Circus of supply chains

Every migrant has a story to tell. A story of leaving home, a story of being in ‘exile’, a longing for that faraway place. Interspersed with these stories are the realities of every day existence of grind and grime. Of climbing ladders and great ‘heights’, of carrying steel and bricks, of precariously balancing on scaffoldings like trapeze artists, of sharing living spaces with hundreds of other sweaty, hard bodies of fellow migrants, each with a story of his or her own, and at times remarkably similar.

I met two of them at a teashop yesterday. They had come to deposit their cheques at the local bank. In a week they come out twice from the labour camp, some 5 kms away, once to deposit the cheques and second time to see if it’s been cleared. A third visit may be required if money has to be sent back home.

Sanjiv Kumar and Sadre Alam*. Two young men from Krishangunj district of Bihar. We meet at a bus stop and walked to a dingy tea shop at the back of the street. Before the tea arrived, Sanjiv shoots off-‘are you a press reporter?”. ‘No, I am not’. I immediately notice his enthusiasm in talking to me wane a bit. ‘Why’ I ask. “I thought you were one, I thought you could help me”. Well, maybe I can I say.

“I am leaving this place, the company has not paid me for past three months. I am a small ‘thekedar’ (labour contractor), I have to pay my labour. The company owes me Rs 1 lakh. I have sent back all my labour home, I can’t pay them. I am waiting to get the payment. The company controls us and our labour by not paying fully, they know we can’t leave the site if we are not paid. I thought if you were reporter you will write about my complaint in the newspaper”.

Sanjiv and Sadre are small time ‘thekedars’ at construction sites. For past 2 years they have been supplying labour to a big construction company, billed as one of India’s fastest growing construction companies with revenue generation of Rs 1462 crores in 2009. The two are engaged in construction of a residential complex near Chennai.

The particular construction site has about 65 such thekedars who provide labour for different sets of work. Sanjiv and Sadre, both of whom were workers earlier, supply labourer for scaffolding work. Similarly, some supply carpenters and helpers, some masons, some to work with steel ‘saria’, there are many categories of work at a construction site, and depending on the need, each thekedar supplies anywhere between 25-100 labourers. In return, each thekedar gets a cut from the wages of the workers they supply. “We do not get any money directly from the construction company. The company sets a wage rate with us, we then tell the labour what we will pay them, we don’t tell them the full amount. It’s up to them if they want to join our labour gang.”

Sanjiv lamented that the company pays very less. His workers are given Rs 160 per day for 8 hours of work. Sanjiv pays Rs 140 to workers, taking a cut of more than 10% from each worker. The workers are also given an overtime of Rs 80. The work shifts are 12 hours a day.

So how does all this work? How do people like Sanjiv or Sadre, sitting in Krishangunj in Bihar land up as migrant workers and then end up as thekedars in Tamil Nadu supplying labour. On the face of it, it may all look very unorganised and unplanned, but if one digs deeper, a fairly organised ‘informal’, ‘illegal’ set of network seems to be working to sustain India’s construction industry, a sector that contributes over 11% to the country’s GDP.

Take for instance, Sanjiv and Sadre. Two childhood friends, almost like ‘brothers’, sons of panchayat leaders and party workers with BJP. Sanjiv’s father died when he was barely 14 years old. Being the eldest son of a family of seven, it fell on him to keep the family going. Even with a farming land of 30 bigha (10 acres), most of it mortgaged, Sanjiv found it difficult to make ends meet as farming was un-remunerative. He ran a mithai (sweet) shop for a while after his father’s death and then a local ‘thekedar’ offered him work with the promise of paying Rs 8000-10,000 a month. So with a bunch of other young boys and men from the village he landed up in Delhi at a construction site about 4-5 years ago. Usually the workers are given an advance of Rs 5000 or so by the thekedars before they leave village, which they have to then repay back.

Working as a labourer, learning on job scaffolding work, and given his acumen, Sanjiv soon became the ‘head’ of the labour gang, a position at times more powerful than that of the ‘thekedar’ in the labour hierarchy. Because ‘head’ of a labour gang can often negotiate and cut a deal with fellow workers and lower company staffs at different project sites and take his small gang of workers (can be anywhere between 5-25) away. But on further probing, it seemed that the situation of the small thekedars are as precarious as that of workers that they supply. Given the illegal nature of the work, non-existence of paper agreements or contracts, these unlicensed contractors are open to exploitation by the big companies. Infact, given the precarious way in which the labour supply chain works, a thekedar may find himself as a worker overnight. At this level of labour hierarchy, the shift from thekedar to a worker and vice-versa is common and swift. “Most of the thekedars are unlicensed, only 5% or less may have license. Most of the thekedars work here without any proof or contract with the company. The wages are paid by cheques to the workers. We get bank accounts opened in the name of one worker and operate the account ourselves and pay the wages to the workers”, said Sanjiv.

While travelling from Delhi to Madhya Pradesh to Jammu and finally landing up in Tamil Nadu, Sanjiv transitioned from a worker into a labour supplier. He got in touch with his friend Sadre Alam, who at that time had left his village and farm land mostly indebted and gone with a thekedar to Pune to work at construction site as a worker. Unhappy with low wages and lack of work, Sadre Alam, who by that time too had become the ‘head’ of the labour gang decided to come with his motley bunch of workers and joined his friend in Tamil Nadu supplying workers to the construction company. For past 2 years, Sadre Alam has been with the same construction company supplying workers. Most of the workers in his gang work for 3-6 months and then leave for village, a fact true for most of workers at these sites. “Some of them come back to me, some leave.”

Listening to the stories of these two friends, their journey from one work site to the other as footloose workers and later as thekedars, working under conditions unacceptable to local people, one is left with a feeling that thekedars, a much reviled character in the labour hierarchy, may be are as open to exploitation as the workers they supply.

*Names of workers changed

Madhumita Dutta

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