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The walk of indignity: How migrant workers are being exploited on their way back home

The News Minute, India, 17 May 2020 - Three months ago, 21-year-old Anuji Baskey was flipping burgers and making sandwiches as a ‘Master’ at a restaurant in Thrissur, Kerala. With the little money he made, he was able to survive and send some money back home to his parents in Jharkhand, who he says are poor farm workers. “We all have the same story,” he says with a quivering voice, “we left home to make money and support our families. Now we are at their mercy to return home, they have had to send us money,” he says, sitting on a pavement in Moore Market, just behind Chennai Central railway station.

Anuji and five of his friends – all of whom were working at restaurants in Thrissur and are now stuck in transit in Chennai – left Kerala in late March. They had a roof over their heads and some cash in hand, but they feared the novel coronavirus. “We thought that if we left immediately, we could get back home safely,” Anuji says. But the day they arrived in Chennai, the nation-wide lockdown came into effect and they were left stranded.

Mansions of exploitation

The six of them started staying at a room in one of the many mansions in the by-lanes behind Chennai Central, paying Rs 1800 a night. For almost 45 days, they haemorrhaged money. Apart from the rent, they had to pay for food and water, and phone recharges, so they could continue to get information online and stay in touch with their parents. “We requested the mansion owners to charge us less because we were running out of money, but they refused," says 22-year-old Niranjan, who is accompanying Anuji.

These six weren’t the only ones fighting the battle with mansion owners. Shreela M, a lawyer and volunteer with the COVID Migrant Labour Fund in Chennai, says that mansion owners have been heartlessly exploiting and harassing migrant workers who are stuck in Chennai with nowhere else to go. “We have been repeatedly asking for the government and police to step in, to request mansion owners to allow the poor workers to stay for free or at reasonable costs. There has been some impact, but not all of them have agreed to do so," she says.



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