Agents have informally started urging returned migrant workers in Odisha’s Ganjam district to prepare for going back to Surat’s textile industries when regular train services are restored.
Several returned migrant workers in Beguniapada, Polasara and Aska, who did not wish to be named, said they were being encouraged to return to Surat as early as possible, over phone calls and personal meetings by persons who claimed to be working on behalf of mill owners in Surat. “We are being urged to reach Surat and bargain with mill owners for better working conditions and other facilities,” they said.
“This means that the returned migrant workers are being motivated to return back to Surat without waiting for proper registration by the State governments of Odisha and Gujarat,” said Pramod Jena, a social activist working with migrant workers.
It also suggests that the process of excluding these migrant workers from the benefits provided under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 has started again. According to this law, inter-State migrant workers are to be registered through licensed labour contractors.
But almost all Odia migrant workers from Ganjam district reach Surat for employment via an informal network and not through a registered labour contractor. According to sources, at present, around 8,000 migrant workers, who migrated through labour contractors, are registered with the Labour Department’s offices in Berhampur and Chhatrapur in Ganjam district. In 2005, this number was only 456.
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, over 2 lakh people have returned to Ganjam and the majority of them were working in Surat. There is no official data. Unofficial estimates claim that around 7 lakh Odia migrant workers were employed in Surat and most of them were from Ganjam.
They are employed in hundreds of small and medium scale textile units in Surat to operate power looms. “These units are able to dodge the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act by showing that they employ less than 10 persons. Several units operate from a single premise as the mill owners term 10 power loom machines as a single unit to dodge the labour law,” said Lokanath Mishra, convener of Link Workers’ Scheme, a project for Odia migrant workers.
“Because of this large-scale absence of registration, recently, the Gujarat government stated in the Gujarat High Court that it was committed to pay its share of return travel fare for only 7,512 out of a total 22.5 lakh migrant workers from other States, including Odisha, citing the Inter-State Migrant Workers Act to claim that the law was only applicable to registered migrant workers,” said State secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist, Ali Kishor Patnaik.
‘Escape from poverty’
“In Ganjam, the neo-migrants are motivated by some old workers who act as informal labour agents for mill owners. The lure of instant income, escape from the treachery of poverty at home, as well as family pressure motivates less educated youngsters of Ganjam to migrate for work in textile units in Surat,” said Devidutta Rath, another social activist working with migrant workers. It is alleged that the brokers of Surat’s mill owners operate in the rural areas of Ganjam district to arrange workers for a commission.
Mr. Patnaik and Mr. Mishra urged the Odisha government to register both the returnees as well as the workers who have stayed back in Surat, and to press upon Gujarat government for their registration at their workplace under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, so that they do not suffer in future.