Precarity of Migrant Labour in Punjab’s Textile Industries

migrant workers

Punjab faces a severe power crisis in the literal and metaphorical sense.Unprecedented shortage in power supply, power thefts and rise in power demand has turned it into a power-starving state. Facing an acute shortage of power supply amidst soaring demand of power from the agricultural sector. Gap between demand and supply traces to increase in consumer demand and shut down of the power plants. This crisis led to power regulatory restrictions in the state. Ranging from prolonged power cuts to restrictions on industries, the power crisis enhances the political power crisis in Punjab slated to go for elections in the next year..

This power crisis neglects the workers’ question on the policy table. Punjab is highly dependent on migrant labour for agricultural, industrial and construction based activities. Legal literature and policy discourse lack adequate provisions for protection of workers. Amendments in Labour laws pertaining to negligence  by the state and the market, refocusing attention towards the workers in the informal economy should form the need of the hour.

Political power play involves the usual blame game tactics between the Congress ruled government and opposition parties of Shiromani Akali Dal and Aam Aadmi party. Punjab is not producing power in accordance with the demand as shutting down of government owned plants in Bathinda and Ropar along with Private TSPL owned power plant in Talwandi Sabo reduces the power utility supply. Power regulatory restrictions were imposed on industries such as textile, chemical and spinning mills to compensate for the demand of paddy transplantation. Delayed onset of monsoon adds to the existing power crisis for agriculture. Despite resumption of generation at one of the power stations, the power crisis ceases to exist. Punjab has not enhanced its transmission capacity and faces severe fund crunch

Among the largest producers and exporters of yarn and cotton, Punjab is home to the textile and apparel industry of India. Labour intensive in nature, it provides a huge source of employment to skilled workforce in the form of contractual employees and low-skilled workforce as daily and monthly wage workers.  Wage workers in such industries lack adequate social security schemes, protection nets, low income resulting in instability and insecurity guaranteed by the nature of work.

 Despite the introduction of developed machinery, textile and other garment industries remain labour intensive and labour dependent on the low skilled workforce. In this case, labour dependence leads to over-exploitation and extraction of cheap labour at minimal cost through daily and monthly wage workers.Profit and production in industries is dependent on the extraction and exploitation of the toil of workers. Gender lens provides an interesting insight as often women wage labourers are paid lesser than the male counterparts.

Socio-economic inequalities worsened in the pandemic best illustrated through the devastating pictures of migrant workers on their way back home. Migrant workers live through the worst working conditions, denied the opportunity of decent work and paid below the minimum wages set in the policy documents. In the informal sector/unorganised economy, uncertainty, insecurity, rampant exploitation and oppression marks the lives of workers. Most of the textile industries fall under this category opening up spaces for exploitation with cheap, available surplus labour migrating from the Bimaru states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

The adverse effects of the pandemic in the textile and apparel industry reduced the production demand. Despite production of PPE kits and masks, restriction of exports and lock downs and shut downs affected production, demand and supply in these sectors. However the small scale set ups and demand in general reduced leading to layoffs. Amidst low demand, unprecedented power cuts and diversion attempted to provide relief to agricultural requirements. Weekly offs and shut downs forced the daily and monthly wage labourers to sit idle, salary cuts and job suspensions. Power crisis hit the production capacity of the industries while the workers bore the brunt of it.

Legislations on labour include recent amendments and introduction of codes such as Industrial Relations Code, Social security code, Occupational Safety, Health and Working conditions code revisiting the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, Factories Act, 1948 and Contract Labour (Regulation & Abolition) Act, 1970 and the InterState Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 defended by the narrative of ‘ease of doing business’. Laws target Limiting the ambit of applying labour laws, laying off and notice period of, dilution of labour laws framework, close down the units. Labour laws to protect the workers facilitates their exploitation by supporting the employers rather than employees. In situations of emergencies and calamities, these welfare provisions fail to trickle down to the lowest rungs of the society. These concerns have been raised in several protests conducted by workers in other sectors such as Transport, sanitation and anganwadi work in Punjab

Workers remain in a precarious situation despite reverse or counter migration. Reports from states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar indicate the poor implementation of schemes and policies such as Jan Dhan Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Gram Awas Yojana forcing people to fight for basic sustenance and survival needs. Shrinking healthcare systems and poor infrastructure provides no respite to workers and their families.

Power crisis in Punjab should bring the workers’ question back to the table. Workers’ protests in sectors of sanitation and construction focus on registration of the workers and families and regularisation of work. Even the informal sector should have some provision for formation of unions for raising the voices of the workers. Necessary amendments in Labour laws should pave the way for guaranteeing the right to life, dignity and decent work for the workers in these industries especially in times of crisis.

 Let’s hope that history does not repeat itself in the third wave!

Akashleena is currently pursuing post graduation in Political Science from the University of Delhi. She is extremely passionate about issues of Gender, Class, Environment, Political Philosophy and Theory. You can reach her at- [email protected]

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