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Vol. XXXII No. 23, March 16-31, 2023

Heat of migrant worker row singes state entities, both business and political

-- by A Special Correspondent

The two-minute video appeared on social media channels in the first week of March. Set in what seems to be an unreserved coach on a moving train in Tamil Nadu, it shows a man asking one of his co-passengers whether he speaks Tamil or Hindi; the scene then shows him proceeding to abuse and assault three migrant workers, angrily accusing them of stealing local jobs. The video went viral and understandably created a furore, in the wake of which more such videos mushroomed, purportedly documenting violence against migrant workers in the State. Though the media were later discovered to be either fake or maliciously misrepresented, industrial sectors in Chennai and Tamil Nadu that depend on migrant labour are left worried about the unease among their migrant employees.

Tamil Nadu is reportedly home to about a million migrant workers who prop up the state’s industrial and manufacturing sectors. In fact, more than 70 per cent of those who work in MSMEs, restaurants and construction firms are estimated to be migrant workers. The fake videos have spread considerable panic among this base, many of whom have been staying away from work on reading reports related to the alleged migrant violence. Some business leaders say that their employees are leaving for their own states as their families back home are anxious. “Some of my workers have also left for their hometowns after getting calls from their families. We are in touch with them,” said M Ravi, President of the Chennai Hotels Association to The Hindu, adding, “The migrant workers have played a crucial role in the restaurant and hospitality sector in the State. They learn our language and recipes quickly.”

Many business heads have taken proactive measures to meet with the migrant workers they employ and reassure them of their safety.

The administration too has quickly rallied to assuage fears. A press release was issued in which CM M.K. Stalin stated, “Migrant labourers need not fear. If there is any threat, you can reach out to the helpline numbers of the police department.” The Chief Minister also visited Kanam Latex, a business involved in the manufacture of hand gloves, to personally enquire about the well-being of the migrant labourers who worked there. It was reported that the workers gave positive feedback about their experience working in the state, acknowledging that the state administration was supportive and that the local people were friendly. The CM urged them not to give in to rumours and reiterated that the State government was committed to providing safe working environments for guest workers from all states.

The issue has opened a can of worms in the State. Charges of inciting violence have been filed against politicians and media houses whose handling of the report is seen to be deliberately misleading; this, of course, is hotly contested by those charged. On the other hand, some factions are using the opportunity to bat for job reservations for local workers. The Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam (TPDK) staged a large protest in front of Shashtri Bhavan, demanding that priority be given to Tamils in Central government jobs based in the State. They also sought reservations in the appointment of Supreme and High Court judges. Ground opinions are split amongst the people as well, going by social media chatter.

While many are aghast at the divide and seek to reaffirm that TN is a welcoming state, there is also a significant pool of others who express real concern about what they see as a massive influx of migrant workers.

The impact of the subject is so varied and widespread that it can be argued that fake news is not the real problem anymore, even though it is the root cause. In hindsight, perhaps this is a debate that was imminent. What TN needs now is to spread awareness of migrant labour proportions and the crucial role they play in enriching local economies. Concerns of local joblessness need to be addressed head-on and given its own importance, separate from the subject of migrant labour. The engines of state politics need to examine their own messaging as well, for it cannot be denied that their attempts to take a certain political stance may well have alienated guest populations. Migrant workers have played a key role in growing our state’s coffers. We cannot do without them and it is up to us to keep them feeling safe and taken care of.

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