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Mumbai staring at massive labour shortage

By Raghavendra Kamath & Amritha Pillay
May 11, 2020 11:34 IST
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Several on-site labourers in the city want to take special trains being run to transport workers back home.

The rising number of COVID-19 cases in the city has caused anxiety among them.

Mumbai, one of India’s top employment generators, has started to worry about the labour shortage, with companies saying workers want to return home.

Several on-site labourers in the city want to take special trains being run to transport workers back home.


The rising number of COVID-19 cases in the city has caused anxiety among them.

While some wish to return to their families, others need to reach to their farms before the sowing season.

Labourers go back in summers because it is wedding season and also a helping hand is needed to till the family land in villages.

“Following the government’s recent decision to permit the migrant workers to travel to their home states, there has been a rush of applications from the migrant workers who want to take the special trains to their home state.

"The lockdown has tested patience of these workers,” said a spokesperson for Shapoorji Pallonji Engineering & Construction (SP E&C).

Vikas Oberoi, chairman and managing director, Oberoi Realty, however, said: “Forty to fifty per cent of our labour force wants to go back.

"They also realise that if they go back they will be quarantined for 21 days before they get to see their families.”

The Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) has close to 11,000 labourers working on different projects, including the city-wide metro network.

A top official said: “We have been able to execute work smoothly due to the lockdown since roads were empty and management of the construction work was easy. Labour is our only concern.”

The official said workers may start feeling uneasy if  the number of COVID-19 cases in the city rises further.

“They are at our site and taken care of, and need not worry about infections. However, we cannot force them to stay back if they wish to go,” he added.

For now, the city planning authority has managed to create awareness and convince them to stay back.

Real estate companies, which had arranged for their workers to stay back at their sites are facing similar concerns, albeit for different reasons.

Oberoi said the company was in talks with its workers and convinced them to work until the lockdown was over.

“We have been successful in convincing more than 50 per cent of them,” he added.

Some of the labourers want to reach their home state before the sowing season starts.

“Many of those on our sites want to go back to the farms. They do it every year just before the rains to sow the seeds.

"There will be shortage of workers in the short run,” said Niranjan Hiranandani, managing director of Hiranandani Group.

Some like SP E&C are using incentives, among other measures, to keep the labourers motivated.

“We are incentivising our workers financially and releasing timely payments to motivate our workers.”

Other measures include assurance over continuity of preventive and welfare measures in the post-lockdown scenario, motivational talks for workers to alleviate their anxiety and urging them not to believe in rumours.

On a media call on Saturday, executives from Adani Transmission, which is also an electricity provider in Mumbai, said: “Work related to upgradation is underway; the only worry is we should not see a flight of labourers.”

However, not everyone in the city is facing a similar challenge.

People directly involved in the construction of the city’s coastal road project suggest that labourers continue to stay on site with no concerns.

Kamal Khetan, chairman and managing director, Sunteck Realty, said all of its 2,000 workers are on sites and work has started on nine out of 10 locations.

While attempts continue to convince the labour class, some like SP E&C expect it would take at least six months for the worker strength to return to normal.

Photograph: PTI Photo

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Raghavendra Kamath & Amritha Pillay in Mumbai
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