Hungry and thirsty, Mohammed Tanveer walked and hitchhiked 1,900 kilometres home after losing his job in the first coronavirus wave in 2020 – and, like many Indian migrants, has promised never to work so far from his family again.
Tanveer is now doing manual work in a marble factory near the capital, New Delhi, 1,000km (621 miles) west of his village in eastern Bihar state. He is much happier.
“I got married 10 years ago but for the first time, I’ve got my wife and two children with me. They live with me now. This was not an option living in Chennai,” he said, referring to his previous job, also in a marble factory, in southern India.
“I often worried what if someone in my family fell ill? How long would it take me to get home? … I decided never again will I travel this far for work,” Tanveer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Ghaziabad.
“My family also said it was better to stay closer.”
Tanveer was among 11 million migrants who travelled thousands of miles home in scorching heat, many dying of exhaustion or in accidents, after losing their jobs in one of the world’s longest and strictest COVID-19 lockdowns.
Such arduous journeys were a wake-up call to many of India’s invisible 140 million migrant workers – about a fifth of the workforce – who face some of the worst working conditions, often lack formal contracts and are rarely unionised.
With recurring waves of COVID-19 and precarious working conditions, many migrants are finding jobs closer to home where possible, or forging stronger support networks in destination cities, according to labour rights campaigners.
“Long-distance migration will come down,” said S Irudaya Rajan, a migration expert in the prosperous southwestern coastal state of Kerala, which attracts millions of migrants from across India, mainly to work in fishing, farming and construction.
“Migrants remember and they want to avoid earlier situations. They want to move shorter distances to minimise uncertainties,” said Rajan, chairman of the International Institute of Migration and Development, a think-tank.
India’s federal labour ministry did not respond to requests for comment.
Migrants are the backbone of India’s urban economy, driving taxis, sewing clothes and building apartments for a daily wage that they send home to those left behind in villages.
Despite a long history of labour activism in India, migrant workers rarely join unions because they are often on the move and work informally, labour rights experts say.
Lingraj Seti, who has worked as a migrant weaver for 18 years in Surat, India’s textile hub in the western coastal state of Gujarat, is a member of a local textile workers’ collective, Pravasi Shramik Suraksha Manch.
It played a key role during the lockdown, supporting migrants with food, water, masks and sanitiser, helping to secure unpaid wages and even organising for a train to bring them back to work in November 2020.
“Migrant workers want to be a part of a community where they can seek and give help,” said Seti, who works some 1,500km (932 miles) west of his home state of Odisha on the east coast.
Pravasi Shramik Suraksha Manch has grown since the pandemic started, with more than 5,000 members today, up from 3,300 before March 2020, Seti said.
As an informal collective, it helps its members negotiate fair wages and working hours, healthcare and improved safety. It was registered in 2020 as the first step towards becoming a formal union.
“Workers don’t get respect for the labour they put in. Workers come together to help and reassure each other that things will get better and situation will improve for us,” Seti said, adding that debt was a growing problem.
Many workers, he said, are finding it difficult to repay informal loans they took out to get through the lockdown.
Such support is sorely needed, said Chandan Kumar, coordinator of the Working People’s Coalition, a Mumbai-based network of organisations working to improve the rights of informal workers, particularly migrants.
“Their lives have become more precarious as their wages are getting lowered,” said Kumar, citing International Labour Organization data (PDF) showing that Indian informal workers had a 23 percent wage cut compared with four percent for formal workers in 2020.
Soon after the 2020 lockdown, federal and state governments launched a series of welfare schemes for the poor, including ration cards to access free food grains, affordable rental housing, skills development and public works schemes.
But this relief has been patchy, with most programmes poorly or slowly implemented, said Kumar.
“Workers are seeking maximum protection. However, no substantial policy effort is actually translating into changing their lives,” he said.
For labour economist K R Shyam Sundar, the hardships endured by migrants during the 2020 lockdown – which led to one of the biggest mass movements in India since the partition with Pakistan in 1947 – will bring lasting change.
“Social capital will become very important in the years to come,” said Sundar, a professor at XLRI-Xavier School of Management, referring to the informal networks between migrants.
“Not just for a sense of solidarity, but also to help them take collective action if a similar threat comes in the future.”
Meanwhile, many migrants prefer to stay close to home.
Surendra Kumar lost his job as an office assistant in Delhi in March 2020 and was trapped in a rented house with his brother, who was also laid off, and their mother for 68 days.
“It was a difficult period,” said Kumar, 24, who now works as a gem cutter in his home state of Rajasthan in western India after almost 18 months’ unemployment.
“We were left with very little money.”
Kumar said he loved Delhi but now feels more secure living in Rajasthan’s capital, Jaipur, only 150km (93 miles) from his village.
“It was a city that once gave me everything. I studied there, learnt basic spoken English, got a graduation degree. But now that I look back, there is nothing really left for me in Delhi,” he said. “I will never go back.”