Hungry and thirsty, Mohammed Tanveer walked and hitchhiked 1,200 miles home after losing his job in the first wave of coronavirus in 2020 and, like many Indian migrants, vowed never to work so far from his family again.
Tanveer now does manual labor at a marble factory near the capital New Delhi, 1,000 km (621 miles) west of his village in the eastern state of Bihar. He is much happier.
“I got married 10 years ago, but for the first time, I have my wife and two children with me. They live with me now. Living in Chennai was not an option,” she said, referring to his previous job, also at a marble factory, in southern India.
“I often worried about what would happen if someone in my family got sick. How long would it take me to get home? … I decided that I would never travel that far for work again,” Tanveer told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Ghaziabad.
“My family also said it was better to be closer.”
Tanveer was among the 11 million immigrants who traveled thousands of miles at home in scorching heat, many die of exhaustion or in accidents, after losing their jobs in one of the world’s longest and strictest COVID-19 lockdowns.
These arduous journeys were a wake up call to many of India’s invisible 140 million migrant workers (about a fifth of the workforce) who face some of the worst working conditions, often lack formal contracts and are rarely unionized.
With recurring waves of COVID-19 and precarious working conditions, many migrants find work closer to home when possible, or build stronger support networks in destination cities, according to labor rights activists.
“Long-distance migration will be reduced,” said S Irudaya Rajan, a migration expert in the prosperous southwestern coastal state of Kerala, which draws millions of migrants from across India, mainly to work in fishing, farming and the construction.
“Migrants remember and want to avoid previous situations. They want to move shorter distances to minimize uncertainties,” said Rajan, president of the International Institute for Migration and Development, a think tank.
India’s Federal Ministry of Labor did not respond to requests for comment.
Immigrants are the backbone of India’s urban economy, driving taxis, sewing clothes and building apartments for a daily wage that they send home to those left behind in the villages.
Despite a long history of labor activism in India, migrant workers rarely join unions because they are often on the move and work informally, labor rights experts say.
Lingraj Seti, who has worked as a migrant weaver for 18 years in Surat, India’s textile hub in the western coastal state of Gujarat, is a member of the local textile workers’ collective, Pravasi Shramik Suraksha Manch.
He played a key role during the lockdown, supporting migrants with food, water, masks and disinfectants, helping to secure unpaid wages and even organizing a train to take them back to work in November 2020.
“Migrant workers want to be part of a community where they can seek and provide help,” said Seti, who works some 1,500 km (932 miles) west of his home state of Odisha on the east coast.
Pravasi Shramik Suraksha Manch has grown since the pandemic began, with more than 5,000 members today, up from 3,300 before March 2020, Seti said.
As an informal collective, it helps its members negotiate fair wages and working hours, health care, and increased security. It was registered in 2020 as the first step in becoming a formal union.
“Workers don’t get respect for the work they do. Workers come together to help each other and reassure each other that things will get better and things will get better for us,” Seti said, adding that debt was a growing problem.
Many workers, he said, are finding it difficult to repay the informal loans they took out to get through the lockdown.
Such support is badly needed, said Chandan Kumar, coordinator of the Working People’s Coalition, a Mumbai-based network of organizations that works to improve the rights of informal workers, particularly immigrants.
“Their lives have become more precarious as their wages are reduced,” Kumar said, citing data from the International Labor Organization (PDF) showing that Indian informal workers took a 23 percent pay cut compared to four percent for formal workers in 2020.
Shortly after the 2020 lockdown, the federal and state governments launched a series of welfare schemes for the poor, including ration cards for access to free cereals, affordable rental housing, skills development and public works schemes.
But this relief has been patchy, with most programs poorly or slowly implemented, Kumar said.
“Workers seek maximum protection. However, no substantial political effort is really translating into changing their lives,” he said.
For labor economist KR Shyam Sundar, the hardships faced by migrants during the 2020 lockdown, which led to one of the largest mass movements in India since partition with Pakistan in 1947, will bring lasting change.
“Social capital is going to be very important in the coming years,” said Sundar, a professor at XLRI-Xavier School of Management, referring to informal networks among migrants.
“Not just out of a sense of solidarity, but also to help them take collective action if a similar threat arises in the future.”
Meanwhile, many migrants prefer to stay close to home.
Surendra Kumar lost her job as an office assistant in Delhi in March 2020 and was trapped in a rented house with her brother, who was also made redundant, and her mother for 68 days.
“It was a difficult period,” said Kumar, 24, who now works as a gem cutter in his home state of Rajasthan in western India after nearly 18 months of unemployment.
“We are left with very little money.”
Kumar said he loved Delhi but now feels safer living in Rajasthan’s capital, Jaipur, just 150 km (93 miles) from his village.
“It was a city that once gave me everything. I studied there, learned basic spoken English, graduated. But now that I look back, there is really nothing left for me in Delhi,” she said. “I will never go back.”