It is an 8 x 8 room without any ventilation or windows, but Shimon, a 20-year-old youth from Bihar, calls it home. It is his kitchen, living room and bedroom. It does not boast of any luxuries like a toilet and a bath, but he pays Rs. 1,500 for this "company-provided accommodation". Add to it the Rs. 5,000 he was asked to pay as advance by the garment factory he has been working for six years now. Yes, do the math. Shimon started work here as a child labourer.
Welcome to Tiruppur, the "Dollar City" that pays its labour a pittance and treats its migrant labourers even worse. Shimon's condition is not unique; it is true for lakhs of migrant workers coming here in search of work. They are confined to dingy shacks in narrow streets, which are houses in name only. The city, known for its export-based economy with a turnover of Rs. 40,000 crores, gets a bulk of workers from the less developed States of Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha, and also India's neighbour Bangladesh. They live in unhygienic, unsanitary conditions in 10 x 10 rooms, sometimes even smaller ones like that of Shimon. Six to eight members of family or a group of men live in such small spaces. These "houses" lack any basic facility, and are sometimes worse than cattle sheds but according to estimates, some 2.5 lakh people live in such settlements in Tirupur. But Shimon has no complaints. Not about his living conditions nor about the common toilets and washrooms he shares with nine other houses like his.
Speaking in Tamil that he picked up during his years here, he says, "I came here through one of my relatives. I work for around 12-14 hrs a day and earn around Rs. 20,000 per month. After my expenses, I send around Rs. 15,000 back home." He hopes to be able to earn enough to build a new house for his family, though he is able to afford the ticket back home, hundreds of kilometres away, only about once a year.
With the development of global economy, migration has become an inevitable part of the world as we know it. Millions around the world now live and work outside their country, many of whom left their homes in search of opportunities and a better future. In India, according to recent estimates (from 2017), annually around 9 million people migrated to other States between 2011 and 2016. Around 8,000 garment manufacturing units in Tiruppur, Erode and Coimbatore alone employ around 6 lakh workers; migrant workers from Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand and northeastern states like Assam constitute between 15% and 35% of this labour force.
Housing in Tiruppur is unaffordable for such migrants. A few socially conscious companies provide hostels but even they charge a minimum rate for food and accommodation in the range of Rs. 1,500 to Rs. 2,500, a big sum for people who are trying to feed empty bellies and fend for their families back home.
Kamlesh, 28, lives with his family in a migrant colony near Mudalipalayam SIDCO. The 10 X 10 row houses in the entire neighbourhood houses tenants from North or East India only. Despite all the anti-Hindi protests in Tamil Nadu, the shops here sport Hindi nameboards. "I live with my wife and my brother's family in this house. We are happy here. We don't have any problems; we go to work in the company, come back and take care of our family." He pays a rent of Rs. 4,500 because his house contains an extravagance called a kitchen, though ventilation is absent and the toilets are common. There are no other luxuries to speak of; the drainage is blocked with waste and stray dogs abound.
Most women workers though stay in "hostels" provided by their companies, either located on the factory premises or at a walking distance. Though congested -- in some places, a dormitory with bunk cots accommodates 100-125 people and in others, 8-14 people stay in a room -- the hostel conditions were described as "good". This is because though they share toilets, the places are equipped with electricity, lights and fans. Most hostels have furniture, storage facilities, beds and mattresses and a common television for entertainment.
Non-governmental organization READ (Rights Education and Development Centre) has studied the condition of migrant workers with regard to recruitment practices, freedom of movement, working and living conditions in the absence of strict implementation of a coherent policy framework and its impact on their working conditions. The study reveals that apart from the not-so-good living environment, migrant workers also face a lot of exploitation. They often do the same job as local workers but for lower wages. Abuse is universal.
Most of the migrant workers come to Tiruppur through references from relatives, who most often than not operate as commission agents of companies. The authorities do not have any data on the migrants because there is no system to record their entry into the city. Migrant welfare, therefore, ranks very low on the agenda of the companies, the authorities and the Sstate government in spite of strict laws and regulations in place to safeguard and protect their interests.
NGOs working for migrant welfare are stone-walled as they are scared and reluctant to speak out for the loss of a job leaves them with no choice by starvation; and this also includes their families back home. "Companies prefer North Indian workers because they don't take leave often and work for longer hours without complaining. People from the State take leave to go to native places to attend functions or for emergencies. North Indian workers go home only once or twice in a year. For the company management, this means more productivity," says Mani, a tailor from Pollachi employed at a garment factory in Tiruppur.
"The companies and their agents go as far as Arunachal Pradesh to source workers. Their associations talk to the State governments, promise them a decent employment and bring the people to Tiruppur. But the sad part is they hardly keep their word. There is a lot of discrepancy between the promises made and what is implemented. But the workers hardly complain. They get used to whatever is provided to them, but the truth is that there is a lot of exploitation happening in the industry," says R. Karuppusamy, director, READ.
Migration is a huge socio-economic problem, which needs the attention of law makers and the authorities concerned. Those counting their dollars in this textile city can hardly be expected to take care of their employees.