Forced to stay in shelters, migrant workers worry about layoffs, wage payment and the extension of the lockdown period.

Uncertainty boredom and fear A day in the life of a migrant worker in Bengaluru
Coronavirus Coronavirus Wednesday, April 15, 2020 - 19:37

Dhirender bends over boxes of groceries in the middle of a cramped room. His co-workers Manish and Sikhandar Kumar also get up, lifting boxes packed with onion, garlic, and mustard. 

Streaks of light enter from between rice sacks piled up next to the window, illuminating the room. The sun is shining outside but there is no time to pause and enjoy it. “Our employer sends grocery items every week. We are sorting them out,” 26-year-old Dhirender calls out from in between the boxes.  

Dhirender, who hails from Banda district of Uttar Pradesh, arrived in Bengaluru only four months ago, in December 2019. He is one of the thousands of migrant workers from northern India employed to work in the construction of the Bengaluru Metro. 

The nationwide lockdown, imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic reaching India, caught Dhirender and his co-workers by surprise. Similar to workers across the country, he was housed in a shelter set up by his construction company - ITD Cementation, one of the companies involved in building the Bengaluru Metro. 

Over 200 of them are housed in a three-storey building close to Kudlu Gate in Bengaluru. The workers hail from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Jharkhand, and are employed by construction companies to build the elevated stretch of the Bengaluru Metro from Byappanahalli to Whitefield.

Construction of the Bengaluru Metro near Kudlu Gate

A typical day in the life of a construction worker

On a typical day, Dhirender wakes up at 5 am to shower, cook food and leave for work by 8. He has a 12-hour schedule which includes a one-hour break for lunch. “When we come back from work, we have to cook again to eat dinner and by then, we would be exhausted and go to sleep,” says Dhirender. 

“We would be consumed by our work and life had become a force of habit. We would not realise the passage of time... but then, everything stopped last month,” he says. 

Dhirender was forced to move out of his rented house near the Kudlu Gate bus stop since he was unable to pay rent. He began living in the three-storey facility set up by his company for workers like him. 

Facility for labourers near Kudlu Gate, Bengaluru

A day in lockdown

“I now wake up at 6 or even 7 am. I go through my morning chores slower than usual and finish cooking and eating my breakfast only around 9 am. I help unload and sort out the groceries if they have arrived in the morning and then prepare for lunch,” says Dhirender. 

He says that during the afternoon, he and his friends usually settle down for a nap. “Some of the enthusiastic ones even lift weights and do exercises during this time but (laughs) I don’t think that is for me,” he says. The temperatures of the migrant workers are also tested on some afternoons by an official from their construction company. 

During the evening, the workers fill up the terrace of the building, forming different groups based on the places they hail from. 

“I have never played this much ludo or cards in my life. Every evening, people sit in circles on the terrace and start playing patti (a game of cards) to while away time. Sometimes, people don’t even follow the rules of the game because they are tired of playing in the same way over and over again,” he adds. 

The lack of physical distancing

There is little or no social/physical distancing that can be followed when over 200 people are housed in one building. 

According to Anil Punia, Human Resources, ITD Cementation, there are around 2,000 construction workers affiliated to the company who are housed in three buildings in the Whitefield area of Bengaluru. “We are providing groceries including rice, vegetables and Rs. 500 for expenses like buying mobile chargers to our workers,” Anil says. 

Groceries for migrant workers arrive once every week and an official with the company ticks off names from a list of workers, earmarking half a kilogram of rice every day for each worker. The workers huddle around the company official as he rattles off names from the list. 

“This check is done in the evening but there is no social/physical distancing followed here,” says Dhirender. “We then prepare for dinner and usually sleep by midnight.” 

Uncertainty over wages

Even as the workers bide their time, their thoughts are constantly interrupted by the uncertainty over whether they will continue to be taken care of and if they will be paid their wages during the lockdown period. 

38-year-old Sikhandar, who hails from Ranchi, also stays in the same facility as Dhirender. He says his wife and two kids back home depend on him for money. “If I go home now, I don’t have anything to take with me other than this,” he says, pointing to plastic bags crammed with blankets and clothes. 

The workers staying in the colony near Kudlu Gate are paid Rs 15,000 per month if they work twelve hours a day. The payment of wages was held up at the start of the lockdown period, according to the workers. 

The delay in payment of wages was highlighted in a detailed report prepared by Maraa, a Bengaluru-based media and arts collective. 

Workers in two camps near Kudlu Gate said that their  wages were partially paid after the report was made public. Some workers stated that they were paid an amount of Rs 3800 after the lockdown period began while others said that they were paid wages up to March 31. 

Anil says that issues related to the payment of wages among labourers working with ITD were resolved on Sunday. “We have paid wages up to March 31 for all our workers and we are also taking care of them during the lockdown period,” he says. 

Wages are usually paid to the workers through labour contractors in the middle of the month. Anil claims that additional money was given to workers to support them during the lockdown period. 

Desperation to head home

The other uncertainty facing migrant workers is when the lockdown period will end. “We have seen the videos of migrant workers in Mumbai and Delhi trying to go home. We have also seen some workers walk 400-500 km distances. These people are brave. They must have broken few records by walking for that long,” says Dhirender. 

He says that most migrant workers in their camp are desperate to go home and be with their families during the lockdown. “We would have gone home to be with our families if we knew that there would be no work here,” Dhirender says, with the benefit of hindsight. He adds  that walking was never an option for the workers in Bengaluru. “Our homes are more than 1,500 kms away. And I don’t know for how long we can keep living like this”.

The prospect of migrant workers pouring out into the streets is something that the police in Bengaluru is actively working to avoid.  On Tuesday evening, Bengaluru Police Commissioner Bhaskar Rao asked for suggestions to maintain social distancing and keep workers engaged in a social media post. “In view of migrants in some parts of the country having lost their patience and poured onto streets, may I seek suggestions from you all as to how we could keep these large numbers engaged, be empathetic and maintain social distance too...Ideas to prevent law and order problems,” Bhaskar Rao said.

The Police Commissioner’s call for suggestions came after hundreds of migrant workers turned up at the Bandra Railway Station in Mumbai, hoping to travel by train to their homes. Reports stated that the migrant workers gathered after rumours spread that arrangements were being made to take them back home. 

In Bengaluru, officials with construction companies, specifically among companies involved in building public infrastructure like the metro, say that the plan is to wait till May 3 before construction work resumes with precautions. But the workers say that this has not been communicated to them by the company.  

“There should be communication between the company and the workers to give them a sense of where this is heading and give an indication of what will happen when the lockdown is lifted. In addition to taking care of basic necessities and health precautions, this would help manage their state of mind,” says Ekta M, an activist and co-founder of Maraa. 

She adds that the Karnataka Labour Department should survey all the labour colonies in Bengaluru and reveal the details of the number of workers stuck during the lockdown and check their living and health conditions, particularly if any of them are showing symptoms of COVID-19. “With very little distancing followed, an outbreak among workers could have serious consequences,” says Ekta. 

But workers like Dhirender say that the only thing on their mind is knowing where their next meal will come from and not an invisible virus that could infect them. He says that in his building, there is no immediate need for groceries or medical help but that many workers do not intend to continue staying in Bengaluru after the lockdown is lifted.

“We have no choice but to wait for the lockdown to end here in Bengaluru. But when it does end, my friends and I plan to go home,” says Dhirender.

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