As restaurants and hotels opened for business on Monday in Karnataka, several popular establishments did not open up. The primary reason for this: many migrant workers, mostly from north-east India, who form the bulk of the hospitality industry workforce in Bengaluru, returned home to their families during this lockdown period.
On March 22, when the Janata Curfew was announced, uncertainty prevailed as movement was restricted across the country. Subsequently, a nationwide lockdown was imposed. With uncertainty over whether they would be able to see their families in such testing times, many migrant workers preferred to return home. Several establishments had also stopped paying their employees; some people were forced to leave as restaurants were running into losses when the lockdown began.
Subramanya K, a senior member of Bangalore Hotels Association, who runs a restaurant, said, â€śIf you look at a lot of the fine dining restaurants, all of them are facing staff shortages. It is going to affect them directly or indirectly. A lot of restaurants are postponing their opening. SFO, Nandini and Janathan Hotel are some of the big names that we have not opened only for this reason.â€ť Several restaurants in the city did open up for dine in services on Monday.
PC Rao, President, Bangalore Hotelier's Association, acknowledges the staff crisis situation. "Around 1,000 of the 22,000-odd restaurants, food courts in the city will be shut and that is not only due to the issue of staff shortage," he said.
According to data available from South Western Railways, at least 3,090 persons from Manipur, 6,008 from Assam, 1,456 persons from Mizoram, 1,507 persons from Nagaland and 5,704 persons from Tripura returned to their homes through shramik trains. There is no clear estimate of the number of people who chose to walk home to different states from Karnataka. While not all of these workers were employed in this hospitality sector, industry insiders say adding the number of people who had also gone home will mean quite a staff crunch for most fine dine and restaurant serving chinese and north indian food.
Rini Ralte, a professor and president of the Northeast Solidarity group in Bengaluru said that according to their estimates 25% of all those from the northeastern states, who were employed in this sector had left home.
Unlike migrant workers from north Indian states of Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, the workers from north east can speak English which makes them better equipped for this hospitality industry.
R Kaleemullah, an activist working with Swaraj Abhiyan however, claims it was not only panic but the real ground reality that forced these workers to make the decision to go home. Kaleemullah is one among many activists in Bengaluru who are helping migrant workers return home or arrange relief material for them due to the unprecedented crisis due to the abrupt lockdowns.
He said the low salaries that these workersâ€”- waiters, attendants get mean that they have very little savings to cover for time that they are not working.
â€śIt may be true that their condition was not as bad as the construction workers as they had some support from their employers but they were not in very good shape either. Furthermore the people from the northeast also sometimes face ostracisation from residents here and due to the prevalent thought that China has spread the virus, these people have been sometimes wrongly targeted,â€ť he said.
Similarly, Subramanya added, â€śSo for many establishments, the chefs have gone home. We donâ€™t have a statewise figure of how many people are from which states. But based on the inputs from our members, at least 15% are majorly affected by this staff shortage. For some people it may be the cooks or for some people they do not have waiters.â€ť
When asked why these workers left, Subramanya claimed that most of these workers went scared for their families, when the lockdown began.
What migrants workers say
TNM spoke to a few workers in the industry who explained what led them to return to their homes. Aziz, who is from Assam and has been working for 12 years in an upscale bar in Bengaluru said there are primarily two reasons.
â€śOne is that from the first day of the lockdown there was uncertainty on when we could go back to work even though we were getting part of our salaries and we had places to stay. Many of us were worried about our families back home. We did not know if the employers will continue to pay us these allowances and provide accommodation if the lockdown goes on further,â€ť he said.
The second reason, he said, was that since it was the kharif season, many migrant workers felt it was safer to return home and help their families, who are primarily farmers. â€śSince this is the sowing season, many thought they can help our families. Since we were not earning full salaries, we thought we could save up money,â€ť he added.
Another worker who worked as a bar attendant in a Koramanagala establishment said he returned to his home in Manipur being unsure for how long the lockdown will continue.
â€śWe did not want to risk waiting again as we didnâ€™t know when we would be allowed to travel back home. It has been a while that we did not have work, it is better to be at home with family in these uncertain times,â€ť he said.