IT STARTED as a call center to help workers in other states with food and money when the first Covid restrictions took effect early last year. Today, the Jharkhand Migrant Control Room has also become a lifeline for their families – bringing stranded workers back, helping them secure exceptional wages and coordinating the return of the bodies of those who lost their lives in d ‘other states.
“Last year, nearly 200 bodies of workers were brought back to Jharkhand, but several agencies were involved. This year, we on our own helped the families of 68 workers who died on construction sites in 16 states recover their bodies, ”said Shikha Pankaj, control room team leader.
“Workers have died from illnesses, incidents at construction sites, electric shocks, suicides, heart attacks, natural disasters and accidents, among other causes. This required constant monitoring and the mobilization of our own funding from our partners to recover their bodies. Counseling family members is another challenge, ”she said.
Shikha is part of the PFIA Foundation, a Delhi-based NGO that was chosen by the state government to manage the control room with a workforce of 30 people from various backgrounds, such as management and social services.
Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren said: “When the pandemic hit and the lockdown was announced, we were looking for an organization that could understand the plight of the state’s migrants and act as a bridge between the government and them. This is where the PHIA Foundation came in… For the past year and a half, the Control Room has been the backbone of our entire campaign to help our state workers across the country in times of need.
According to a government official, the foundation has started working with its own “seed capital”. “The government supported them with space and manpower to receive calls at night,” the official said.
“We have been mobilizing resources to support this initiative from the start,” said Johnson Topno, head of state of the PHIA Foundation, which focuses on marginalized communities. “We have been working constantly since March 27 of last year,” said Shikha.
The control room also plays a key role in rescuing stranded workers. In June of this year, control room staff said, they secured the return of 32 members of a tribal community who were stranded in a brickyard in UP’s Deoria after failing to receive pay during for the past six months.
In October, a group of workers were “rescued” from Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh after some of them called to complain about being assaulted by their employers. “This month, 42 women, who worked in a textile company in Karur, Tamil Nadu, were brought back after complaining about the lack of amenities and low wages,” said Shikha, the team leader.
According to data kept by the control room, 9,663,393 migrant workers returned to Jharkhand between March 27, 2020 and October 31, 2021. “Another major challenge is to secure the wages and remuneration of the workers who have returned, with the help of the government of Jharkhand, ”said the team leader.
Their data shows that around Rs 85 lakh of contributions were collected from various employers in coordination with the state labor department and remitted to these workers through “constant monitoring”.
Yet it was the intervention of the control room in the event of death that made a big difference, as in the case of Ramdev Turi, 30, from Bokaro.
According to Turi’s family, he climbed the pole of an 11 KV line in Goa for repair work when he suffered an electric shock. “His still body was hanging from the pole in his protective gear with his relatives crying from below. After a few days in the hospital, he succumbed to his injuries on November 4,” said Karma, Turi’s nephew, 20 years.
A complaint lodged at the Porvorim police station on November 9 said: “The body has been lying in hospital for four days and the company’s project manager is not helping us bring it back to our village in Jharkhand.
Amidst the distress, control room staff came across a video call posted by Karma on social media. “We have contacted the authorities in Goa and mobilized resources to bring back the body in the coming days,” said Shikha.
“The process begins with a unique code for each case, and verification with documents and inquiries from colleagues, contractors and authorities. We also inform and advise family members. Information is also shared with deputy commissioners and the labor superintendent to escalate the case. At destination sites, company and contractor details are researched, FIRs and autopsies are performed and the process of repatriating the body is initiated, ”she said.
However, the families of migrant workers in distress want the state government to play a more proactive role.
Turi’s pregnant wife and her three children continue to struggle every day because the “only help” they received was 2,000 rupees from the village chief. And workers rescued from the brickyard complain that they only received “Rs 15,000 per couple” as wages for six months. “This is pure exploitation, and we want our government to step in,” said Somnath, one of them.
“I call on the government to investigate the death of my brother,” said Saroj Kapri of Dumka, whose 41-year-old older brother Manoj allegedly committed suicide two weeks ago while working for a company in construction in Mizoram. “But I’m grateful that we got his body back.”