I was walking past a construction site near my house today when I happened to hear the workers speaking among themselves. Was that Hindi I wondered? I went closer and found that it was indeed Hindi- not just Hindi of the Bollywood variety or the Deccani that is heard South of the Vindhyas but the Bihari style Hindi of the Indo Gangetic plains!
It is not just Bihari Hindi , I have heard during the course of my morning walks security personnel outside palatial houses, speaking on their mobiles in Oriya and I am sure all of us in Chennai are quite familiar with sales personnel in malls who are of North east Indian origin.
So, my question is- Why so many migrant workers ? What happened to the local workforce? I mean we are not like the oil rich middle eastern countries where the locals occupy highly paid jobs while the poor from our country do the manual work. Are Tamil people going without work because of migrants or is the phenomena of migration a result of Tamil people not participating adequately in the labour market?
We had done a study last year of some tea plantations in the Nilgiris. Interestingly, all the owners told us that there is an acute shortage of local workforce. Many of them were employing migrant workers from Jharkhand! Further probing revealed that the local population did not want to work in the plantations as they felt that the terms of employment were not attractive enough – this from workers in a sector that is pretty well regulated under the terms of the plantation labour act. While we did find that in some of the plantations there were problems in terms of adequacy of housing for the family in one of the plantations the conditions were extremely good- yet this was the place with maximum number of migrant labourers!
A friend of mine who owns some agricultural land in Thanjavur was complaining that he is unable to get workers these days during harvest. So he has got into an arrangement with a labour contractor who brings in migrant labour during harvest time.
I have been trying to understand what may be the causes behind this? Why are Tamil people not engaging in the work force? Someone tells me that Tamil Nadu is going the “Kerala” way where the labour market is extremely expensive. But Tamil nadu is a different case. We do not have a shortage of labour on account of labour migrating out into foreign countries like in Kerala. I mean we do have people who migrate to Singapore and Malaysia but in terms of percentage of the population it is not comparable to Kerala. My guess is that most people who used to engage themselves in labour are very much here in the state but not working regularly.
Now the question is, if one is not working how does one feed oneself and one’s family? There are people who believe that with the huge subsidies that people are getting courtesy the state, the desire to work has been coming down. Food grains for the “poor”for example is free thanks to the public distribution system, in many cases housing is also free and now with the National Rural employment Guarantee Scheme one can get a moderate wage for not doing work! And to top it, we find that the government is also giving out consumer durables free! So where is the incentive to work?
There is another interesting side to this. With increasing literacy and access to education, the aspiration of the average Tamilian in the poverty category has changed. Today, they do not see manual labour as something that they want to do. But the question is , has education prepared them for any other sector? Let me give you the example of Kala who helps me out at home. Kala has a nineteen year old daughter who has completed her 10th standard ( well not really completed. She failed her board exams because she got two marks lower than the pass requirement in Maths says her mother). This girl was employed at a local department store doing the billing. After four months of working there she has quit. Her mother has been nagging me to get her a job in my office. When I asked the girl why she had quit her answer was that she did not like to constantly stand on her feet and work. Her legs were “hurting”. I give her the example of her mother who in her fifties sweeps and swabs the floor in 4 houses in our neighborhood and ask her how the pain in her legs compares to that of her mother’s? The girl looked away sulkily. Kala, in the meanwhile keeps pleading with me for a job in my office where her daughter would sit under a fan or in a AC room. “Doing what?” I ask her? She has no answer!
Now, before you start calling me a person with a feudal mentality, I would like to clarify that I am an individual who firmly believes in the rights of workers and in the dignity of labour. Tamil nadu as a state in that respect offers good working conditions for the person who is seeking work- it is obvious from the hordes of people who are migrating! When I spoke to some of the Jharkhand migrant workers in Nilgiris they were all very happy with the working conditions here – “Much better than our village” said one of them.
So the question again is why are people here not engaging themselves in work and building on their ambitions to move ahead in life? Coming back to the point on aspirational levels, I can only say that the skills of the people do not match their aspirations. While education is something that has reached many in this state, unfortunately, the quality of this education leaves much to be desired. Besides, the skills imparted do not prepare the person for any jobs. So for a first generation educated person , it becomes infra dig to go back to manual labour. They feel they are destined for “better” things. But they fail to understand that whatever the sector they work in there is going to be pressure of a certain type. It may be in the form of standing long hours or working long hours. Your legs may hurt like Kala’s daughter’s or your eyes may hurt like mine!
I guess that most of the people who are looking for “better quality work” are led by an image of a government job where one feels that there is little accountability. But believe me folks, for an industrious person even government jobs can be high pressure jobs with long hours. I have seen government officers working till 7 PM ! The first generation educated person has some dreams about jobs that they want. They are looking for trappings of a formal sector – a government job or a job in a factory like Ford or Hyundai. They fail to realize that even working in a semi formal place like a department store or a beauty salon can pave the way for professional growth! There is a beauty salon opposite my house. It is a swanky place and is obviously doing very well! One of the things that you notice the moment you enter there is that there are absolutely no Tamil men or women among the employees ! All the people employed there are people from Darjeeling and the North East! “ I can’t depend on the local people. They are too unreliable” says the proprietor!
I agree that in terms of bargaining power the employer holds all the cards while dealing with migrant labour, I still cannot feel a sense of regret to see an opportunity like this go out of the hands of my Tamil brethren! Imagine, if some girls had been working there, they would have picked up new skills and probably opened up something on their own resulting in development of strong entrepreneurship!
It is sad that the government keeps alive this attitude by pumping in more and more money in subsidy schemes that are increasing the spirit of dependence on the state! As a person who has been working in the development sector within this state, I can say with confidence that there is only a minuscule minority of people who lack access to food, health care or education in this state.As a person who works for a NGO, I have seen over the years the spirit of people's participation in our programs coming down. About a decade ago people were more forthcoming to contribute to the projects from their side either in cash or kind. For e.g if we spent Rs 100 on an activity Rs 10 or Rs 15 of it would be the community contribution. Today, I am sorry to say they do not want to contribute even a rupee though in terms of standard of living I do see an improvement.!
While I must say that the government of Tamil Nadu had a big role to playi in the development of the state , what I fail to understand is why has it not translated in ambition and industry among people to build on what they got and move ahead ? Why are people continuing to fall back on the state?