Workers’ self-activity in the time of lockdown: the victory of their right to return home

migrant workers coronavirus

Agitated construction workers employed in IIT-Hyderabad recently went on a rampage inside the campus, demanding their pending March and April wages and the right to return to their native places. They complained that in the wake of the lockdown, they had not been paid and were starving. On 29 April, their pitched battle against the local police and officials of the L&T construction company facilitated emergency talks and the release of March’s wages. The Hyderabad incident is not an isolated one during the pandemic-cum-lockdown. Instances of self-activity by large collectives of troubled migrant workers have kept surfacing. These include worker–police conflicts in Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Delhi, etc. In fact in Surat there have been repeated agitations of migrant workers with the diamond polishing and textile hub of Varachha, and other industrial clusters like Laskana and Pandol reporting protests on consecutive days. In these instances, migrant workers have spilled onto the streets complaining about poor arrangements and have demanded that they be allowed to return home. In the case of Laskana in Surat, angry workers have also indulged in violent confrontation such as stone pelting and arson. Taken together, these public actions of migrant workers have compelled the Central and State governments to make arrangements for their safe return to their home states. In line with these developments the first train with a group of construction workers departed on 1 May from Hyderabad; representing an important victory of migrant labour on the historically significant occasion of Labour Day.

Each of the confrontations stem from the uncertainties brought on by the lockdown, particularly the loss of employment, as well as the denial of wages in the ensuing weeks. The filthy conditions in shelters and the overall poor quality and inadequate arrangements of food made by the governmental authorities have only added to the plight of migrant workers. Trapped in crowded, unhygienic shelters or makeshift tenements at their workplaces, construction workers and many other migrant labourers are on the brink of starvation, especially as their meager savings have long been spent. Indeed, the uncertainty of survival and sustenance in alien, hostile cities has made many migrant workers desperate to return to the relative security of their native places.

Importantly, the workers’ struggles have often erupted on the nearing of the dates when the Central Government was set to review the lockdown situation and ‘need’ for its extension. These public actions of labour reflect an engrained, latent class discontent, which has undoubtedly been brewing among stranded workers since the imposition of the lockdown. Whilst jostling over the limited relief and charity extended to them, workers have also shown the propensity to challenge the very logic of their pitiable conditions by confronting the authorities. In themselves these intermittent outbursts of labour are extremely significant. For one, they have exposed a strong element of criticism within the workers about the gross inadequacy of the government’s piecemeal relief measures, as well as the truncated and humiliating nature of charity extended by NGOs, philanthropists, and misguided ‘Left’ activists.

The recent confrontations of migrant labour with the state machinery have, nonetheless, been disparate localized struggles. Here the non-existence of the revolutionary Party is keenly felt. The existing ‘Left’ have miserably failed to give a trans-local form to spatially disjunct struggles, and have been unable to set the agenda for the ‘national-popular’ aspirations of the masses. Consequently, labour’s public actions have not been co-extensive with the territorial range of the state. Though the struggles of migrant workers have not embodied the class power required to smash the combined force of state and capital, their actions have certainly eroded the confidence of the ruling elites about their ability to control the situation at hand. The restlessness of workers, exemplified in food riots in shelters, stone pelting and mass gatherings at transport facilities like railways stations and bus depots, have steadily built pressure on the ruling elites. Indeed, the earlier muscle-flexing of politicians that migrant workers will be shot at, physically constrained or even jailed in spaces like stadiums for violations of lockdown protocols appear to have dissipated in the wake of persistent and violent struggles by workers. It is now clear to the ruling elites that they cannot use the threat of Covid-19 to hold migrant workers captive in cities any more.

The blatant disregard for workers’ rights has been evident in the very planning and enforcement of the lockdown, more so since the partial resumption of work post 19 April. At the time, the ruling dispensation believed that its failure to provide succor to trapped migrant workers during the lockdown could be easily covered up by partially lifting the lockdown and pushing workers back to work. It was the interests of employers more than the plight of stranded workers that influenced the partial lifting of lockdown alongside continued travel restrictions on workers. The Standard Operations Protocol (SOP) that subsequently came into force governs the mechanism of resumed production in various industries and agriculture. It strategically provides for workers to be screened, “skill-mapped” and moved as per the needs of employers’ lobbies, rather than being screened and safely transported home.

However, the resumption of work under the SOP has been resisted by migrant labour, as is evident in the Hyderabad incident. Workers’ struggles have successfully challenged the high-handed, pro-employer decisions of the Government to keep workers restrained to the cities without making provisions for payment of wages by employers, the provision of adequate subsistence and safe living conditions. The workers’ self-activity has won solid ground by compelling the Government to accept that if it can screen workers for Covid-19 symptoms and depute them to work under SOP then it may as well screen and safely transport the workers to their native homes. These actions of workers to defend their right to life, livelihood and liberty in the harshest of times clearly represent a silver lining.

Dr Maya John is a labour historian and teaches history at University of Delhi. She has been associated with the Left movement for two decades and is actively working with unions of domestic workers, nurses, teachers and other sections of the urban workforce. Email id: [email protected]




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