The term ‘migrant’ is applied to any individual who has moved away from their habitual place of residence for a particular reason, either voluntarily or involuntarily. In this piece, we focus on exploring the lives of migrants who move from rural areas to urban centres in search of employment. In doing so, we unpack the bundle of challenges migrants tend to experience when they move to a city, and how this has been magnified by Covid-19. In our question of how to make this transition even marginally better, we look at ‘support centres' as one of the possible solutions.
Ashok, a waiter, and his five friends walked 1600 kms—from their workplace in Mumbai to their homes in Varanasi—when the Covid-19 pandemic struck. They reached home exhausted, like hundreds of other migrants, who had embarked on similar arduous journeys.
However, not all those who travel reach their intended destinations.
Unlike Ashok and his friends, Ranveer Singh—a food delivery executive—collapsed and died of cardiac arrest due to exhaustion, before he could reach his home in Morena, Madhya Pradesh.
The past few months have shined a glaring spotlight on the structural inequalities and treatment of workers in cities. Yet, even as the present crisis has brought attention to the difficult lives of migrants, that they have always faced hardships in “normal times” can hardly be denied.
The movement of people from rural to urban areas in search of better employment and livelihood aka (urban) migration, is part of the development process. This is a two way transaction—cities provide employment to migrants and migrants provide the labor supply.
Image credit: Nayantara Parikh
In India, more than 80% of the labor force is employed in the informal sector (climbing past 90% if we count informal sector workers in the organised sector). Migrants constitute the largest section of this group, with the construction, domestic work and textile industries employing a lion’s share.
Rural-to-urban migration is not as straightforward as it sounds. People leave behind their homes as well as their social networks in search of a better life in the city, all while preparing themselves for a novel way of living. Although migrants anticipate the difficulties ahead, the challenges they actually face in the city can often outweigh their expectations.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous hurdle confronting migrants is their exclusion from the very cities they help build. This exclusion plays out both in their micro and macro universe.
At a policy level, migrants are very vulnerable to being neglected by state provisions and entitlements. Between informal sector migrants having no labor contracts and seasonal migrants shuffling to and from the city, they are unable to acquire legitimacy through documents like registered migrant worker IDs or proof of residence.
Without the ‘right’ documents, access to basic rights like affordable housing or state healthcare facilities are sharply curtailed. Consequently, migrants are forced to live in the urban peripheries with no housing security or regular provision of water and sanitation facilities. And for healthcare they must resort to consulting expensive private doctors or unqualified health providers.
The day-to-day interactions and experiences of migrants can also contribute to feelings of exclusion, as we have learnt from our many interactions with garment workers.
Not knowing the local language (true of most migrant workers) can have pervasive effects. To be in a city, strange and far away from home, amongst strangers who don’t speak your language, can be tough at best and traumatising at worst. At the workplace, migrants don't understand what the supervisor is saying or why they are unhappy. Outside work too, there is a limited choice of people (friends, doctors, shopkeepers) they can talk to and feel comfortable with. It is common for workers to leave their children behind in the villages because of language barriers in urban schools.
Uprooting one’s life and migrating to the city also means there is no assured support network of friends or family to help when one is sick or in need; many young migrants experience bouts of intense homesickness or loneliness in the initial months of their move.
Covid-19 has brought a new set of worries. Scores of migrants unable to survive without their hand-to-mouth income are returning home.
However, in our discussions with Darbar Sahitya Sansad (an Odisha based NGO) we have found that several returning migrants don't find suitable employment under MGNREGA. Years of labor in the garment, retail or domestic work sectors mean that many of these workers are both unfit and unwilling to do manual labor. They are now seeking jobs in the cities again, more desperate than ever.
In the long run, the pandemic might cause disproportionate job losses among female workers. This in turn will result in higher chances of child marriages and gender-based violence. Another population likely to be impacted is the children of migrant workers. As their parents are hit by the financial crisis, chances of continuing education are very slim. A post-disaster study in Odisha has shown that there is a need for equal attention to children’s physical and mental health, especially those in transit camps and quarantine facilities.
While the Covid crisis has brought attention to the financial strains on migrants, the conversation on providing mental health support to cope with the nature of work and its hardships has barely begun.
The scale of the challenges migrants face call for bold solutions. Experts have advised the government to focus on efforts like revitalising rural economies to reduce the dependency on urban migration and guaranteeing universal health care. Similarly, there have been calls for industries to ‘put people over profits’ and avoid laying-off vulnerable migrant workers and instead improve their workplace benefits.
These interventions are undoubtedly valuable, but will take time or massive socio-political capital to be enacted. What are other ways we can begin to address these underlying challenges migrants face?
It is with this question that Shahi Exports in collaboration with H&M approached GBL to explore a project conceptualizing a migration support center (MSC). Migrant welfare is important to Shahi - India’s largest exporter of readymade garments employing over 1,00,000 workers - as 40% of their workforce is female migrant workers. They have realized the stressors migrants face can have real business costs; they typically replace 75% of their migrant labor annually.
But first, what is a migration support center? An MSC functions somewhat like an embassy for migrants. It prepares them at the source and/or eases their integration into the destination. Services provided by typical MSCs include pre-placement support, registering & providing ID cards, legal aid for wage-related disputes & counselling via 24x7 helplines.
While the MSC’s primary stakeholder is the migrant worker, it could even advocate with the government or employers. Some MSCs may use collective bargaining to improve protections at the workplace or facilitate informal migrants to register with occupational welfare boards to access state entitlements. Aajeevika Bureau, YUVA & TATA Trusts all run important MSCs that provide services supporting either informal or formal migrants.
To design our own version of an MSC, we wanted to begin by exploring the experience of migration—what are ‘highs' & ‘lows' of migration and how much do these experiences vary among migrants?
Our first set of activities involved familiarising ourselves with the migrant ecosystem. Design thinking workshops with Shahi staff experienced with handling migrant workers’ issues, comparing existing MSC frameworks to understand best practices of operating a center, and carrying out market research on existing MSCs helped us map the current landscape. In the coming months we hope to conduct primary research with migrants to understand their latent aspirations & desires. Since the migrant experience is not homogenous, our design approach must accommodate different migrant personas as well.
Our eventual aspiration is to identify opportunity areas to innovate in the service design and delivery experience of an MSC that is inclusive and accessible; and produce a scalable MSC framework.
Many of the young migrants we interact with inspire us everyday.
Each person has a story to tell—some work to provide for a family, be financially independent, save for a wedding and some to educate their children. Migrants willingly, or many a time forced by circumstances, undertake the daunting prospects of living a tough life in a strange place, in exchange for the opportunity to fulfill a necessity or a dream. And they deserve the right to be able to pursue these goals without compromising their basic dignity and sanity. We hope our MSC can be one of the many steps towards easing migrants’ journey as they foray into the unknown.
This article is written by Eshan Fotedar, Madhu Manjunath and Maatangi Krishna.
Main image credit: Shalin Gor