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‘Struggling to feed our workers as MLAs diverting supplies to their areas’: Goa industries body chief

Damodar Kochkar, Goa State Industries Association president, says while they are trying to help their labourers, 'at some stage, we expect the government to take charge'.

Written by Smita Nair | Panjim | Updated: April 2, 2020 11:08:43 pm
While most Goan homes are expected to have their supplies in order soon, the labour class — facing loss of pay, afraid of being evicted from their homes, and with kilometres to walk to reach food camps — needs attention. (File)

With trucks carrying essentials entering Goa and the supply chain finally improving, a group that continues to struggle is the labour force — migrant workers in the construction sector, and the floating wage class working in industrial zones.

The third category, of migrants working in the hospitality sector, estimated to be a lakh in number, are being taken care of by the sector, officials claim.

The private industry sector claims while they are trying to look after their workers, MLAs disrupting the supply chain to direct essentials to their own constituencies is adding to their difficulties.

On Thursday, the labour ministry, which has 15,000 workers registered as construction workers, started disbursing Rs 6,000 into their accounts, even as the government continued to convince labourers to move to the 15 designated labour relief camps.

For many industrial workers, the industrial estate AT Verna is shaping up as the nodal helpline — with supplies to an 80,000-strong workforce spread across 24 industrial estates, between 3,000 industries, being monitored. The head of the operation, Damodar Kochkar, president of Goa State Industries Association, said they had to finally act on March 28, after all efforts and calls to the state government to facilitate food and essentials failed.

Since the lockdown, the association had been getting calls from various quarters — and finally from the Red Cross.

“We were struggling as the working class is divided into two class of labour. One under contractors, and the other the daily wage worker who floats between industrial assignments. We started getting complaints of contractors abandoning the labourers, and in many places saying companies were not paying. We decided to correct things by calling industries and making them pay the contractors,” Kochkar said of the last five days. “However, many contractors still refuse to pay.”

Till March 28, private sources were being tapped to arrange essentials, but bulk quantities of food could not be managed for such a large and hungry population, who suddenly went without food and pay.

“We kept calling the offices of Bagayatdar (state co-operative of horticulture produce), only to be told that the supply chain was disrupted by MLAs hoarding supplies. We then started frantically calling all wholesale distributors across the state, and got the same feedback — their produce was being directed to MLAs’ channels, with nothing left in shops. Our members were getting the feedback that only voter constituencies were being given produce, with no thought given to the labour force,” Kochkar added. “We continued to supply ration with whatever little we managed from different private sponsors.”

On March 31, the industries group was informed by the government of a van coming with rations. “It never came. We got the labourers to make a queue using social distancing norms, but no van came,” he added.

Since then, the Association has pulled weight and started sourcing ration on their own. While 500 kg of rice and 30 kg of masoor daal arrived, they are still strugglingto get proper quantities of essentials to feed the large force.

“It’s appalling that the supply chain was disrupted, commodities were and still continue to be sold at higher prices, and the labour force, which is very crucial, has been left to fend for themselves. We will take care of them as they build our industries. But it’s still 13 days for the curfew to be lifted and their needs need to be accounted for. Today too, we struggled to get daal. We got a call from Mamlatdar office asking to handle this for the next few days. No one has a grip yet,” Kochkar added. “At some stage, we expect the government to take charge. They have not even got a counter put up here yet to understand and account for the workforce.”

From across Goa, complaints also continued to come of workers being abandoned by real estate builders.

At a slum, another issue revealed was labourers working in the construction sector being evicted for failure to pay rent due to loss of pay.

Bharosi Kevat, a worker from Madhya Pradesh who was scrambling to arrange food for men in his slum, said, “We are aware of government’s labour relief camp but if we leave for that meal, we lose the room in the slums. After the virus, the relief camp will be shut and we will have no place to go. We have no clarity on our pay, and if we will get any benefits. We go and stand in queues and get whatever we can buy. Yesterday, we spent the last Rs 140 in buying some basics, which was finished between 10 persons. Since most are floating wage-workers, we have no one to stand for us.”

The lockdown, meanwhile, has also brought to fore the number of people employed in the tourism industry. While the labour department officials went with the limited data they had, it took the lockdown to make them aware of over one lakh workers engaged in the tourism sector working in kitchen, shacks and restaurants. “We weren’t prepared for those numbers and in the tough period of the first five days with no supplies, it became difficult,”a goverment source said.

For now, 60,000 meals have been supplied, according to official figures with the Goa government. The officials also admit that on the first three days, at many places, only one meal could reach, with many left to fend for themselves.
Officials said they are looking to understand the concerns of the labour class and ensure strict action is taken against those who evict them or do not pay them.

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