Panic over COVID-19 and lack of work due to the shutdown have sparked an exodus among workers, who now fear being stuck after all train services in the country have been cancelled. The past two days saw massive crowds on long-distance train stations in Mumbai and Pune, with an exodus of migrant workers leaving for their hometowns. With the Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray’s appeal to employers to at least pay minimum wages to workers not feasible for smaller manufacturing units, who themselves are staring at losses, labourers in the city fear they will be forced to live on the streets.
Shrinath Mandal, a 42-year old labourer from Murshidabad in West Bengal, said that while he attempted to leave for his hometown, it was impossible to get into a train in the past two days. “There is a lot of uncertainty about whether we can continue to live in Mumbai till the shutdown is lifted. My employer told us that if we want we can return to our hometowns since there is a slowdown in the work as well due to restrictions on import-export and manufacturing. But, it was impossible to get into a train with such a large crowd. I stay within the unit where I work, if the employer insists that we leave, we will have nowhere to go. My fear is that the police will take action against us for staying on the street or at railway stations,” Mandal says.
For him and many others, the fear of the spread of COVID-19 is overshadowed by the these worries. Earning Rs 15,000 a month, Mandal says that his family depends on it for monthly sustenance and hence there are barely any savings to arrange for alternate accommodation till the shutdown ends in the city. The city also does not have enough shelter homes as mandated by the Supreme Court.
Over the past two weeks, news as well as misinformation about the virus created panic among many. “When news about the virus spreading in Mumbai began, my family members began panicking asking us to return. It will be safer to be among our family right now in our villages where there is a possibility that the virus will not reach instead of being here and constantly worrying. It is a big city, who will take care if we fall ill?” says 18-year old Bholu Kumar, another labourer, who works in a scrap unit in Kurla. Kumar said that the only option to return to his home to Mirzapur, Uttar Pradesh, nearly 1500 km away, is taking a domestic flight, which would mean taking a debt.
A supervisor working in Dharavi said that while many employers are sympathetic towards the labourers, they themselves are unsure of how to continue paying wages as they have suffered losses too. “Many also do not want to leave as it would mean losing job altogether. Some have pending dues which cannot be paid right now. We heard that the government has appealed that there be no termination of jobs. Unless, the government intervenes passing strict orders, many do not have the means to fight with the employer,” the supervisor said.
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