The plight of the migrant workers of Gujarat

Gujarat has again captured the attention of the entire country for the wrong reasons. The assault and harassment of migrant livelihood-earners belonging to North Indian States in pockets of the North Gujarat region, following the dastardly rape of a 14-month-girl, has brought fear and forced many migrants to return to their home States. The issues related with the incident are complex but the development also provides cause to reflect and introspect on the vital issue of migrant workers in terms of their status and contribution to society.

A large chunk of economic activities pertaining to production, service and other tertiary sectors fall under the informal or unorganised sector, in so far as what the workers face and endure when they come to work. Social research has clearly indicated that a very large proportion of migrant workers are employed in almost all these sectors in the entire State.

Gujarat is hailed for its development paradigm, specifically in the sphere of industry. Since its birth in 1960, various State governments have given an impetus to micro, small and medium-scale industrial development by providing incentives to entrepreneurs in a direct way through the Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation(GIDC). More than 200 GIDC estates have been established till date. As a leader in terms of its neo-liberal policies, the State has been a pioneer in establishing Special Economic Zones (SEZs) and Special Investment Regions (SERs) in order to invite and encourage MNCs and foreign investors.

Though all these policy measures have been capital and business friendly, they not only undermine the cause of labour but are detrimental to their interests. The major indirect benefit being extended to micro, small and medium scale industrial units (MSMIUs) is minimal labour cost and a freehand in dealing with labour. The set of existing labour legislations is virtually ineffective in so far as enhancement and protection of workers’ interests are concerned.

In other words, a large chunk of economic activities pertaining to production, service and other tertiary sectors fall under the informal or unorganised sector, in so far as what the workers face and endure when they come to work. Social research has clearly indicated that a very large proportion of migrant workers are employed in almost all these sectors in the entire State. In most of the infrastructural related works, from constructing roads and bridges and flyovers to huge buildings, migrants from other States form a sizeable majority in every kind of skilled and unskilled works. This is also the case with the labour-force of ports, wind-mills makers and the ship-yard. In industry, MSMEs too have been employing migrant labourers but there is a variation in the composition of migrant workers seen at different places. In the industrial units of Southern Gujarat’s highly industrialised belt, mainly in the industrial hub of Surat as well as Ankleshwar and Vapi, nearly three-fourths of the work-force, encapsulating almost all the operations, are made up of migrants, a very large proportion of them from other States. 

The conditions in all the activities of the unorganised sector, industrial or non-industrial, are highly exploitative, oppressive and hence, reprehensibly inhuman. The migrants from far-off States are preferred as only they can work under such pathetic conditions, working not out of choice or due to specific traits as often being argued, but because of compulsions pertaining to their extremely weak and vulnerable social and economic status and the conditions back home.

A case-study of industrial activities of Surat (Desai, Kiran etal, 2018) covering all the major industrial activities in MSMEs, namely, weaving, dyeing-printing, embroidery and diamond-polishing, has revealed that eight out of every 10 livelihood-earners are migrants. But they are divided by industry. A substantial portion of diamond workers are migrants from the Patidar caste, an intermediate social group and belonging to the Saurashtra region of Gujarat. The weaving sub-branch of the textile industry has largely employed OBCs of Odisha. Migrants hailing from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with Muslims constituting a significant proportion of them, account for a majority of the work-force in the dyeing-printing sub-branch. If we take the chemical industry of Vapi and Ankleshwar, the two industrial towns of South Gujarat region, then a majority of the work-force is made up of migrants from Northern States like UP and Bihar.

This sort of segmentation is noticeable even in other non-industrial livelihood options in the informal or unorganised sector. Construction activity all over Gujarat is a case in point. Most of the labour-work is carried out by tribal migrants from specific districts of central Gujarat as well as bordering Madhya Pradesh. Similarly, colouring-work is handled by teams of migrants from Uttar Pradesh whereas migrant workers from West Bengal have established a niche in plumbing. Auto-rickshaws are largely driven by migrants from Uttar Pradesh whereas immigrants from Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh as well as Nepal are in a majority amongst security services.

This segmentation serves the function of work security in the unorganised sector wherein legal protection is by intention and design unavailable to help serve the vested interests of employers and capital. Segmentation happens as employees bring in relatives, friends, acquaintances from native places whenever job vacancies arise. And this system works as a security device in what is a highly competitive employment market. In a sense that in a specific work-sphere a particular group; based on regional or ethnic identities, creates an exclusive domain wherein members of other groups cannot enter and seek work.   It suits employers, too, as the workforce remains under tight control. The issue of reining in the labour-force tightly is pertinent to labour practices prevailing in the unorganised sector.

In Gujarat, the prosperity of a minor section of the affluent class is due to the inhuman exploitation of these vulnerable migrants who are forced to toil in a subservient and exploitative way in order to survive. They do not have any social space and dignity in the “host” State too, even though they are the backbone of the apparent prosperity and successful “development” model of Gujarat.

As the above-mentioned studies have starkly brought out, the conditions in all the activities of the unorganised sector, industrial or non-industrial, are highly exploitative, oppressive and hence, reprehensibly inhuman. The migrants from far-off States are preferred as only they can work under such pathetic conditions, working not out of choice or due to specific traits as often being argued, but because of compulsions pertaining to their extremely weak and vulnerable social and economic status and the conditions back home.

To qualify this huge migrant labour force further, studies denote that their economic status is extremely poor in terms of land-holding and other assets, besides which most of them also belong to lowly placed social groups. They hail from sub-regions of States with extremely unproductive agriculture and also lack other gainful employment opportunities. No wonder the political leadership of these States is not forthcoming in condemning the assaults on migrants. And this relates to the social location of these hapless masses of migrants. They are nowhere people, the invisible masses. They are a burden for the political class of their native States as they cannot be absorbed in the employment market which can foster unrest and disturb the power balance.

In Gujarat, the prosperity of a minor section of the affluent class is due to the inhuman exploitation of these vulnerable migrants who are forced to toil in a subservient and exploitative way in order to survive. They do not have any social space and dignity in the “host” State too, even though they are the backbone of the apparent prosperity and successful “development” model of Gujarat. As a matter of fact, the labouring poor have vanished entirely from the present-day discourse on “development”. This is therefore a model that cannot bring prosperity for all and is likely to lead to immense social strife but will intensify inequality and the social and economic divide in the days ahead.

(Dr. Kiran Desai is a faculty member of the Centre for Social Studies, Surat. His areas of interest are labour-related issues, urbanisation and development)