai Hotels Association, only 30% of the workers have reported back to their respective workplaces, with a significant portion hailing from states such as Bihar, Nagaland, Assam, and Jharkhand, displaying reluctance to return. Ravi, who presides over the renowned restaurant chain 'Vasantha Bhawan', consisting of 35 outlets across Tamil Nadu, is apprehensive about the prospects of their return in the immediate future. He said managing affairs presently has become too difficult to an extent that the owners themselves are forced to sweep the floors and clean the tables . "We are in constant communication with the workers. We have offered them flight tickets, but the parents are hesitant to send their children back, they are too scared and concerned over the security issues " he lamented.

The hospitality sector is a crucial component of the Tamil Nadu economy, with approximately 7 lakh hotels, restaurants, and accommodations dotting the state's landscape. Astonishingly, 55% of the workforce in this sector comprises migrant workers. "Individuals hailing from southern states are educated and tend to seek employment opportunities abroad instead of coming to Tamil Nadu. The current situation is dire, and it is incredibly challenging for people in the hospitality sector to maintain their facilities without the migrant workers. I see no reprieve in the immediate future," Ravi expressed in a despondent tone.

A garment unit in Tamil Nadu
A garment unit in Tamil Nadu

Interventional steps taken, Life coming to normal : TEA

Despite the ongoing hardships faced by the hospitality sector, the garment and textile units have slowly but surely been returning to a sense of normalcy. Tiruppur, which is the quintessential hub for knitted garments exports in India, comprising over 20,000 manufacturing units, 90% of which are classified as small and medium-scale industries, has made significant strides in the past two weeks. In total, approximately 6 lakh workers are employed in the garment industry, with 1.75 lakh constituting migrant workers from states such as Orissa (65,000), Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, and Assam.

In a detailed conversation with The Mooknayak, S. Sakthivel, Executive Secretary of the Tiruppur Exporters Association (TEA), expressed his gratitude towards the state government, police, and city administration for their swift and effective intervention in resolving the migrant worker issue. According to Sakthivel, the workers have already begun to return to work, and the situation is almost resolved. He explained that the scare-like situation arose due to the dissemination of fake viral videos, which unfortunately coincided with the Holi festival.

In an effort to alleviate the situation, the association organized a meeting with eight trade unions, who were eager to extend their support and send messages of encouragement to the migrant workers. The meeting was also attended by the Tirupur City Police Commissioner and Assistant Commissioner, who explained the measures they had taken to expedite the resolution of the issue. The Police Commissioner, in particular, issued a stern warning that action would be taken against those responsible for spreading fake news and creating fake memes.

Sakthivel highlighted additional measures taken by officials, including the establishment of a control room to provide support and ensure the safety of the workers. He also mentioned that a meeting was held by the district collector with a fact-finding delegation team from Bihar State at Tirupur district collectorate on March 5th, and TEA along with other associations participated in the meeting. During this meeting, the TEA President clearly stated that the migrant workers in Tirupur feel safe and that no one is leaving the factories due to the issue. He further explained that the workers only left to celebrate the Holi festival in their hometowns and that in the hostels, both migrant workers from the north and south are living together like brothers without facing any issues.

The migrant work force in TN economy

Tamil Nadu, one of the most industrialised and urbanised states in India, has been experiencing a rapid economic growth since the 1990s. With the rapid growth in the manufacturing and service sectors, the state faced a massive demand for workers in various activities, resulting in a shortage of labour. To meet the increased work force demands contractors from the construction sectors , started employing rural unemployed youth from the eastern region of India, more than a decade ago. Now, Tamil Nadu is home to more than one million migrant workers, with a significant portion of them located in the Chennai metropolitan area and its nearby industrial zones of Tiruvallur and Chengalpattu. The remaining workers are primarily concentrated in the textile and industrial centers of Tiruppur, Coimbatore, and Erode. The hotel industry, textile sector, and infrastructure development heavily rely on these migrant workers for their operations and growth.

A helpline has been set up in Tiruppur to assist workers
A helpline has been set up in Tiruppur to assist workers

Hard working & laborious populace

According to a research report by J.Jeyaranjan from the Institute of Development Alternatives-

Chennai, migrant workers come from twelve different states of India and Nepal. The largest number of migrant workers come from Assam, Odisha, West Bengal, and Bihar. Andhra Pradesh , and Tripura are also important origins.

Migrant workers are more vulnerable than the local workers on several counts. One ‘positive’ opinion about the migrant workers as compared to, the local worker among all the employers is that they are ‘hard working’. Once the food and shelter is taken care of, the migrant worker puts in more than 10 hours of work whereas the local labour will not work more than 8 hours unless paid overtime. This is another reason why the employers would like to employ the migrant workers.

It is predominantly used by OBCs and SCs, the majority of whom are landless.Most of these migrant workers are young, unmarried, and lack education and skills necessary for the destination's job market. They leave their families behind and send most of their wage earnings back home, visiting them once a year.

Poor living environments

Migrant workers in construction sector live in extreme poor living conditions . They stay in temporary accommodations shared with fellow migrant workers. Everything about their housing looks short-term, and their work contracts are temporary, with wages calculated on a daily basis. Long-term benefits such as PF and ESI are rare, and continuous work with the same employer for years does not guarantee permanency. Thus, they have a stretched-out life, living in a dual world where their destination is temporary, but their origin is permanent. They have an incomplete citizenship and are excluded from social welfare schemes provided to the urban poor in the destination. The universal PDS is out of bounds for them, and they can benefit only indirectly through the grey market. Workers in manufacturing units have comparatively better housing amenities with water & electricity facilities.

Facing discrimination & harassments

According to a study, inter-state migrant workers face a high degree of vulnerability due to the discriminatory behavior of the State and its police force. They are frequently suspected of committing crimes and are harassed for even minor offenses. The police demand identification from them and often treat them more harshly than the local population.

There have been instances where migrants have been killed in encounters by the police, including five youths from North India who were suspects in a bank robbery case in Chennai. Such encounters are supposedly staged to eliminate notorious criminals and gangsters. However, in this case, it was a clear indication of harsher treatment by the police towards the migrant population. In the past, Chennai police ordered residents to collect the identity particulars of all tenants and submit them to the local police station, with the aim of collecting information on the migrant population. This order further tightened the rental market for houses, as the onus of providing the information is on the house owners who rent out their houses.

In another instance, the police ordered that the details of workers camping in labor camps are to be regularly submitted to the local police station for verification. The police suspect migrants for crimes in the state, and this has become the norm for them. They have defended their order in court by listing various crimes that are supposed to have been committed by migrants.

This kind of policing restricts the free movement of migrant workers and makes them live in constant fear. The police often put up a story that, due to the slowdown in the economy, many migrant workers are temporarily unemployed and are therefore forced to turn to crime. This is used as a justification for the police's need to gather information on them.

Police officials have assured safety & protection to migrant  workers
Police officials have assured safety & protection to migrant workers

No discrimination in wages : CITI

T.Rajkumar, the Chairman of Confederation of Indian Textile Industry (CITI), and Ravi Sam, the Chairman of The Southern India Mills’ Association (SIMA), have declared that there is no distinction in wages between local and migrant workers, and both groups are treated equally in the industry. Furthermore, they claimed that the industry is offering accommodation with food to migrant workers based on their requirements.

However, in recent weeks, a certain group and political organizations have been creating a commotion about the employment of migrant workers and have demanded that North Indian migrant workers should not be allowed to work in Tamil Nadu.

Mandatory Registration

Amidst recent conflicts between migrant workers and local workers in various parts of the state, there is a growing call for mandatory registration of guest workers and regulation of labor-intensive industries to safeguard the rights of all workers.

Experts and labor activists have emphasized the importance of acknowledging the significant contributions of guest workers to the state's economy. However, it is equally essential to ensure adequate representation of local workers in all sectors to prevent such confrontations.

A middle way out?

According to R Geetha of Unorganised Workers' Federation, there can be a conflict of interest when a significant portion of the workforce in various sectors in the state is occupied by workers from outside the state. In such situations, it becomes the responsibility of the government to intervene and address the issue to ensure employment opportunities for locals and the safety of migrant workers. Geetha suggests that the government should make it mandatory for migrant workers to register upon entering the state. This will ensure that the rights of migrant workers, who are often paid lower wages than local workers, are protected. She further states that employers tend to prefer migrant workers, thus denying employment to the local workforce. By mandating registration, the government can address these issues and create a more equitable working environment for all.

Trade unions have been demanding legislation to ensure 75% employment in both private and government sectors for the state's natives. However, S Irudaya Rajan, of The International Institute of Migration and Development believes that such legislation would be unconstitutional. He also cautioned the Tamil Nadu government against adopting the model that Haryana currently follows, which mandates that 75% of employment opportunities (for jobs with less than a monthly wage of Rs 30,000) be reserved for locals in the private sector.

You can also join our WhatsApp group to get premium and selected news of The Mooknayak on WhatsApp. Click here to join the WhatsApp group.

Related Stories

No stories found.
The Mooknayak English - Voice Of The Voiceless