Thirty-five-year old Surendra Shah has been eating smaller meals since the lockdown began. He eats only twice a day – at 9 am and later at 9 pm. Despite the frugality, the stock of flour in his home ran out on Thursday. He is left with barely any rice, a kilo of potatoes that he purchased for Rs 30 and some salt, which will last him two more meals that he has to share with his younger brother, he said.
Shah works as a power press operator at RDC Steel and Allied Services, which makes motorcycle parts at its factory in Haryana’s Manesar town, 50 km from Delhi. Work at the factory came to a halt on March 20, four days before the central government announced a threee-week nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus epidemic.
Hours before it announced the lockdown, the Central government asked states to ensure that all private establishments continued to pay full wages to their workers, regardless of whether the establishment functioned. No worker, permanent or contractual, should be laid off. Haryana government issued an advisory to this effect on March 23.
But the advisory seems to have been overlooked in the state’s automobile manufacturing belt where a dense network of factories supply auto-parts to India’s leading companies. A survey of 28 workers in Gurugram and Manesar done by Safe in India, a non-profit organisation which focuses on the worker safety concerns, found 22 workers or 79% had not received their salaries till April 7.
In April, Shah received only Rs 3,500 – a fraction of his monthly salary of Rs 11,500. His employer did not give him any reason for delaying the full payment of his salary. Scroll.in emailed RDC Steel and Allied Services but there has been no response yet.
Vinnie Mehta, director general of Automotive Component Manufacturers Association of India, said the association had sent an advisory on March 24 to all its 850 members directing them to not lay off any contractual or permanent workers and pay them their salaries. But many small and medium enterprises were facing the challenge of “whether they can remain solvent or not,” he said.
“There is absolutely no clarity on how long the lockdown will continue and working capital has dried out,” Mehta said. “There is no money in the system. We have repeatedly asked the government for help.”
Workers like Shah say they are going without food and no help is available, from either the industry or the government.
Shah’s grandfather died on March 18 but he and his brother were unable to travel to their family home in Bihar’s Motihari district because the government cancelled several trains. From March 22, all rail and road traffic came to a standstill and the lockdown began on March 24.
Now, trapped in Manesar, the brothers need to pay rent of Rs 2,000. They owe their neighbourhood grocer Rs 2,500 for buying essentials on credit. “We will die hungry. For how many days will we manage?”
On March 23, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar announced his government would provide below poverty line families with free food rations for the month of April. Scroll.in spoke to four workers in the Gurgaon-Manesar belt. None of them had the ration cards needed to access the public distribution system.
Most of the workers in this industrial belt are migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. As migrants, they are often unable to register themselves on the public distribution system in Haryana.
A native of Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, 55-year-old Bhagirath works as a power press operator at JRD Perfect Tools, a company that supplies motorcycle parts to Hero Honda. Despite working in the factory for seven years, he is still employed on a contractual basis and paid Rs 13,000 per month, including payments for overtime. But this month, he received only Rs 9,900 on April 8 and was told by his supervisor that he would get the remainder of Rs 2,670 after a week.
In a response to queries sent by Scroll.in, JRD Perfect Tools said it had paid the salaries for March to all its contractual workers through the contractors. “In case of any discrepancy on the contractor’s side, it shall be resolved latest by Monday,” the company’s spokesperson said.
Bhagirath sent the money he received to his wife and three children in Faizabad. As he waits for the rest of his salary to trickle in, he has about 2 kgs of wheat flour and one kilo of potatoes to sustain himself. “I will eat less, what else?” he said. “What will I go home and do? I am alone here but I am helpless.”
His colleague, Pawan Shah, lives with his 27-year-old wife and three children aged nine, seven and four years. Hailing from Muzaffarpur in Bihar, Pawan Shah is a contract worker in the quality assessment department at JRD Perfect Tools.
He earns around Rs 8,800 per month if he works on all the days and the amount increases to Rs 12,000, if he works overtime. In March, he worked for 15 days and received a salary of Rs 4,200 on March 30, his last working day before the unit pulled down its shutters.
“A lot of us are stranded here,” said Pawan Shah. “Now we do not know if they [the factory owners] will give us a salary for next month. The landlord knows that the company is shut but he is still asking us to pay rent.”
In an order issued on April 2, the Haryana government directed landlords to waive rent for migrant workers and students for the period of one month. This came after the Ministry of Home Affairs directed the states to do so on March 29 to ensure that migrant workers and students stayed put.
But these workers said that their landlords continued to ask them for rent.
Pawan Shah said his company has not made any assurances to its 70-odd workers that they would get work and wages in the coming months. He fears that he many not have an income next month onward to continue to pay rent of Rs 2,500 and buy rations. He owes the grocer Rs 10,000. His family has enough food to sustain them for only two more days, he said.
Going back home was not an option either. “How can we go home?” Pawan Shah asked. “What if someone falls sick. We have children. My seven-year-old does not speak and cannot eat by herself. We are trapped.”
All the workers interviewed by Scroll.in were gripped by anxiety.
Ajeet Mehta, 24, had received only Rs 5,000 of the Rs 7,500 that he is entitled to every month for his contractual job at Minda Industries in Nawada Fatehpur village in Manesar. The company supplies motorcycle parts to Maruti Suzuki and Hero Honda among others, and has nearly 1,500 employees both permanent and contractual, Mehta said.
“Seventy per cent of them went back home in Uttar Pradesh because they could make it,” said Mehta, who came to Haryana from Rohtas district in Bihar nearly three years ago. “The rest of us who are from Bihar had to stay back. We are just sitting in the room getting bored.”
His supervisor has assured him that he will get the remainder of his salary on April 15. But until then, Mehta has to pay his rent of Rs 2,050 and Rs 3,000 to the grocer he owes. “The landlord has agreed to adjust with us for 10 days but we will have to pay him after that,” he said.
Safe in India, the non-profit organisation that did the survey, has been supplying dry food rations to 3,000 people in 11 villages in Gurugram district every day. “Lakh of daily wagers are only asking for food right now but soon they will need cash for cooking gas, medicines and phone recharge,” said Sandeep Sachdeva, the CEO of the organisation. “We, along with the government, need to plan to support them. Let’s not forget we need them too.”
Safe in India wrote to the divisional commissioner of Gurugram, making a slew of recommendations. It asked the administration to make cash transfers to workers in addition to ensuring full payment of wages by employers and rent waiver by landlords. It also recommended that public schools be used as shelters and kitchens for migrant workers, like neighbouring Delhi had done.
On its part, Haryana government has already announced cash assistance of Rs 1,000 every week for daily wage workers, which would be deposited in their bank accounts. For this, daily wage workers need to register online with the deputy commissioner of their district.
But most workers that Scroll.in spoke to had not heard of this initiative. Moreover, they were scared to venture out fearing police action against them. Some said that the streets were patrolled by local residents who were armed with sticks and roamed around in bikes.
On Thursday, in Manesar’s Aliyar village, the police arrestedeight men accused of beating up migrant workers, The Indian Express reported. The report quoted police officials as saying the accused were a part of a committee constituted to “assist” the enforcement of the lockdown.
For migrant workers, hunger comes laced with fear.
“We do not want to fight with anyone,” said Surendra Shah. “No one will listen to us because we are from Bihar.”