Covid Tales — Migrant Labor No More.

Umesh Luthria
4 min readApr 30, 2020

India lost two priceless assets in the last two days. Two of my favorite stars — Irfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor — both of whom lost a long-fought battle with cancer. Why is this relevant here? I think we have many other reasons for sickness and death other than Covid_19.

For the person on the road, who will never find a mention anywhere, job insecurity and hunger may end up as the largest claimant of life — naturally or unnaturally. A large set of such persons form the migrant labor community. Hailing from rural areas — they come here to claim a small share of an urban dream called “money”. They endure the urban hostility to see to it that those they leave behind get a better quality of life than is afforded back home. Feeling left out, uncared, unsafe, unpaid, they have discovered to their dismay the best and safest place for them is back home.

Seeing images of these migrants exiting our cities, with total disregard for their safety or life, their importance to us — in innumerable ways — is just about dawning in our collective mindset, enough to hopefully do something about it. People take pride in their charitable deeds, but I feel true philanthropy begins at home and work. I am not suggesting the concept of “giving” is a bad idea, but why not consider taking better care of those working for you?

In 1985, I took up my first job, as a project manager with a company executing infrastructure projects in Baghdad. There, every contracting company was required to lease out land for the creation of a “migrant” labor camp. As a minimum, the transit campsite had to have adequate toilets, mess-hall with a canteen, air-cooled portacabin accommodation, clinic, and transport facility to reach and collect labor from the site of work. The cost of setting up and maintaining the facility had to be built into the contract. The same rule applied to local and international companies. There were regular inspections by labor inspectors to check on the upkeep of the facility, and violations attracted hefty fines. In a country known for exhibiting scant respect for human rights, the responsibility for looking after the labor was not to be trifled with.

Returning to India in 1987, I discovered that labor was treated just as well as cattle. Moving the timeline to 2020, I think cattle are being accorded better rights than migrant labor, especially those working in the construction sector. Not much has changed for them. It’s an irony that those involved in building homes and infrastructure are not entitled to any of it. For most of them, home is an assembly of scrap to create a shelter by the road-construction site — the luckier ones find refuge within the concrete skeletons being constructed.

I was glad that this topic took a high level of precedence at a CII-CBRE organized Webinar on the 29th of April this Covid year. While the government at the State and Central level have shown the construction sector a green light, the industry is finding itself short of skilled labor. Perhaps, for the first time, this industry is staring at regulatory conditions relating to work and accommodation conditions. Will this improve working conditions? Will it lead to better care for them? I certainly hope so, though I suspect it’s all a function of how long the COVID issue dogs us. Be it a developer or main contractor, site work — other than planning, is mostly farmed out to sub-contractors, and I don’t have to spell out what happens then. Profit is always the excuse to play spoilsport.

My two-bits: The Covid effect is not going away anytime soon. The cost-benefit ratio from compliances being put in place will drive up costs sufficient enough to push the construction industry in the direction of greater automation, something it has avoided on the back of plentiful and relatively cheap labor. The migrant labor force may well have to reskill to survive in the “new” urban jungle, failing which, staying at home may be a better option. For all you know, India will capture the imagination of the Chinese migrants (read international companies) through astute policies, and bring them here to set up base in the hinterland. That’s where the labor has reverse migrated to — right?

Tell me what you think!