(Adds quote from union head)
By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, May 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An Indian state on Wednesday halted trains taking stranded migrant labourers home so that work on construction sites could restart, a move widely condemned as amounting to forced labour.
Authorities in the relatively prosperous southern state of Karnataka cancelled 10 trains for migrant workers as the chief minister appealed to them to stay, saying construction projects halted due to a coronavirus lockdown would resume.
Many of India’s estimated 100 million migrant workers were left stranded with no food, shelter or income when the government imposed the world’s biggest lockdown to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the country of 1.3 billion.
Some walked long distances home after the lockdown was imposed in late March, but others were hoping to get back to their villages on special buses and trains put on by authorities from last week.
“We registered at the local police station, were promised a ticket to go back home, and now suddenly everything has been cancelled,” electrician Rakesh Kumar Yadav, 22, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the state capital Bengaluru.
“I have told my contractor that I will not return to work because I am scared of contracting the disease. Right now, I just want to go home,” said Yadav, who is from the eastern state of Bihar.
The head of the Karnataka State Construction Workers’ central union criticised the government, saying labourers had been given no assurances about their safety and their pay had been delayed.
“The circumstances are such that people want to be with their families at home, and by stopping trains, government is forcing them to stay and work,” said N P Samy by phone.
“Workers are right to be worried because there is no guideline for workplace safety or assurance of accommodation that will ensure social distancing is possible.”
N Manjunatha Prasad, the state official handling migrant issues, declined to comment. Federal labour ministry officials did not respond to email and telephone calls.
Antony Raju, a consultant for the charity Cividep which is providing aid to migrant workers in Bengaluru, said the decision was “totally unacceptable”.
“Most workers want to go back because the last 40 days have been traumatic for them,” he said.
“Besides being scared of contracting the disease and struggling to access aid, they feel stripped of their dignity each time they have to queue up for food.”
Supreme Court advocate Karuna Nundy tweeted that the state government decision had “elements of compulsion” and was prohibited by the constitution.
In an open letter to the Karnataka government, labour rights campaigners, charities and citizens questioned the decision, which they said was “taken solely to appease the lobby of builders and contractors”.
“Neither migrant workers nor trade unions representing them were consulted,” said the letter.
India’s lockdown, now extended until May 17, has taken a toll on the migrant workers who fuel large parts of the economy, from manufacturing to construction. It has triggered an exodus from cities and sparked protests by workers wanting to go home.
Many states have been worried about the “reverse migration” of workers, with builders and manufacturers raising concerns about labour shortage as India eases lockdown restrictions and allows industries to function.
But Yadav is sure that he does not want to work now even if it means forgoing wages his contractor is yet to pay him or the monthly wages of 10,000 Indian rupees he will get if he goes back to work.
“Why should I risk going back to work now? There will be hundreds of us and we are not sure if safety precautions will be there,” he said.
“Besides, when my mother heard that special trains were being run, she told me to board one and come home. Now I don’t know how to explain the situation to her. Life right now seems useless and unfair.”
Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj @AnuraNagaraj; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org