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Work is ours – workers are ours

The Conference of Catholic Bishops of India - Commission for Migrants North Region organized a one-day seminar in Delhi, India on April 4, 2022 (File photo by RVA News)

Labour Day brings to our mind that May 1 is a holiday and nothing beyond for anyone who has not understood the meaning of this holiday. This commemoration came into existence after the famous 1886 Haymarket affair in Chicago. On this day the labor union carried out a peaceful strike demanding working hours from fifteen to eight, proper wages, and paid leaves. 

However, the members of the union had to face tragedies leading to the death of many. The incident is believed to have given the workers’ movement a great impetus.

By the late 19th century, a legal working time of eight hours was declared in Chicago’s national convention by the American Federation of Labor. Following this pronouncement, many countries adopted the eight-hour working policy.

May Day is a time to celebrate the contributions the workers contribute to the nations. It is also a time to assure them of the support they need. 

Every year the May Day quotes and messages are displayed but the pity is the messages are meaningless to the migrant workers who constitute the world's workforce. They have the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, minimum wages on which workers can live, universal social protection, and safe, healthy, and sustainable jobs.

Looking at the situation of the workers particularly the situation of India is very bleak. The fundamental rights of workers are at stake. If they rise against it, they will be attacked. Their right to unionize is being silenced through different tactics. The covid-19 pandemic claimed not only the lives of people it also took away the job of millions.  

The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy said that over 10 million people lost their jobs because of the second wave of coronavirus. He added that 97 percent of households' incomes have declined since the beginning of the pandemic year.

UN reported in January 2021 that the growth in the number of international migrants has been robust over the last two decades, reaching 281 million people living outside their country of origin in 2020, up from 173 million in 2000 and 221 million in 2010. 

Currently, international migrants represent about 3.6 percent of the world’s population.

The Indian diaspora, one of the most vibrant and dynamic, is the largest in the world, with 18 million people from the country living outside their homeland in 2020, the UN has said. The United Arab Emirates, the US, and Saudi Arabia host the largest numbers of migrants from India, it said.

The unorganized workers of India contribute a major portion of the economy of the nation. According to the Union government data, there are around 500 million workers in the organized and unorganized sectors of which 90 percent are in the unorganized sector.

The pitiful fact is that these unorganized migrant workers do not enjoy any benefits or support from the government. The pandemic lockdown proved to the world that India did not even have the correct data on migrant workers. They lost their job, they were starved for days together, some committed suicide, and many were thrown out of their rented houses despite the standing order from the Supreme Court against vacating the people from the rented houses. 

Even after situations are becoming normal with certain restrictions the workers have the same tyranny. They are underpaid and overworked, exploited sexually and economically.

As the international workers Day is commemorated few commented on the situation of workers in the national capital. 

Hilda John, Director of Daya Sagar Trust, who runs an NGO working against Human Trafficking said, in her area migrants from Uttar Pradesh state of north India come for domestic work, Rickshaw pulling or driving E–Rickshaws. They have a hand-to-mouth living so they are not able to have a decent life. They have to pay Indian rupees 3000/- (US $ 39.20) as room rent. Their girl children do not reach up to the 8th grade as they have to take care of their younger siblings. Most families have 3-5 children. Boys may study up to the 10th grade. None of the migrants have received any government aid or help during the pandemic and even now. 

Migrants in Burari, Delhi have a tough life. As I sat and heard, sometimes they do not get the minimum wages. If they have any health issues or fall from the buildings, burns in the work area no one helps them, the contractors do not care for their workers. Very few have labor cards issued by the Labour Department. They need counseling as they are stressed and anxious. The education of their children is not being taken care of. They are into the agriculture farms of various landlords. They cannot afford to become sick since no money to pay the bills. Ultimately no social security for them, said Dr. Preeti Margrat of SPARSH Bethany Health Centre.

Dr. Stan Alla, a professor at Jesuit-run Vidyajyoti College of Theology, said the situation of migrants in India is so sad, but they remain vulnerable and invisible. Irrespective of their religious, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds they remain to be the 'others.' 

He said, “As Pope Francis reminds us, we need to open our eyes, see them in the eye, and recognize them as God's children, as our brothers and sisters with a right to have their due in the God-given resources.”

“Bringing their dignity and rights into focus is an important component of the Church's mission. Church's pastoral ministry could involve the parishioners, as we sensitize ourselves to migrants' needs,” he added. 

At present talking about migrant domestic workers' conditions is incomprehensible. 

North India is having a heatwave and the temperature is very high. This affects the domestic workers due to some of them are not able to complete the work on time, and kitchens are heated. 

The employers are not even asking them to have a glass of water. They are not allowed to use the lavatory or drink water from the same kitchen. Most women are complaining of headaches. Children are going to school. Facilities in government schools are better than before, but the quality of education is not there. 

These children cannot afford tuition as their mothers are underpaid. Since they are not able to withstand the heat of the kitchen due to the hot summer and the cooking heat their payment is cut. This affects the family income, said Anushia Fernandes, Delhi State Coordinator, National Domestic Workers Movement.

Godwin, a security guard with a private firm said, he had to work during the lockdowns, he was affected by Covid-19 and the firm did not care for him. 

He was not paid salaries for the past three months of his service. When he requested his salary he was terminated from service. Now he is running from pillar to post for work as well as to get his arrears of payment.

The plight of workers is inexplicable but the nation needs them to build the cities and work in their homes. The organization responsible for the care of the workers should think and act in favor of these exploited masses.

Hope there will be policies in place to tackle the issues of unorganized and migrant laborers. Let us stand in solidarity with the workers of the world. - Rani Punnaserril 


Radio Veritas Asia (RVA), a media platform of the Catholic Church, aims to share Christ. RVA started in 1969 as a continental Catholic radio station to serve Asian countries in their respective local language, thus earning the tag “the Voice of Asian Christianity.”  Responding to the emerging context, RVA embraced media platforms to connect with the global Asian audience via its 21 language websites and various social media platforms.