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Circling Back: Mumbai's Migrant Workers Return

These men deliver goods contained in the baskets atop their heads all day long to and from businesses in south Mumbai.

We walked by the lop-sided doorways in a lane so narrow two people can't walk side by side. A curtain wafted open just enough for us to view a pattern of men curled around each other, asleep on the floor of the small room. They share the claustrophobic space often living ten men to a room. Bereft of furnishings except for a kerosene cooker, woven plastic mats to sleep on, rudimentary utensils, cooking pots and a single ceiling fan — the length of the spinning blades swipe within a foot of the four walls to keep them cool. They take turns sleeping and eat and cook in intervals. They are rickshaw drivers or factory workers from the northern states of Bihar or Uttar Pradesh, India’s poorest and most populous states, who left their villages because there are few opportunities for work. They flock to Mumbai to find work that will enable them to send money home to their families left struggling in villages so far away. This scene is repeated in every slum community in Mumbai.

Workers from villages provide the city with an inexhaustible supply of labour for the jobs that the no one else wants or would perform, satisfying the city’s need and desire for cheap labour, for street food, for domestic workers and factory workers. They are the efficient engine that runs Mumbai. Bulging slum communities are where the migrants make their homes, paying rent to a landlord, bribes to the guy who hooks up electricity in the community, and just like everyone else, they pay their electric and water bills to the appropriate government offices.

Auto rickshaw drivers ply the congested streets of the city while living in squalid, crowded conditions in slum communities.

Laundry wallahs work in large and small operations dotted around the city washing, hanging and folding clothing for the masses.

Large sprawling cities with populations in the millions are heaving with opportunities for people from villages. They are often following the lead of a relative or a friend who’s managed to find work and is able to send money back to their family. In no time they can set up rudimentary chai stalls or food stands on the roadways gulping vehicle exhaust to fuel Mumbai’s hungry office workers. Many work in high output, low ceilinged, crowded factories, not much larger than a slum home, sewing clothing for export.

Using their wits and ingenuity, bicycle wallahs deliver and sell almost anything and everything from their bicycles.

Others deliver milk, bread, furniture, construction needs, household goods, baskets - anything that can be tied to a bicycle, a motorcycle, or in many cases a hand pulled cart, to apartment dwellers. Over the years, we’ve had beds, large capacity propane tanks, five gallon water bottles, and a table delivered by workers using ingenuity and strength. The filthy roadside gutters that need cleaning and the garbage that needs collecting are the jobs relegated to the low-caste migrant worker, tasks performed with their bare hands and often their bare feet without protective equipment. Many women in slum communities work in their small homes performing piecework tasks for nearby factories — a task that varies by factory, to earn 100 - 300 rupees ($2 - $6) per day for hours of work.

Paid by the piece, these women work long hours attaching widgets or sewing buttons for factories to make a few dollars a day.

On construction sites, women adjust the curled rag on their heads to soften the load, before they heft shallow pans loaded with cement, dirt, bricks, or rocks; their necks straining under the weight, working tirelessly in the layered heat of a Mumbai day. They wipe the sweat from their faces with the end of their sari, their worn feet are clad only in flip-flops, to deliver construction materials to waiting labourers at ditches, high rise buildings, road construction, and pipe laying sites. Their children sleep or play on the roadside on salvaged plastic or cardboard while their mothers work ten hours a day for a paltry daily wage they will tuck into their choli blouse at the end of the day.

A road worker with her child at the end of a very long day carrying bricks to a construction site while her child played next to the street.

Domestic workers, clean, cook, and look after the children of the upper middle class spending up to twelve hours a day, seven days a week working for 500 rupees ($10) a month per task. Men employed as personal car drivers for the upper classes, spend as many hours behind the wheel as the employer needs them, six days a week in infamous gridlocked traffic, or parked, waiting for their employer to summon them, using that time to wash and detail the vehicle. For this coveted job they can earn from 10,000 rupees ($200) to 20,000 ($400) per month.

The plight of the migrant worker, once they reach the big cities, is to work long hours for low pay, with no job security, no benefits, no medical plan, no sick pay, with no respect or dignity attached to their job. But, unlike life in the villages which is unsustainable, there will be just enough money, maybe, to feed their children and struggle to pay rent in an massively overcrowded, unhygienic slum community, with little to no money left over to send their children to school or pay for medical issues.

In March, when the government announced the lockdown, they immediately lost their daily wage jobs when Mumbai, a city of over 20 million people, ground to a screeching halt. The garbage piled up, recycling stopped, chai stalls disappeared, restaurants and factories turned off their lights, the garbage in the streets piled up, gutters filled with sewage and garbage, deliveries stopped, construction halted, and private citizens were left to fend for themselves bereft of their low paid domestic servants who’d looked after their every need.

Construction workers arriving back to the community after a days work in the city.

In July, most gated buildings are still locked, domestic workers are told to stay away, phone calls go unreturned, and wages owed before the lockdown started haven’t been paid to many of the women in the community. Most of the middle class and upper middle class are continuing to work from their high rise homes, still claiming a pay cheque. The workers they employed to clean and cook for them and drive them, are in lockdown, living in slum communities without pay and without savings. Factory workers are shut out, many without access to wages owed to them. The street food vendor’s stalls gather dust, and the large pots of chai found on every street filled with steaming aromatic tea, sit empty.

This grandmother (pictured here with her grandson in front of their home) supports her family of three which includes her blind daughter, working seven days a week cleaning for a middle class family who pay her 4000 rupees per month ($80). If she misses a day they deduct 1000 rupees from her monthly pay.

Now, the city that seemed to turn their back on the migrants out of fear they were carriers of the virus, wants them back to maintain the streets, build the buildings and cook their food. After walking hundreds of miles or squeezing into and onto overcrowded trains and buses, while fleeing Mumbai to go back to their families in the villages when their paid work dried up in a matter of hours in March, thousands of desperate workers are starting to return by the trainload with the promise of work from their employers. With factories, businesses and constructions projects allowed to reopen again despite the virus still plaguing the mega city with thousands of new cases daily, and a vague assurance of virus protection protocols in place, the workers, who are fearful of mistreatment, fearful that they might not be paid, have no choice but to return to work with the faint hope of sending money home to their families who are living on meagre food supplies in far flung villages. They are returning to an uncertain situation, to live in crowded slum communities, sharing toilets, small rooms, water sources, with no assurances of better pay, reasonable working conditions, or respect. It’s their only choice.

However it’s clear that they won’t be welcomed by everyone given the vitriol and slurs in the comments sections of news articles from outlets in India about the return of the workers. The same people flinging racial, caste based insults from their keyboards, will employ migrant workers to do low paid jobs for them. It’s how the city works, it’s how the caste system works. It’s how migrant workers fit into the scheme of things. No one in the middle/upper classes will fill the job of a migrant worker.

His job is to clean sewers or muck out toilets with his hands without any protective gear or assistance with a machine to do the job. He is pictured here waist deep in raw sewage.

The recently vacated shanties in the community will soon fill again with rickshaw drivers, factory workers, domestic workers and chai wallahs. The monsoon has arrived in Mumbai - the street gutters need cleaning. Some of the workers will be employed to muck the filth out of the gutter by hand so the citizens in the apartments can flush their toilets and run their water taps before they get into their vehicles driven by a father living in a flooded slum community.

They face merciless realities no matter where they live. In Mumbai, India's economic hub, often referred to as the "city of dreams", they sleep curled around each other, in dark rooms built in narrow lanes, dreaming of a better life.

We’ll continue to supply food and personal hygiene rations to the community to any family who asks for assistance until the lockdown is over and the families can get back to steady work. Indu will begin the process of ration buying and distributing packages to families for the month of July in the next few days. If you’d like, watch for weekly or daily updates about ration delivery and life in the community on Facebook and Instagram.

As of July 11, India surpassed 800,000 cases of the coronavirus. The total number of cases registered in Mumbai is now at 91,457 (63,431 recovered, 22,779 active cases and 5,241 deaths).

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