Migrants from the northeast are stuck between hostile employers and unemployment at home

19 May 2020
In this photo taken in 2012, people from India’s northeastern states wait to board trains to leave for home, at a railway station in Chennai. During the national lockdown in 2020, tens of thousands of migrants from the northeastern states working in mainland India are among the most vulnerable populations. Many face severe abuse by their employers and landlords, and are struggling to return to their home states.
Arun sankar K / AP Photo
In this photo taken in 2012, people from India’s northeastern states wait to board trains to leave for home, at a railway station in Chennai. During the national lockdown in 2020, tens of thousands of migrants from the northeastern states working in mainland India are among the most vulnerable populations. Many face severe abuse by their employers and landlords, and are struggling to return to their home states.
Arun sankar K / AP Photo

“I had this dream. That I will work hard and save up all my money this year to buy a land in my village in Arunachal Pradesh and build a home where I can stay with my children,” Anita Chakma, a labourer who worked in Tirupur district of Tamil Nadu, said. “My husband used to take drugs and alcohol and beat me up. After we had a son, he told me he would not beat me anymore if I gave him a daughter. Two and a half years later, we had a daughter. But he continued to beat me.” Anita told me she bore the abuse for six years but decided to leave him for good when she found out that he was having an extramarital affair. To fend for herself, in 2017, she decided to go to Tirupur in Tamil Nadu and join her cousin who was working in a garment factory.

She planned to save up her income and build a home for her son, who she said is facing physical abuse in her ex-husband’s house. Her dreams, however, ground to a halt when the central government announced a nationwide lockdown on 24 March, to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The garment manufacturer she was working for closed the factory, and the last paycheck she received was for the work she did in April. She told me that if she did not go back to her village in Arunachal Pradesh soon, she was bound to starve. “At home, we can go to the forest and search for vegetables but here everything costs so much money and we are running out of money,” Anita said. She lives in a hostel accommodation in Tirupur with four other female workers of the company. Their employer gave them five kilograms of rice, two kilograms of lentils, one kilogram each of wheat flour and semolina in March. But since that ran out six weeks ago weeks ago, they have been struggling to make ends meet.

Anita’s story is similar to tens of thousands of migrants from the northeastern states working in mainland India. Gyms, spas, restaurants and malls were a part of the worst hit sectors due to the lockdown—many of them shuttered down even prior to 24 March and are expected to be among the last to resume operations when the restrictions are eased. Several migrants from northeast India whom I spoke to worked in these sectors in mainland India. Migrants from these states often work in precarious conditions and are dependent on their employers, who often control their food supply too. Many a times, they have to live in accommodation owned or rented by their employers as well.

This has led to several cases of employers abusing, starving or evicting employees who hail from northeast India. With very little support from the governments of their host and home states, they were left with little access to money or food during the lockdown, and also struggled to return home. Many of them are further scared that returning to their homes, which have few job opportunities, will lose them the livelihood they were able to earn in mainland India.

Tirupur, one of the largest industrial hubs of the country, is heavily reliant on migrant labourers. According to a survey carried out by the Micro Small and Medium Industries Development Institute, based in Chennai, the district alone accounts for 90 percent of India’s cotton knitwear export. This export is estimated to be valued at around seven thousand five hundred crore rupees. The Chennai-based newspaper Daily Thanthi reported this month that there are 1.3 lakh migrant workers in the district who make up a majority of the industrial workforce.

Kimi Colney is a reporting fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown Northeast India migrant workers
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