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Shram ka Samman: Why do people migrate? ‘If not farming or daily wage labour, what can we do?’

by Vani Viswanathan

Not working on farms or going into daily wage labour leaves rural Indians with few options to earn a livelihood. In the last few articles based on our ongoing campaign Shram ka Samman, we looked at the issues in agriculture and MGNREGA that are pushing people from rural areas to cities in hopes of a better income. In this article, we trace what options people have outside of agriculture or daily wage labour in rural areas, and why these are insufficient in keeping them from migrating.

Construction, which absorbs available unskilled labour

The Kuznets process envisages the movement of labour from agriculture to non-farm occupations as an important aspect of structural change. The change typically happens from agriculture to industry or services, but in India, the sector that absorbed the tide of people leaving agriculture to find other occupations – since neither manufacturing nor services sectors managed to create adequate employment – is the construction sector. It is, in fact, the largest employer in rural areas after agriculture. Nationally, the construction sector employs almost as many people as in the manufacturing sector – 50 million.

The construction sector affords seasonality, and requires abundant labour that often can be untrained – which means it is also enticing for women to join, given the lack of opportunities for education or skilling that they get. Many men and women who work in brick kilns that we have spoken to have indicated that they are paid anywhere between 500 and 700 rupees for making 1,000 bricks, and they get work for 6 to 7 months a year, after which they look for casual labour work or farm. Oftentimes, families move together to live in and around brick kilns, working together to make the 1,000 bricks that gives them payment. Several users of Mobile Vaani such as Sumitra Devi from Nalanda, Bihar and Rajbai from Gariaband in Chattisgarh, also highlighted a key factor of attraction to the construction sector, especially in brick kiln manufacturing: the lump sum advance given by owners to workers.

Despite a slowdown in the construction sector since its peak in 2011, it remains a big draw for labour attempting to move to non-farm work. However, the biggest concern is the level of informality rampant in the sector: the APU State of Work 2018 report states that all of 8 percent of agriculture workers are ‘regular’, as in they get a regular monthly salary for an extended period of time, 2.2 percent are ‘regular plus benefits’, that is, they get a regular salary and get at least one social benefit such as provident fund, gratuity, healthcare benefits or paid leave; and a poor 1 percent have a written contract over and above regular pay and at least one social benefit. This leaves workers in the construction sector in the hands of employers who can hire and fire them at a moment’s notice, who can afford to ignore laws around minimum wage or workplace safety, including sexual harassment. Bonded labour is rampant in this sector, especially in brick kilns and stone quarrying, both of which engage impoverished migrant workers – the ‘advance’ that some of our users mentioned (quoted above) is, for many, a loan to entrap them in working for years in the kiln.

Although labour laws, social protection and rights to unionise are also applicable to construction workers, these hardly get used. One of our users, construction worker Salman Ali, who has been in Delhi for 15 years now, says that no union workers have reached out to him – indicating that collectivizing in the construction sector to make demands is difficult. An article on IndiaSpend indicates the hassles faced by construction sector workers – often floating workers and migrants – in accessing social welfare they are eligible for. The Building and Construction Workers (BOCW) Act, 1996, and its allied Building and Other Construction workers’ Welfare Cess Act, 1996, were brought in to provide welfare such as pensions, insurance, maternity benefits and immediate assistance in cases of accidents, etc. The India Exclusionary Report from 2017-18 indicates that despite the many overlaps of this law with other labour laws, BOCW has come to be the main regulatory law for the construction sector. Implementation, however, is weak. The Act requires workers – who can show proof of having worked for at least 90 days a year in the industry – to be registered. However, news reports suggest estimtaes that less than half of those currently in the industry are registered; many, in fact, don’t even know of these provisions. Those who know that they need to be registered report difficulties in getting the 90-day employment certificate from the builder/contractor, and even if they manage that, they face difficulties in completing the registration process. The cess paid for constructing buildings has been underutilized in most states across the country, resulting in little to no benefits for the largely unorganized workers – even the Supreme Court recently rapped the knuckles of states and the centre for “flouting with impunity” previous directives to implement the BOCW.  

When being a government extension worker isn’t helpful

Many people in rural and semi-urban areas attempt to make use of the government’s initiatives to generate employment. Here too, though, they have to contend with ridiculously low wages that are often delayed. However, many of these people are part of unions that help them demand better wages and other rights.

Devki Devi works in a school in the Gumla district of Jharkhand as a cook for its midday meal programme. Recollecting her early days in the job in 2004, she says, ‘We were made to work for free,’ adding that eventually she was paid per child per day. ‘Now, after extensive efforts of the  Jharkhand Pradesh Vidyalaya Rasoiya-Sanyojika Adhyaksh Sangh (an advocacy/rights group of workers such as herself), we get 1,500 rupees. But how can I run a family or feed them nutritious food with this kind of money?’

Colleagues of Devki from the Sangh were part of a protest in 2018 to ask the government to increase their pay from the measly 1,500 rupees they currently receive. Similar protests occurred in Bihar too. Interim budget announcements in 2019 did not include the honorarium received by these workers – last updated in 2009 by the UPA government.

ASHA workers – frontline healthcare workers tirelessly working to improve rates of institutional deliveries and use of contraception in rural areas – face similar issues, and most recently held a large strike in 2018, demanding ‘regularisation’ as government workers and a better pay. While small successes do come up, these are from intense struggles.

The alluring, but trapping, private sector

The only other option left for most is to look for employment in sectors where regulations to do with pay, work hours or employment laws are routinely flouted, and there is a strong corporate lobby demanding further reduction in regulation to make it easier for the industry sector. Millions stream into cities looking for work in garments industries and other such sectors that recruit people with little to no skills en masse. But the workers suffer from rampant unaccountability, with little recourse when faced with violations. Migrant workers tend to stay in exploitative working – and living – conditions given they have few opportunities for livelihood in their hometowns. The stories we hear on our platform Saajha Manch in Delhi/NCR, which documents violations of labour rights and provides information on redressal, testify to these conditions. Similar platforms we have in Tamil Nadu in association with trade unions document violations and receive complaints very frequently, especially from women, on issues ranging from non-payment of wages to sexual harassment, which we resolve together with local trade union representatives.

There are stories of others who are either stuck with low-paying jobs in schools or shops in rural and semi-urban areas, or those who move to the city to find their luck with jobs that do pay well but are largely out of the radar of labour laws. Take the case of Amit Kumar, who spoke on Mobile Vaani from Kapashera, Delhi, who recently moved here from Bihar to look for a job. It’s his first time in the city, but he seems to have done his research in the ten days he’s spent here. ‘Export jobs [in the garments industry] require skills that I don’t have. But for a 12-hour shift as a security guard, I can earn 13,000 rupees,’ he says, even as he qualifies that his hopes to find work are dwindling. The situation back at home isn’t any better, though. ‘You don’t get employment that pays according to the work that goes in. You can only get 4,000 or 5,000 rupees even if you work in a grocery store or a garments store, from 9 am till 11 at night.’ Nilesh Kumar from Munger, Bihar, works as a teacher in a private school and earns all of 1,500 rupees a month.

Skilling comes up often as an important route to address the unemployability of millions in India, and a way to tap into the ‘demographic dividend.’ Indeed, it has received a massive push over the last decade, and with the reelection of the central government, this is likely to continue. A 2018 report from the government indicated that there were over 40 skill development programmes run by 20 ministries of the government, and sought the consolidation of these for better results. But technical skilling isn’t resolving issues in young people finding employment. Amar Kumar from Munger, Bihar, is a certified Act Apprentice from the Indian Railways, which trains young people between 15 and 24 years of age to be welders, mechanics, painters, electricians, etc., to be hired later by the Railways. Amar didn’t manage to get a job, though, and wonders how despite government’s promises of one crore (10 million) jobs a year (announced by the current Prime Minister at an election rally before the 2014 elections), he doesn’t have a job. Ajit Singh is another youngster from Jamui, Bihar, who is an ITI graduate and had to migrate to Gujarat because he couldn’t get jobs in Bihar. Ajit, sharing his experience with us, rues the poor treatment he faces as a migrant at his workplace from his colleagues.

Our work with labourers and labour organisations has given us important insights into the gaps in current skilling initiatives: while building technical skills is laudable, demand and impact will be higher for young people who have life skills – ranging from communication to spoken English to building attitudes and being proactive, and importantly, the resilience to adapt to tough and ever-changing employment conditions. Similar findings have been echoed by other organisations working on skilling in rural areas, such as in this article by Pranav Kumar Choudhury from Dr. Reddy’s Foundation, which suggests that core employability skills such as communication, financial literacy, arithmetic and English might actually be the game-changer, as they are domain agnostic and transferable across sectors.

SHGs and MFIs to the rescue?

Despite the overwhelmingly dismal stories we heard on Mobile Vaani, we have had many positive stories of change from people who have been able to use the help of Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) or Self-Help Groups (SHGs) to diversify their income streams in rural areas itself, rather than migrate. Our experience working with SEWA on SEWA Vaani, JEEViKA (Bihar’s rural livelihood project) and Punji ki Kunji with Sa-Dhan, an association of community development finance institutions, shows that people are keen to receive information and support in identifying opportunities to diversify their income streams so as to not depend on agriculture alone. There is growing interest in using education and entrepreneurship opportunities to move up the social ladder, and the biggest demand from listeners was to have programmes that offered information and mentorship on setting up and running businesses. One of our most successful content series with JEEViKA Mobile Vaani was Kamyaab Didiyon ki Kahaani, which was a platform for women to share their stories of struggle, and eventually, success in their ventures.

While this is an encouraging trend, the fact is that these efforts aren’t sufficient in retaining people in their villages; our surveys, for instance, showed that 75 percent of families where women were part of an SHG had at least one migrant member.

A clarion call for local industries

The overwhelming request of many Mobile Vaani users who spoke to us as part of Shram ka Samman is for factories to be built in and around where they lived, be it Bihar or Uttar Pradesh or Jharkhand. That Jharkhand has many natural resources and still has not enough mines and factories in place to employ people is a complaint that was echoed throughout the Shram ka Samman campaign. APU’s State of Working India, 2019 aligns with the growing calls for State intervention in creating new technologies to boost the industrial sector and set up sophisticated industries that can meet the demands of the near future. All the same, the report also warns of the growing informalization of the sector, where more and more employees are hired on contract and therefore outside the purview of labour laws that are increasingly being diluted – the consequences of which have been recorded frequently on our platform Saajha Manch.

What’s in store for the rural worker?

Trends in labour force participation data analysed by the State of Working India, 2019 report show that the proportion of working age men who are in employment has been falling, largely led by men with lower education levels, who are likely to be in the informal sector. It’s not that they aren’t working – it’s that work is available irregularly, and is poorly paid. Open unemployment – where people are willing to work at the given wage rate but can’t find regularly-paying jobs – is high among the educated. Stories of hundreds of thousands of job applications received for a few thousand entry-level government jobs are common, with many of these applicants being heavily over-qualified for the posts they are applying for.

Jobs emerged foremost when our users were asked what they wanted from the new government. In our four-part series, we have highlighted the reasons people migrate, and the specific issues they face when trying to continue living in their hometowns, and conversely, the poor ways in which they are treated wherever they migrate. These voices from the poorest and among the most marginalised in India’s rural heartlands deserve to be heard in policymaking in the new cabinet. Will the new government listen and work out ways to give the sharmik samman?