//Duped and exploited: Orissa’s migrant workers

Duped and exploited: Orissa’s migrant workers

Sudarshan Chhotray

17 june 2011

Close to 2 million people migrate out of Orissa in search of work every
year. Only 50,000 of them are registered with the authorities, making it
difficult to protect these desperate migrants from tricksters and
exploitative employers.

Thousands of migrant Indian workers landed in New Delhi during the last week
of April this year, forced to leave Middle East and North African nations
that have witnessed people’s movements for democracy. The unrest in Libya in
particular threw many Indian labourers out of work. Forced to leave these
countries, they returned to their homes and have been trying to find work in
other countries. Many have been duped by overseas placement agencies. They
were offered lucrative work assignments in London and elsewhere, promised
work visas and air tickets.

Around 127 labourers from Orissa and other states paid between Rs 80,000 and
Rs 120,000 to an agent in Delhi for visas and air tickets. When they got to
the airport on May 3, 2011, bound for London, they found their tickets had
been cancelled. With nowhere to go, they registered a complaint with the
Kirtinagar police station in Delhi and after a long battle, and the
intervention of volunteers, the Delhi police’s anti-human trafficking cell
arrested the agent, Jatindra Singh. A group of 12 plumbers from Orissa
returned to their state thanks to a labour officer deputed from Orissa.

These 12 plumbers from Orissa’s Kendrapara district are now desperate, as
they had given whatever they earned in Tripoli to Jatindra Singh.

This incident illustrates the problems of migrant Indian workers, and
particularly those from Orissa, where an estimated 1.8 million migrate every
year. Protection and enforcement clauses and provisions provided in the
Interstate Migrant Workmen (RE and CS) Act 1979, which is supposed to
regulate the employment of interstate migrants and provide safe conditions
of work, are insufficient and weak. Even deputed labour officer Pradeep
Kumar Mohanty admitted: “We could not do anything in this case because
overseas employment is involved, and neither the migrants nor the contractor
had registered here or provided information to the department.”

Is there a need to amend the Act?

Mohammed Amin of Sramika Sahayog believes there is. He says: “Many migrant
workers from Orissa have been rescued from brick kilns in Andhra Pradesh and
Tamil Nadu. Even women are not spared; they are duped by pimps and*
dalals*(agents) and taken to New Delhi, Jhansi and parts of Tamil Nadu
and Kerala
on the assurances of marriage or a good job.”

The Orissa state government has decided to set up a special labour cell to
monitor interstate migration and keep tabs on contractors and agents
involved in illegal labour practices: those found violating existing labour
laws and sending people to various places without informing or registering
with the authorities. The proposed cell will be headed by an assistant
labour commissioner with support from district-level officers and assistant
labour officers. A centralised database will be set up with the records of
migrants and contractors, for monthly review and follow-up.

“Setting up a special cell is definitely a step forward. But what about the
existing migration cell in the labour commissioner’s office, and an
additional labour commissioner posted in Balugaon to register, monitor and
take up day-to-day issues of migrants?” asks Anam Barik, an activist with
the Pravasi Odia Sramika Surakhya Manch (POSSM).

He agrees that there is need for a special migration cell but says it should
be equipped with adequate staff and an updated database and monitoring
mechanism, besides enforcement and punitive powers. Earlier, the Orissa
government had deployed two senior labour officers for Surat and Mumbai;
they have now been withdrawn.

Keeping tabs on contractors is not enough; the government must do more for
seasonal and regular migrants. Orissa should come up with a detailed plan on
tackling the problem of exploitation of migrants.

One of the main issues is registration of all outbound labourers at the
place of origin, and providing them with identity cards. Registration could
take place at railway stations, bus stands, gram panchayat offices, even in
villages with ward members.

In a recent statement, State Labour Commissioner Alekh Chandra Padhiary
admitted that around 1.8 million people migrate from Orissa every year. Of
these, only 50,000 are registered. As a result, it is virtually impossible
to ensure that migrants receive a minimum wage, enjoy full labour rights,
and receive compensation in the event of sickness or death.

POSSM estimates that there are over 2 million people working outside the
state, including 700,000 in Surat, 300,000 in Gandhidham, Kandla, Bharuch,
Olanga and other parts of Gujarat, 200,000 in Mumbai and Pune, 500,000 in
Kerala, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai, and the remaining in places like
Kolkata, New Delhi, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh,
Haryana and Punjab. Besides these, nearly 500,000-700,000 seasonal migrants
shuttle between Orissa and other destinations every year.

Lakhs of migrants from Orissa have chosen Surat in south Gujarat as their
place of work. Surat boasts a lucrative job market and is a booming
industrial, textiles, and diamond/zari hub.

According to estimates, at least 700,000 people from Orissa are employed in
Surat, mostly in powerlooms. The average wage per month is around Rs
3,000-7,000. Almost 75% are not registered — they do not have basic
privileges like provident fund, gratuity, bonus, pension, holidays, etc.
They are not even issued an identity card or pay slip. They don’t enjoy
facilities like a basic minimum wage, standard working hours, safe dwelling,
clean drinking water, health facilities, basic education for their children,
or job security.

Although many migrants live away from their homes for months, sometimes
years (very few with their families), they are not provided a pucca house to
live in or basic facilities. They live in Surat’s slums, without clean
water, sanitation or electricity. And because they do not know the language,
their children cannot go to school and are forced to work. The few Orissa
schools there are, established under Odia Samaj’s initiatives, lack
buildings (classrooms), teachers, and textbooks.

Surat’s slums reportedly house over 17,00,000 migrant workers from Orissa,
Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, besides wage labourers from
Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Maharashtra, and Gujarat itself.

Dense, dingy living conditions, long working hours and an oppressive work
environment make the lives of many migrants miserable. The location of their
slums is determined mainly by proximity to the worksite, available patches
of land along roads and railway lines, open spaces adjacent to factory
walls, low-lying areas, and the banks of rivers and canals.

Health is a major area of concern. Because of late working hours, inadequate
shelter, poor nutrition, unclean drinking water, and poor sanitation,
migrants contract a number of illnesses like cholera and viral fever.
HIV/AIDS and other STDs are fast spreading among migrants to Surat.

Around Rs 3,000 crore per annum flows into Orissa by way of remittances from
workers working outside the state. Of this, nearly Rs 1,000 crore is from
Gujarat, Rs 100 crore from Andhra Pradesh and the rest from other parts of
the country and abroad. But there is no smooth way of getting the
hard-earned money to dependent families. Migrants still use the
*toppawalla*network, peer networks and money orders to send money
home. There is no
banking network/system in place, and migrants are denied bank passbooks
because they have no identification papers.

Most migrants to Surat from Orissa are from Ganjam district. Although Ganjam
is considered a developed district in Orissa, shrinking natural resources,
decreasing agricultural land and regular floods and drought have impelled
the migration. Ganjam, Bolangir, Sundergarh, Nuapara and Koraput are other
districts with high migration.

The condition of migrants to south India is not much better. People from
western Orissa, particularly Bolangir, travel to Hyderabad, Chennai and
Bengaluru in early summer to work in brick kilns where they are subjected to
serious exploitation by the owners and contractors. Even women are not
spared. Almost every day there are reports of exploitation and torture of
migrants from Orissa’s KBK (Koraput-Bolangir-Kalahandi) region.

Banshidhar Behera of the Western Odisha Voluntary Association (WOVA) says:
“On average, nearly 400,000 people migrate annually from the
Koraput-Bolangir-Kalahandi (KBK) region. Just before Nuakhai, a huge
festival in the region, contractors from the southern states camp here, give
advances to labourers and take them away.” He adds: “Many tribal and other
villages wear a deserted look during this period.” Reports from the field
suggest that the migration economy of western Orissa is around Rs 80 crore.

Orissa’s KBK region has become synonymous with poverty and backwardness.
There are daily media reports on the sad plight of migrant labourers,
encroachment on tribal lands by non-tribals, forcible eviction of people
from their homes, and alienation from natural resources.

Recently, the Planning Commission came up with an Eight-Year Perspective
Plan for Orissa’s KBK district (2009-10 to 2016-17), at a projected outlay
of Rs 4,550 crore.

But despite a plethora of programmes and projects like the RLTAP (Revised
Long-Term Action Plan) for KBK, Biju KBK Yojana, WORLP (Western Orissa Rural
Livelihoods Project), OTELP (Orissa Tribal Empowerment and Livelihoods
Programme) and WODC (Western *Orissa*Development Council), special attention
by the Planning Commission and other state and central agencies, and
provisions under the National Rural Health Mission, Mahatma Gandhi National
Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, the
region has remained underdeveloped.

*(Sudarshan Chhotray is an independent journalist, researcher and
documentary filmmaker based in Bhubaneswar. He works on the issues of
migration and climate change)*