A recent paper published in the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) journal, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, has revealed the stark plight of the vulnerable Indian migrant labour force during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Forced to return home with little warning when lockdown was instigated or face destitution, this unacknowledged, ‘hidden’ workforce of one hundred million people used every avenue available to return home to their villages; some travelling thousands of kilometres on foot carrying their belongings, because public transport provision was not made available to them by government.
It also showed that, in returning home to their only support networks, the seasonal labour force are in turn supported by a further invisible economy: the household. Seasonal migrants today can only be workers because of all the work undertaken across generations at home including care provided by the spouse, children, the siblings and the elderly parents.
The paper, co-written by Alpa Shah, Associate Professor of Anthropology at LSE and Dr Jens Lerche, Department of Development Studies at SOAS, has shone a spotlight on this exodus and also explored the complexities behind this group’s invisibility – both nationally and internationally – looking at how they are exploited as a minority by big business, leading to extreme political, economic and social inequality.
Professor Alpa Shah said: “Rather than seeking to protect migrant workers, the state appetite firmly points to making things worse as labour legislation is being dismantled in further favour of business and industry. Moreover, the obstacles to mobilising are many. Language barriers, treatment of migrants as second-class citizens and permanent transience lead to isolation. Employers actively clamp down on attempts to organise through private security firms and by placing labour from different states and groups at the same worksite making it hard for them to unite.”
Co-author, Dr Jens Lerche followed: “If there’s a silver-lining to the impact of COVID-19, it is that it has brought together people from across India to provide relief for stranded migrant workers. In different parts of the country, thousands became involved in finding temporary shelter, providing food and basic amenities for the needy. They walked into migrant colonies, relied on local knowledge or used telephone helplines to locate the vulnerable.”
Now that India’s lockdown is easing, and with temples, mosques, restaurants and hotels already reopened, the cheap labour to staff them is still missing, or trickling back slowly, in fear of a second wave and unhappy at their forgotten status. But along with increased media attention, the visibility of this group has increased; the Indian government has issued some short-term relief for vulnerable workers and labour migration also appeared in mainstream Indian policy discussions for the first time.
But for effective social change, the paper argues that better conditions and pay, which includes that of the worker’s households as well as the worker in their place of work, must be adopted. Tackling ‘internal colonialism’ or discrimination against caste, tribe and region-based migrants must also occur to lift oppression of this isolated group, and finally, reversal of the uneven development in the country which force people to move into such vulnerable conditions in places of work in the first place.
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Alpa Shah has lived for many years as an anthropologist among tribal (Adivasi) and ex-untouchable (Dalit) people in the remote forested hills of Eastern India. She migrated with them to carry bricks in the factories of West Bengal, found them building roads in the Himalayas, plucking tea leaves in Kerala for British tea drinkers and cleaning bones with toxic chemicals in Tamil Nadu factories to make gelatine for Japanese export. Documenting their struggles against oppression, she marched with Adivasis in the guerrilla platoons of armed Maoist insurgents. From this bottom-up perspective, her aim over the last twenty years has been to understand the multiple facets of inequality and the fight against it. Books include: Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas (shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Writing, 2019, a New Statesman Book of the Year, 2018); In the Shadows of the State (2010), and the co-authored Ground Down by Growth (2018). She has been interviewed across international media and has reported for BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service, including presenting ‘India’s Red Belt’ for Crossing Continents and writing for From Our Own Correspondent. Alpa read Geography at Cambridge and completed her PhD in Anthropology at the London School of Economics, where she now teaches as Associate Professor (Reader).
Jens Lerche is Reader (Associate Professor) in Labour and Agrarian Studies at SOAS, University of London. He has conducted research in India since the early 1990s including two and a half years living with villagers on the Indian plains. Most of his work has focused on the ex-untouchable Dalits in rural areas, work relations with local landowning communities and their work as seasonal migrant labourers across India, in brick kilns, on construction sites and in low-end industrial work. He has visited grassroots organisations doing long-term work with Dalit and Adivasi (tribal) seasonal migrant labourers in the cities. With Alpa Shah, he co-led a major programme of research on Inequality and Poverty based at the London School of Economics and visited researchers and rural Dalits and Adivasis in five different Indian states. Recent media work includes interviews for Danish newspapers, German radio and UK podcast, Anthill, on discrimination against Dalits and agricultural labourers. He is editor of The Journal of Agrarian Change published by Wiley. Recent academic publications include the co-authored book Ground Down by Growth and Tribe, Caste, Class and Inequality in Twenty-first-century India (Pluto press, Oxford University Press India, 2018).
The paper ‘Migration and the Invisible Economies of Care: Production, Social Reproduction and Seasonal Migrant Labour in India’ is online here. This article has been accepted for publication and undergone full peer review but has not been through the copyediting, typesetting, pagination and proofreading process, which may lead to differences between this version and the Version of Record. Please cite this article as doi:10.1111/tran.12401.
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