Time to return – the case of involuntary, premature return of migrant workers

“Kamani Lal is 30 years old and lives in the Kakarwa village in the Kelwada tehsil of Rajsamand.  He lives in a small one room home with his wife and 3 daughters. He owns 3 acres of cultivable land. It has been one and a half years since he returned to his village. He left his studies after passing the 5th standard and his migration occurred when he was 17 to Ahmadabad (Gujarat).  In Ahmadabad he was trained in cloth dying, and worked there for four years, with a starting salary of Rs. 3000 per month. He left this job due to the intensity of the toxins of the chemicals being used in the dying of the cloth, which began to take a toll on his health.  After spending 6 months in his village, he traveled to Surat and found work as a diamond cutter. Kamani spent 8 years in Surat, where his starting salary was Rs. 4000 per month and he finished at Rs. 6500 per month.  Despite being satisfied with his wages, Kamani was compelled to return to his village due to persistent health issues related to the task of diamond cutting.  The precision of diamond cutting put great strain on Kamani’s vision, who was working 12 hour days, 7 days a week.  When it became unbearable, Kamani returned home to his village. Kamani continues to stay in his village with mounting domestic responsibilities, farm work and persistent health issues relating to his eyesight. Kamani currently has no intention of future migration and his social and economic state continues to be a source of stress.” 

Where large scale rural-urban labor movement is now accepted as modern India’s reality, it is a fact that an equally good number of workers keep coming back to their source; often too early in their productive life cycle, and battered by the vagaries of the informal labor market conditions. In the deluge of labor migration to cities, there is a counter flow of people, often in despair, which many of us fail to spot. 

The phenomenon of return migration in high-migration belts is significant and deserves attention. A study done by Jatan and Aajeevika Bureau in Relmagra (Rajsamand district, south Rajasthan) in 2006 revealed that out of 263 youth interviewed, 46 % of the youth were early returnees. In most cases, it wasn’t voluntary return. They had come back over-whelmed by the cruel labor market conditions, and failed to resume a productive work-life in the ever livelihood-scarce landscape of their native villages.

Reasons for early return are many. In studies done by Arjan deHaan in West Bengal he finds that “return migration and patterns of circular migration are triggered by unpredictable conditions at the destination and ruptures in domestic situations at the source”. A qualitative investigation of 90 returnees in Udaipur by Aajeevika revealed that 40 per cent of them had come back either due to low wages or withholding of wages by the contractor/employer. Inexperienced, first time migrants fail to clarify terns of payment before entering an employment agreement with a contractor. Migrants often do not log their hours worked and payment owed. When there are no records, employers are able to withhold and pay less than what is earned without accountability. A good number also returned to attend to family emergencies/responsibilities and were unable to resume migration.

Poor health also triggered return for a sizable group. Exhaustive working hours, poor nutrition and occupational hazards (injuries occurring at the workplace) pushed migrants back to the source. In this study, it was observed that return based on health was due to long working hours coupled with poor working conditions. Migrants often work 7 days a week for as many as 20 hours per day, especially if they are being paid on an hourly basis or in proportion to labor performed. For example, in the textile market in Surat, migrants often start work at 7 AM and work until 10 or 11 PM.  By the time they return home, prepare food eat and sleep, it is 2 AM. Once they have bathed, washed their clothes and tended to personal matters, there is often very little time for rest and tending to personal matters, let alone negotiating better work conditions. 

Early return is a complex and multi-layered issue that often destabilizes the social, economic and psychological well-being of a migrant. Of the 90 migrants surveyed, the study found that 49 % were in a vulnerable state – migrants whose current livelihood options were under duress, and future livelihood options were minimal. Many returnees, during the study, expressed a sense of disenfranchisement and uncertainty about their future. Exposure to harsh working conditions and unanticipated challenges at a very early age (average age of first migration for the sample was 17) had negative impacts of the self-confidence, dulling the vibrance akin to this age group.

At Aajeevika, we’ve found returnees to be an invisible yet highly vulnerable group in need of special attention. A premature exposure to informal labor market conditions has led them astray and there is a pressing need to bring them to the mainstream. Some of the possible ways to engage further with this group could be building their skill-sets, rebuilding their confidence, and encouraging self-enterprise with help of financial services. Efforts are being made to develop focus within the existing interventions on this group. For example, in our skill-training work, while spelling our target group we’ve tried to maintain a special focus on returnees. More, however, needs to be done.

– Simmi Dixit and Amrita Sharma, Aajeevika Bureau. Simmi worked as a volunteer for Aajeevika Bureau for a year.

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2 Responses to Time to return – the case of involuntary, premature return of migrant workers

  1. Sejal Dave says:

    Though the story sounds painful, this write up gives many insights into the issues of migrants labours

  2. Kamlesh Sharma says:

    A good piece of writing on a relevant issue. Return migration is an indicator that migration is a good opportunity if well organized and guided properly. Return migration is not a new thing associated with migration. most of the people do return at a certain point but early return or returning in a very productive age is the concern. This needs attention.

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