It was a conversation that left us with a heavy heart- talking to contract based migrant workers of the Renault Nissan and other factories near Oragadam, Kancheepuram District. Villagers in Oragadam had purchased fallow lands from their own less affluent neighbours to build tin –sheeted tenements for migrant workers. Squatting with us outside one such tin box, workers explained that 20 people stayed in the room (approximately 4 m x 4 m in spread), and paid a sizeable Rs4000 a month in rent. One man introduced himself as the cook. He had been there longer than most of the workers. The men were from many places, including Jharkhand, Assam and Odisha. The workers from Assam were missing as some of them were muslims and had returned home for Eid, while others had followed suit because of the disturbances in their home state and fears of violence against people from the North-East southern states. The cook believed that they would be returning as they hadn’t paid him before they left.
Until 2 years ago, there had been hardly any “Hindi log” (Hindi speakers) in that locality, “Hindi log” referring to just about anyone from outside Tamilnadu, even workers from Andhra Pradesh. One of the workers we met had worked in Surat for 10 years in a cotton factory. With dwindling production and getting bored of the job, he had decided to shift to Tamilnadu.
Many of the migrant workers have been working for contractors in Kancheepuram for nearly 2-3 years, some for as long as sixteen years. A crucial way in which they come to know of jobs in distant states is through informal networks; if a migrant worker from a village gets to know of work in a particular place or knows a certain contractor he would inform the people in his village, by word of mouth.
When one of us who had visited the L&T factory previously, told the Renault workers about the pathetic working conditions over there, the conversation turned to an ironic and bleak “comparison” with conditions in their own sweatshop. At L&T, workers get a daily wage of about Rs150 for work that mainly involves loading and unloading. Overtime is compulsory there. If a worker repeatedly refused to work overtime, he would inevitably be labeled a ‘thief’ and denied work altogether. The alfresco fabrication units are potent death camps where when it rains, the workers would get frequently electrocuted. A three day strike had led to a wage increase of Rs35 at L&T. With no pay slips , the only form of documentation that served as evidence of employment was a security card.
In the Renault Nissan factory pay slips were apparently provided – but with Renault’s name or logo nowhere on them. The salary envelopes carry the name of the worker and the contractor’s name. There is no mention of the amount of money going from the company to the contractors (i.e. no mention of the size of the contractor’s cut).
Looking at some of the payslips shared by the workers, discrepancies in the calculation of payments were significant and unmistakable. For example, one pay slip for 11 days of work and 16 hours of overtime, had been equated to a wage ofRs.2805, at the rate of Rs196/day, and Rs720 for OT. A back-of-the-envelope calculation for (196*11) + 720, would amount to Rs2876, and make obvious that the worker had been cheated of Rs71. The workers magnanimously dismissed it as “computer error”.
The pay slips also indicate that deductions had been made for Provident Fund (12%) and Employee State Insurance (1.75%). However, none of the workers possess PF or ESI cards or know their insurance numbers. In all likelihood, contractors would be making these deductions and pocketing them; after all, contractors are known to hardly register more than 1/10th of the workers they handle, though they unsparingly deduct money from all of them. In the event of a misfortune, which is so probable in a factory like Renault Nissan, the unregistered workers will not be eligible for compensation from ESI.
The workers explained how they “dealt with” the contractors. A common storyline is that a worker would stay with one contractor for 2 or 3 months, and once the contractor began treating him badly, the worker will seek to move to a different contractor. Catching the hawk’s gaze of another contractor can be as simple (or as hard) as loitering at street corners and tea shops. When it’s time for the first pay, at the end of the first month, the money that the worker gets in reality will determine his working relationship with the contractor.
Workers rated their contract, describing how housekeeping that fetched Rs6000 a month along with PF and ESI registrations, was way better than being hired as security staff by the same contractors only to be exploited and abused.
On being asked about the delicate issue of migrant – local – worker rapport, the Oragadam workers said that local workers earned Rs350, a 100 bucks more than what they did for the same work. The contractors widen this difference steadily and justified it by claiming “There is a certainty with locals, with you we don’t know if you will stay or go. If you sign a bond, we will pay you more” – whether the local workers are under bondage remains foggy. There had been drunken brawls where the natives beat up the migrants cursing “Because of you we don’t get proper salaries.” But as a community the locals were not hostile as they stood to gain economically from the presence of these workers. It was opined, maybe even with a certain amount of pride, that some companies however preferred to take in outsiders, who would, by all “logic”, work better, being skilled especially at certain jobs. Local workers with their greater bargaining power were naturally a pain in the neck for the contractors.
Despite the bleakness of it all, it was heartening to hear that the migrant workers were keen to organize themselves to demand for better wages and working and living conditions.
TN Labour Blog