A nation of over 522 million workers will celebrate International Workers Day or “Antarashtriya Mazdoor Diwas” today. Historically, Labour Day or International Workers’ Day commemorates worker solidarity, the dignity of labour, and the rights of workers to organise and be treated with respect.
However, on its 97th Labour Day, the nation is reeling from the onslaught of the nationwide coronavirus lockdown that has pulled the ground from under the feet of its labour force; dignity, solidarity, and respect seem like hollow tokens to the migrant labourers of the nation.
The mass exodus of migrant labourers from cities back to their hometowns after the nationwide lockdown was announced on 24 March is the biggest forced migration seen since the Partition in 1947. Labourers made the long journey back to their rural homes, braving sub-standard quarantine facilities, relief camps, and the whims of authority figures.
And yet, even in the midst of the turmoil, it seems they are preparing, even if mentally, to return to the city again if things resume to a more BAU (business as usual) status.
The dusty badlands of Bundelkhand testify.
Usha, a labourer from Mahoba says, “Of course we will go back to Delhi. Wherever we can earn enough to fill our stomachs, we will go. What will we do here, when we don’t have any land or livelihood? There is no work for us here.”
“Yahan par rozgaar nahi hai” or ‘there is no work here’ has become a common refrain across the region. No employment in Bundelkhand, growing families to feed, extant debt, and inadequate farmlands in their hometowns are cited as common reasons for labourers to migrate to bigger cities. India has roughly 120 million such migrant workers, forming approximately 20 percent of the nation’s workforce.
This much is clear, this Labour Day, the workers of India are fighting for their right to work, and for work as a road back to dignified living.