Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

An Exploration of Collective Meaning-Making among Migrant Workers

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

An Exploration of Collective Meaning-Making among Migrant Workers

Article excerpt

People migrate in order to improve their economic well-being and escape from poverty (Kundu & Sarangi, 2007). In this study, I seek to understand how migrant workers negotiate the vulnerabilities they face. In India, social security is not available for a large number of workers; they are not eligible for provident funds, injury benefits, access to education and housing, or health and old age care. The absence of social security means that workers are forced to look after themselves and migrate to look for employment in the unorganised sector in cities in the hope of obtaining higher wages.

This unorganized sector refers to establishments which are not covered under labour laws applicable to factories and other establishments. Typically, the unorganised sector encompasses those establishments which employ less than 10 workers and is growing at an incredible pace, whereas employment opportunities in the organized sector have reduced drastically (RoyChowdhury, 2002). Employees in the unorganised sector do not have job security, wage revision, and other benefits. Workers in the unorganised sector lack both the legal entitlement to fair wages and other benefits and consequently, they are extremely disempowered (RoyChowdhury, 2005). Adding to their woes is the long and unregulated hours of work. The unorganised sector, especially the food sector, is mostly dominated by migrants.

While the state enacted legislation for the social security of unorganised or informal workers in 2008, it has been criticised by civil society and organizations representing collectives of workers. The legislation does not regulate conditions of employment and wages for informal workers, thus life and disability insurance, health and maternity benefits, and old age care are not expected to reach a majority of the informal workers.

Though the government has many welfare schemes, they are hardly sufficient to meet the many needs of the marginalised sections of Indian society. The dilution of government's anti-poverty initiatives after liberalisation, privatisation, and globalisation (Soederberg, 2001) increased migration to urban areas where workers accepted jobs with low security, abysmal wages, and very poor working conditions. Since the migrants have lower literacy rates and come from impoverished socio-economic backgrounds, they are considered to be more vulnerable in society (Vijay, 2005). Being in a new place without any social support adds to their problems and their geographical distance and cultural diversity create barriers in organizing as a collective (Sengupta, Kannan, Srivastava, Malhotra, & Papola, 2007). Migrants are people in transit who come to work in a place and go back home or to some other new place later. Migrants keep shifting from one place to another, and this needs to be kept in mind by the government when designing a comprehensive scheme of welfare for migrant workers. However, Fall (1998) does not subscribe to the view of temporary migration. Rather, he states that migrants visit their native place only occasionally for participating in family ceremonies. Migrants prefer a permanent urban residence, but travel back to their roots to take care of family obligations. In this context I was interested in studying how migrant workers may help each other during their difficulties and try to overcome their vulnerabilities. I was interested in studying whether informal processes of collectivisation were a feasible strategy that migrant workers could adopt to improve their well-being. Informal processes of collectivisation may often be viable for migrant workers on the basis of shared identity and experiences of work and livelihood (Rai & Selvaraj, in press). Migrant workers face issues of injustice and marginalisation due to ethnicity, language, and other factors (Sengupta et al., 2007).

In the organised sector, workers have developed collective mechanisms to fight against the arbitrary powers of the employer including a collective body to exert some influence on wage negotiations and fight against injustices meted out by the managerial class. …

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