It’s a struggle: Away from family, migrant workers from Murshidabad face unending challenges

With a lack of opportunities in their State and little help from the Government, guest workers dream of a better future in faraway places.

Murshidabad was once the capital of Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa and was known as the abode of Nawabs. But the present reality is different — one of the minority-dominated districts of West Bengal, it is now labelled ‘backward.’ The district does not even have a full-fledged university. 

The district lags in socio-economic terms due to the lack of employment opportunities. One part of Murshidabad relies on agriculture, while the other depends on migrant labour. Consequently, many workers in the district are forced to migrate to other States for sustenance. Murshidabad has the highest percentage of workers from Bengal, who are working in other parts of India.

They are spread across Maharashtra, Kerala, Odisha, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Delhi, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and other states.

While there have been promises of job creation, neither the Centre nor the State government has taken any steps to alleviate the plight of migrant labourers. 

Meanwhile, there is no specific data on guest workers. How many workers from a state or district are employed in other states? Which industries are they employed in? What is their annual income? The government has no answer to these questions.

Even the district administration in Murshidabad hasn’t recorded this data. However, it is estimated that about 50 per cent of the population is employed in other states for work and according to prominent individuals from the district, a majority are involved in masonry work. 

Away from their families, hoping for a better future

Leaving behind their families, these migrant labourers work in faraway places so that they can send money home. They endure years of separation, in the hope that one day they would be reunited with their loved ones. Sometimes, all the family receives is heartbreaking news. 

Several workers have died in various accidents while working in other states. Most of the deaths happen due to train accidents, electrocution, or falling from buildings. 

Read more: Chennai’s labour stands – a marketplace of exploitation

That is what happened to 49-year-old Nurbul Seikh, who had been away from his hometown for more than 15 years. Working as a mason in a tunnel in Mumbai, Nurbul fell to his death from the 16th floor of a high-rise on January 12 this year. He was rushed to a hospital, where doctors declared him brought dead. 

A resident of Sahadiar Mathpara under Domkal police station in Murshidabad district, Nurbul was the sole breadwinner of his family. His death has plunged their life into darkness. 

Jesmina Bibi, the deceased’s wife, said, “My husband is gone. What will I do now? What will be the future of our children?” His mother, Manuara Bibi is inconsolable. “The only property my son owns is this house. He went abroad to earn a living. Now, he has left us.”

In December last year, large areas of Tamil Nadu were flooded due to Cyclone Michaung. Many migrant workers from Murshidabad, who went there to work were unable to find employment. As a result, around 30 labourers were stranded in flood-ravaged Tamil Nadu.

Akash Mandal, Rahul Seikh, Jiauddin Seikh, Hasibul Seikh, and many others from Chandpur Chhapatal village in Hariharpara block of Murshidabad were among those stranded in Chennai. Abdul Rashid Mollah, the father of one of the labourers, said, “My two sons and son-in-law went to Chennai for work. They worked there for two months and then, because of the floods were stranded and couldn’t get back. The employer refused to pay full wages, so they were stuck, unable to return home.”

On January 20th, Sinarul Islam, a resident of Fakirabad Purbapara in Domkal, went to Kerala for work, so he could finance his son’s education and sister’s wedding. He nor his family had anticipated the tragedy that would befall him. Sinarul died after coming into contact with a high-voltage wire. 

A grim reality 

migrant Murshidabad
A deceased migrant worker’s family mourns his death. Pic: Kibria Ansary

Many workers from the district have died in similar accidents. According to unofficial data, more than 30 migrant workers have died due to accidents in Murshidabad district in the last year. Their deaths have cast a shadow over their family’s future. 

Rahul Chakraborty, the Murshidabad district secretary of the Association for Protection of Human Rights (APDR), said, “There is no work in my district. That’s why people are going to other places for work. However, they do not have any legal rights as labourers in other states. No one pays the minimum wage, provides protection, or offers other benefits that the Constitution guarantees for workers.”

He added that workers become largely helpless when they work away from home. There is no one to advocate for them. Even the contracting companies take advantage of their vulnerability in various ways. They pay less and are often assigned the most dangerous jobs. “If they die on the job, their families do not receive proper compensation.”

In June this year, a train accident occurred in Odisha’s Balasore district, resulting in the deaths of many migrant workers from West Bengal. A month earlier, two migrants from the state died while working on a high-rise building in Mumbai. Recently, two labourers were killed when an under-construction railway bridge collapsed in Mizoram. During the COVID pandemic, nearly one crore migrant labour and their families left their workplaces to return home. Among them were children, the elderly, and pregnant women. Many died as they walked hundreds of miles home during the strict lockdown.

Need for migrant labour reform

In September 2020, the Modi government informed the Lok Sabha that it had no data on the number of migrant workers who had died. This suggests that the government did not pay much attention to the deaths of migrants.

On August 6, 2023, according to a report in Hindustan Times Bangla, a trade union study report claimed there are about 5.5 lakh migrant workers from West Bengal.

Last year, the West Bengal government reconstituted the Migrant Workers Welfare Board and announced various schemes to prevent workers from having to migrate for work. However, there are doubts about whether these schemes will effectively alleviate the plight of migrants once implemented.

Abdul Gani Mondal of Domkal said, “There needs to be a long-term plan for migrant workers. People may leave their homes in search of work, but it must be ensured that they are not subjected to injustice elsewhere. Only then can their deaths be prevented.”

As part of this report, this writer surveyed 35 people in Murshidabad to identify the challenges migrant labourers face when they go to work. Here are the questions and responses received as part of the survey:  

Here is what the survey analysed

What are the reasons for labour migration in Murshidabad?

About 51% of respondents said lack of employment opportunities in their home region forced workers from Murshidabad to go to other States.

In which sectors do most workers from Murshidabad district work in other states?

77.1% of people responded that most are employed in construction (masonry). 17.1% of people said other sectors, 2.9% said manufacturing and 2.9% said healthcare.

How do you rate the safety conditions at migrant labour workplaces?

65.7% of people surveyed felt worker safety conditions were poor, while 14.3% said it was average. Only 5.7% respondents felt that the conditions were good.  

How would you rate the living conditions at migrant work locations?

40% of the people said living conditions at the workplace are poor, while 31.4% said very poor.

What kinds of challenges do you believe our migrant workers face when working in other states?

Lack of job security was one of the main challenges according to 34.3% of respondents. while 22.9% said separation from family. About 8.6% said inadequate living conditions and limited access to legal support respectively and 5.7% said discrimination or mistreatment and exploitative working conditions. 

Do you believe the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted workers?

As many as 34.3% of people think Covid-19 has significantly negatively impacted workers.

What steps do you believe should be taken to reduce the number of migrant workers?

54.3% of people believe that providing employment opportunities will reduce the number of migrant workers, while 14.3% felt establishing more factories in their district would help.

Do you know the Member of Parliament (MP) representing your constituency?

71.4% of people know the MP of their constituency. Twenty per cent said they did not know their MP, and 8.6 % said they were not sure.

How would you rate the performance of your Member of Parliament (MP)?

Around 25% of people surveyed are very dissatisfied with the performance of their MP.

Everyday challenges of workers

Workers currently employed in Kerala and Maharashtra, said the biggest problem is the language barrier. When labourers die, the contractor does not make any arrangements to send their bodies home. The family has to do everything. Moreover, there is no help from the government, they opined.

Read more: West Bengal labourers escape climate extremities, settle for menial jobs in Bengaluru

Najibul Islam of Domkal, who works in Kerala, said, “We get more remuneration in other states than in Bengal. Construction workers in Domkal earn Rs. 250 to Rs. 400. Whereas in Kerala, you can earn Rs. 800 for working eight hours. It involves extra work, but also extra money. Moreover, there is no regular work available in our district. So, I went to a different state. I have been working as a mason for the past two years. At the end of the month, I can send home Rs 15,000.”

Sakir Seikh, a migrant worker, said, “I was stuck in Mumbai during the lockdown in 2020. We  spent seven days eating only potatoes and rice. I returned home with a few labourers from Birbhum and Murshidabad after spending lakhs of rupees by selling cows, goats, and gold. Those were terrible days! That experience still haunts me to this day. If I am still in danger, someone should come forward to help. Some people think of us as nothing.”

However, from village to city, city to city, and metropolis, workers are always moving from one place to another. Despite the ubiquitous presence of migrant workers, they have largely remained unnoticed by the public. Eminent people feel that the government should take the first step to improve the quality of life of migrant workers. 

Some of the measures that can be taken include: 

  • Provide employment within the district, improve the quality of industries, and support small and medium enterprises. This will generate more job opportunities within rural and semi-urban areas, thereby reducing the need for migration.
  • Offer skill development and vocational training programmes tailored to the needs of local industries, empowering residents with the necessary skills to secure employment locally.
  • Encourage entrepreneurship by providing access to funding, mentorship, and resources for aspiring entrepreneurs.
  • Implement agricultural reforms and provide support to farmers to increase productivity, diversify crops, and adopt sustainable farming practices. 
  • Support community-based initiatives and development projects.
  • Conduct awareness campaigns and educational programmes to inform individuals about the risks and challenges associated with migration, as well as alternative livelihood options available locally.
  • If a worker dies in an accident, the government must provide financial assistance to his family.

Earlier this year, Oorvani Foundation had collaborated with Youth ki Awaaz to host a Civic Journalism Training Programme, where young aspiring citizen journalists were encouraged to write about local realities. They attended discussions and workshops on governance, democracy, the roles and responsibilities of elected representatives (among other topics). This article is a ground report written by one of the participants from Murshidabad town in West Bengal.

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