India: World’s largest lockdown triggers massive exodus of migrant workers

31 March 2020 09:16

To contain the spread of COVID19, the Indian government has recently placed the entire country under a lockdown, locking in as many as 1 billion people across 28 states and 8 union territories. All work and public transport services, including inter-state buses, railways and air travel have reportedly stopped. 

This triggered the massive exodus of migrant workers, who suddenly found themselves without any means of livelihood. It was reported that thousands started marching back to their native villages due to the absence of public transport. This sudden movement of thousands of migrant workers across cities in India took the national and state governments by surprise, even as authorities mobilise resources to provide direct cash transfers, food supplies, night shelters and free meals to the workers and their families.

BWI affiliates across India, along with other trade unions, have been coordinating with each other and reaching out to the migrant workers to help them with their food and shelter needs. The unions are also talking to authorities to facilitate their safe return to their native villages and ensure that government relief reaches them. BWI affiliates in Odisha (INBCWF), Bihar (HKMP & CLU), Kerala (KKNTC), Karnataka (KSCWCU), Uttar Pradesh (BNKMU), Rajasthan (RPKNMS) and Gujarat (BMS) States are all active in this effort. 

In the Indian Capital, New Delhi, DANMU facilitated the return of 1187 migrant construction workers to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan States. As a result of the union’s intervention, the workers’ dues were cleared and 15-day advance wages were given to them with the understanding that as soon as the lockdown is lifted, they are expected to return to their respective contractors. The union also distributed food supplies to 500 families living in various workers’ settlements. 

Another BWI affiliate, PMLU-Telangana State, submitted a petition to the government calling for provisions of basic necessities to 102 workers stranded in the Maharashtra State. 

Vipul Pandya, General Secretary of Bandhkam Mazdoor Sangathan said that while unions support the government’s decision to put the country under a lockdown, they deplore the poor handling of migrant workers. “This reflects the lack of coordination between central and state governments. The government should have coordinated with the different states’  labour departments to ensure the safe return of migrant workers to their native villages and that adequate provisions (food supplies and shelter) are in place.”