Migrants retrace steps as employers woo them back | India News

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Jun 4, 2020

The tide of reverse migration from cities, townships and agricultural heartland is turning as the boiler rooms of economy sputter back to life, fuelled by employers willing to do whatever it takes to woo back the migrant workforce they had lost to an exodus just a few weeks ago.
Three Chennai-based real estate developers have come together to charter an entire flight to ferry back a group of 150 skilled migrant workers from Bihar after June 15. Real estate body Credai’s Tamil Nadu chapter is in talks with the state government to arrange what could be the first reverse ‘shramik special’ to bring back workers from home.
On Wednesday, a bus sent by a farmer from Bhatinda district of Punjab reached Bihar’s Darbhanga to pick up a group of 50 farm labourers from a cluster of villages. Another bus sent by a Ludhiana farmer had earlier picked up 30 migrant workers from Haripur village in the same district.
In Kerala, a magnet for migrant construction labour from the eastern states like Bengal because of high wages, the state government has introduced a scheme called Awas for all guest workers. Anyone covered under the scheme is entitled to free medical treatment worth up to Rs 25,000 in government-empanelled hospitals. If a labourer dies in harness, the next of kin will get Rs 2 lakh. That isn’t all. Kerala is also setting up Apna Ghar housing complexes for guest workers in all districts. Palakkad already has one while construction is about to start in Ernakulam, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram.
Builders in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region are reaching out to construction workers in their villages over phone, urging them to return. “Contractors and senior engineers are directly contacting them, assuring them of safety and security,” said Rajan Bandelkar, vice-president (west region) of the National Real Estate Development Council.
On Thursday, 50-year-old Balwant Sahni queued up at UP’s Gorakhpur railway station for the mandatory screening before boarding the Lokmanya Tilak Terminus Special to Mumbai. Less than a month ago, he needed four days of walking and hitching truck rides to reach his village in Kushinagar from Mumbai. “My factory is operational now, and I got a call from the management to come back,” Sahni, a gas cutter at an automobile spares unit located off the Mumbai-Pune Expressway, told TOI.
He said returning to his livelihood was a “risk worth taking” despite the Covid-19 pandemic still to die down.
Many other passengers waiting to board four trains to Mumbai – three from Gorakhpur and one from Lucknow – had similar stories to share. “My employer has said we can be back at work the very next day after our 14-day quarantine ends,” said bag factory worker Sheshnath Sahani, waiting for the Bandra Special from Gorakhpur along with his wife and son.
Labour department sources in Mumbai said 54,000 industrial units were currently working to capacity in Maharashtra. Around 8,000 of these units employ more than 20 workers each.
Even small businesses are bending over backwards to get back their workers. Anik Jain, who runs a food processing unit in Haryana’s Manesar, ferried two of his workers from Rajasthan’ Bikaner by air and sent a car to pick up three others from UP. “Demand for food products such as custard powder and baking mixes has gone up during the lockdown and we need our people back at work immediately,” he said.
Prem Singh, a supervisor in Jain’s firm SS Food Products, said he was worried about leaving home again but happy that his employer wanted him back. “When it’s a question of livelihood, you have to take hard decisions. But I am glad that our employer is doing everything possible, including providing accommodation, to ease our worries.”
Vrijesh Agarwal, owner of Amrii Funitures in Gurgaon, has got around 10 members of his staff back from Lucknow and Sultanpur in UP. “We were having trouble fulfilling demand; so we spoke to the industries department and got passes to send cars to pick up our workers. Around 20 more will be back in the next few weeks,” he said.
Among those whom Agarwal has ferried back is sofa maker Shashi Kumar, an employee of nine years who had walked back to his native village in Unnao, more than 500km away, amid the lockdown. “Our families were worried when we were called back, but we had to come back to earn a livelihood,” Kumar said.
A restaurateur in Pimpri town near Pune said he was trying to get back his chef from West Bengal by flight and the rest of the staff by train because their expertise was hard to replace.
Special travel arrangements and the promise of better living conditions aren’t the only reasons why migrant workers who had been desperate to return home are coming back or are preparing to do so.
Darbhanga resident Madan Kumar, whose father Manoj Sahni is among those returning to Punjab by bus, said farmers were ready to pay three times higher wages than pre-lockdown rates. “They have offered Rs 12,000 to sow paddy on a one-acre plot. The old rate was Rs 4,000. Who wouldn’t grab such an opportunity?”
Sonelal Sahni, a resident of Gosai village under Minapur block in Muzaffarpur, received an e-ticket from his employer in Ludhiana to return by train. “I have already boarded a train to Delhi from Muzaffarpur junction. A vehicle will be waiting at Delhi station to take me and some others to Ludhiana,” he said over phone on Thursday.
S Sridharan, chairman of Credai-Tamil Nadu and director of Newry Properties, said his firm and two other companies had asked their contractors to draw up a list of workers crucial to kick-starting their projects. “If their number is around 150, we will fly them down from Patna at our cost.”
Migrant workers constitute about 70% of the total workforce in the Chennai’s construction sector.

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