Plywood manufacturers are angry at the Kerala police for scaring migrant workers into boarding trains to go home
At a time when migrants returning home are filling the headlines, the plywood manufacturers of the Perumbavoor plywood cluster in Kerala have a different tale to tell.
“We fed them for two months without fail. Then this happened. What are we to do?” asks 39 year old Asis Moosa, an entrepreneur running an MSME unit manufacturing plywood in nearby Muvattupuzha.
“Half of my employees are gone. I cannot run the finishing and drying sections of my factory. Inventories are starting to pile up.”
Asis Moosa says he has reasons to be furious.
“We arranged everything for them from lodging to arranging money and to meet their daily expenses all through the lockdown. But just when the lockdown was being relaxed, trains came to be arranged for them to return. And worst part of it all is that those not wanting to return have been coaxed into returning.
None of my employees had initially wanted to go back. But then these policemen came into our factories and scared them by telling them that the factories are not going to be running for another six months.”
Asis runs his factory in Muvattupuzha and squarely blames the police for his and many other factory owners’ plight.
“The officers told them that the train that had been arranged was the last and only chance for them to return back home. In a matter of minutes, they forced the decision on the migrants! Inspite of that, only 30 of my 72 employees left,” says Asis.
But the two departments that these migrants all belonged are now forced to operate only half the process.
“All the 300 migrants who returned from Muvattupuzha were from the factories in which the police entered and made announcements,” he says.
“The CI (Circle Inspector) told me that they had to fill the quota of 300 allotted for Muvattupuzha in the train to Odisha which was why they entered factories. They should be picking the people walking around jobless to fulfill their quotas. But they resorted to snatching migrant labour who had been looked after well, as it was the easiest thing to do. I have started to get small orders from traders who have run out of stock. If I start now, maybe in 6-8 months I would have returned to full operation. I need to start to keep the cash flow running. What am I to do now?” asks Asis.
“As of now there isn’t sufficient work in units,” says MM Mujeeb Rehman, President of the Sawmill Owners and Plywood Manufacturers Association (SOPMA).
“Factories haven’t started to operate in full swing as yet. But migrant labour who used to work in the units hailing from Odisha and Assam have gone back. This has affected units which are trying to stay afloat and start operations. For now they will be able to manage somehow, given the demand is not very high.
For demand to start rising, other states should start opening up. Inter-state trade is what the plywood cluster here depends on. Intra-state opening has helped us ease the supply of timber, our input,” says Mujeeb Rehman.
“We have started seeing timber coming in from Kottayam and Erattupetta,” concurs Asis Moosa.
As for the actual effect of the migrant labour who have returned back home to become fully evident, Mujeeb says, “the market has to become fully or even significantly operational. The question of labour will still remain,” he says.
“The plywood industry in Perumbavoor will need at least six months to recover if all goes well,” says Mujeeb.
“Those who have gone back home are now put in quarantine for 28 days, as has happened with many labourers from Odisha who were initially promised 14 days quarantine but after reaching were put under 28 days’ quarantine. They will in all probability stay a further month back home after leaving quarantine facilities.
And even if they were to choose to return here, they may be put under quarantine again. So by all considerations, we won’t see them back at work for at least 3-4 months if all goes well. For them to return, we may need to get permissions from the state governments as well. There are a lot of uncertainties worrying us presently,” says Mujeeb.
While the MSME owners tell a tale of labourers snatched away by the administration, labour officials tell a different tale.
“In Perumbavoor the number of migrants who have returned to their states is significantly low. While we now have an estimated total number of 60,000 migrants working in Perumbavoor, only 2500 have gone back in the trains,” says Nazar, who is the labour officer in Perumbavoor.
“Out of these, 1250 are Bengalis, 750 from Odisha, 300 from Uttar Pradesh, and close to 300 from Bihar. So if you compare with the actual numbers, the numbers are minuscule. Most of those who went back from Kerala are from Ernakulam city is my guess,” says Nazar.
As for fears raised by unit owners regarding whether there will be restrictions going forward, Nazar says, “According to the Indian constitution, any Indian can work in any state, so there are no possibilities for the government to impose restrictions on that front.
But this is an opportune moment for Kerala to regularise the migrant labour present in the state. To be honest, even now we don’t have exact figures of how many migrants actually exist in the state. Now would be a good time to start,” says Nazar.
“The police has issued COVID-19 cards to migrants. Maybe they have better records now,” he says.
And it is a concern which bothers small factory owners like Moideen who employ close to 100 migrant labourers in his factory, 26 of who returned back after being coaxed by the police.
“After they started turning up in factories, they have been calling up migrants on phone using details registered with the police,” says Moideen.
“Plywood industry in Perumbavoor has no existence without the migrant labour coming from outside the state,” he adds.
“The large number of plywood manufacturing units in Perumbavoor have all invested money with the cheap supply of migrant workers in mind. With them gone, we won’t survive,” he says. “It is the migrant labour which makes it feasible for us to compete with the plywood cluster in Yamuna Nagar in Haryana.”
“We can never employ locals in our factories and expect to meet the same production,” he says. “We only employ locals in administrative or clerical positions and not in the running of the factory. Just because the police wanted to prop up numbers to show everyone that they have sent back this many number of migrants, they entered factories and influenced the migrants into going back. All the factories in Perumbavoor without exception had taken good care of the migrant labour here.
So if you see, all the protests that happened in Kerala were by those migrants who were living alone and were left with no source of income once lockdown came into force and hence wanted to go back home. We were spending money from our own pockets to make sure our employees were fed well. We were recharging their phones for internet and calling facilities even.”
“We were spending Rs 300-350 every day per labourer in our factory during this lockdown. What has that come to?” he asks. “We can understand the plight of migrants who are by now homesick and want to return home. But what was the need to scare them into going?” he asks.
“The market has not started fully yet. But even if it does, I will not be able to run my factory for more than one shift of eight hours,” says Moideen. “For us to remain profitable to run, we need to run three shifts of eight hours daily.”
While the moratorium on loans have given some respite, factory owners like Moideen says it is far from enough.
“Only the EMIs are pushed back for three months. There is nothing else which has been announced. Even if the factory is not running, there are other fixed costs which have to be incurred by factory owners. And these include fixed electricity charges which itself is running in lakhs and the interests which adds up. How are we to meet everything without the labour?” Moideen asks.
“We need the moratorium to be extended for 6 months at least,” says Asis Moosa. “Government should also extend 20% working capital for the units to start over again. In addition there should be facility to avail low interest loans with a security of one year at least so that the industry can push ourselves out of the crisis. We had not yet recovered from the demonetisation and GST fiasco when this hit us,” says Asis.
With more than 80% of their business coming from outside the state and the inter-state market yet to open up fully after lockdown, plywood manufacturers in Perumbavoor all say the move to send back migrants could have other consequences which will become clearer as we go forward and the markets becomes functional.
And to tide over that, they pray, government needs to intervene.