G: Everyone supports the big team. Someone should support the small team. If there is a fight between an elephant and a goat, for sure the goat will die. It is, however, better to support a goat. Someone is behind it too. 

Look, the kind of mind I have, I like the thing that is at the lowest level. Do you understand? If there is a poor man among rich men, then I will choose that poor man. I leave the rich. The poor has no money, that I know, but his heart is very strong. Whatever condition he is in, he will say yes, we will get it done. This is the system.

VO: From the UCLA Labor Center, we bring you Re:Work. I’m Saba Waheed. And I’m Veena Hampapur. 

SW: We all kind of moved into this unknown period when COVID first began.It really brought out how many of our infrastructures were really weak. And then, looking at the impact of those same conditions in other parts of the world

VH: You’re reminded that this is a global situation. We’re tied to other people around the world because of this pandemic. 

For me, there was a big disconnect when we started to see the news about how bad the disease was in India. It was at the same time that things were getting better here in the US. I had a friend’s dad who lives in India who called it the Devil’s Diwali. Diwali is the festival of lights and in this case he was referring to the fire of the cremations.

And I’m referring to the second wave of COVID, earlier in 2021. But of course, there were widespread hardships due to COVID well before.In 2020, India’s national lockdown led to millions of jobs disappearing, virtually overnight. There were problems with hunger and food deprivation. A lack of access to healthcare and a lack of government support. Tens of millions of migrant workers struggled to get home and hundreds died attempting the journey. In 2021, during the second wave of COVID-19, migrant workers once again struggled to get home. 

SW: To really watch this mass migration of workers, it’s something that’s glued to my brain. We were reached out to by this organizer named Inayat Sabhikhi. He wanted to highlight the story of migrant workers. Particularly those who were impacted by COVID. 

VH: Today, we bring you the story of a migrant worker in India, named Gulzar. Inayat conducted the interview, along with Vaishnavi from SWAN, the Stranded Workers Action Network. 

G: My name is Mohammad Gulzar, and I’m 24-years-old. I am from Jharkhand. My village is Manjar Buzurg, district Godda, block Basantrai, but I grew up mostly in Mumbai. 

VH: Gulzar is from a state in Eastern India, that is mostly rural and about 40% of its population is living below the poverty line. JOb options are limited and every family has at least one member who migrates to the city for informal migral labor. 

G: When I was growing up, the situation was very grim for many people in my village. 

I did not get much food to eat, and I suffered. That’s how it was then, and these days it’s even worse. These days children go around asking villagers for dinner in the evening. Everyday, they come to my home, and they take the food and eat. 

Ever since I could remember, there was only one school and there was also only one doctor, named Saeed. People came there from faraway to get treatment from him. So you can imagine the condition there when there is only one school for 20 to 25 villages and one doctor for 30 to 40 villages.

SW: It’s really hot in Gulzar’s city, reaching over 100 degrees in the summer. 

G: I have bound my house with flex. It is a blue plastic material that is used for walls and the roof. Then on top of that we put dried rice stalks, basically haystacks which are soft material. In the mud house it stays cool in the summer.

Some people live their whole life with air-conditioning. How do the villagers live their lives? Without even a fan.

VH: When Gulzar thinks back on his childhood, what he remembers is the flooding. 

G: Some used to put up such plastic sheets and so on, in the rain. That’s how it was then when I was growing up. In 1999, there was a flood. Our families, like others, would save a little food for the future, some rice and so on. But when the cyclone came all of that got washed out. We could not farm either. This continued for four to five years because water filled the fields like an ocean. So, nothing could be grown there.

And the Chief Minister did nothing. 

The villagers all got together themselves to repair the dam and build barriers.

SW: Gulzar really wanted to go to school. 

G: I have never gone to school because I could not afford the school fees for enrollment. 

G: The money situation at home was very bad. From where would we get the money? Many people do not study – it’s not just me. 

So the condition of my village is bad as kids are forced to be workers.

Right now, there are 400 houses in my village, but only 10-12 boys are studying. Only those who are connected to politicians or are a teacher’s son have the ability to to study. 

No real education is provided at the government school. Children and teachers go there, mark their presence and leave. The teachers go to the market square, drink a cup of tea, and go home. Meanwhile, the children keep playing.

These days, everyone here has privately opened up their own schools. To attend it will cost three thousand rupees a month — which poor man can afford 3000 rupees?  

VH: Gulzar realized at a really young age that school was not gonna be an option for him. He realized instead that it was important to work and earn money for his family. 

SW: In India, there are about half a billion migrant workers and about 60 million of them often have to cross to other parts of the country, cross over states in order to find work. 

G: I have been working since my childhood, since around 12 to 13 years old. 

At that time, I used to bathe naked in the Haji Ali mosque. That’s how young I was when I went to Mumbai to work!My grandfather had not been letting me leave our village to work. He said, keep him here for education, but I understood that I could not study if I did not have money. 

So I went away from home, despite his objections. 

No family wants their relatives to leave the village and go far away to work. But it is a must.Let me tell you something, when I lived in the village, all the people who used to return from outside, from other states, like my father who worked in Ghaziabad in Delhi – they weren’t aware of the term “train” then. They used to refer to it as “rail.” There was this book which had a picture of a train on its front page. They used to say that when you get on it, you won’t even realize when it starts moving. If it runs into someone on a bicycle, he’ll fall over. 

When I went to the train station to leave for Mumbai I thought, if it did run into me, then it would be the end for me. I was of two minds – should I board the train or not? I said this to the person with me. I said, let’s go by bus instead. Eventually I gave in and boarded it. 

When it moved, the movement shook us constantly and continuously. I thought of all the people who said that you won’t even realize when you board it, you lose track of time and place, it’s that smooth – my experience said otherwise! 

When I reached Mumbai, there was something else that bothered me even more than the train – the lights. Electricity reached my village just 4 years ago, and it isn’t very stable, so most of the time it’s dark. When I looked out of the train window and saw the city lights, I got confused. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. It was looking beautiful but I was wondering what it was. My friend said it’s light. I asked, what is light? 

When we reached our destination and visited the factory where he worked, there was a light bulb switched on there. He said, this is light. Such a pretty thing.

So to be honest, this light is what baffled me for the first time when I stepped out of my village. The light that’s constantly burning, a fan that’s working. Now I am used to all this.

SW: Mumbai is one of the largest cities in India. It’s a hub of commercial activity. Its home to bollywood and all of its movie stars and when Gulzar finds work there. He is earning less than a dollar a day. 

G: I had learned a bit of embroidery in the village. So we went to try clothes designing work. We worked from 8:30 in the morning to 11 pm, whatever time remained after that, I used that time to learn the work. 

They paid 35 rupees per day.

Then many such factories were closed and ceased to exist, so we started doing manual labor. Someone told us that you could earn more money in Goa, so we went to Goa. I started taking up labour jobs from the market. Suppose you need two workers, then you will go to the labor market and hire two people.

They’ll inquire, “Gulzar, I need two guys. Would you come? Do you have any job in hand right now?” This is how I find jobs.

So the contractor I work with on this job isn’t going to keep me on once I finish that job. Then I’ll have to look for a job someplace else again, and so on.

We don’t have any regular employment. There is no twenty-year contract to work in one place only, no.

We don’t have a fixed place to live.  It means we have a lot of friends – maybe no one will have more friends than me in India. Because it keeps changing for us. Work anywhere, work as long as you can, and then when you’re done, look for another place. 

This is the way it works.

Whenever someone told us of a place where you could be paid more, we would go there. We would move anywhere there were hopes of earning more money. 

It means our life was running after money.

If I am in Calangute today, then tomorrow I’ll be in Panjim, the next day again I’ll be at Anjuna.We don’t get tired. If we get tired, who’ll do this work? We continue to work during the day, at night because we are now adapted that way. If the nap time is allowed, good, if the meal breaks are allowed, good, if not, then we work without eating as well. 

VH: Gulzar had to move around a lot for work. Everytime he got a new job, that meant making new friends, potentially moving to a new city. The conditions for working would vary depending on who he was working for and how they treated their employees. 

G: I actually don’t like any job I do. There was just one that I liked in a remote area of Goa. They used to do their business with mustard seeds and harvest a lot of crops. Those people were good. They had a separate room for eating. Sort of like a dining room but it was a cabin, and there were chairs and tables with slabs and benches around it along the walls. So if any worker comes, he could sit there and eat comfortably, and could take a short nap. 

There was a good arrangement for drinking water as well. They used to order a 20 liters jar of Bisleri, even if there were just a couple of workers working there. How much water would just the two guys consume in the entire day? Yet they used to keep that covered. If there was no more water, then they used to pay and ask the guy to bring some over. They never used to complain either. 

But the job in such places doesn’t last long. That’s the problem. I worked there for eight days. Then that job was over. 

VH: Gulzar constantly faced a disconnect. He was moving around for work,  he was away from his family, making new friends wherever he went. He’d meet new people at his jobs. And then he also felt a disconnect at home. People who’d never left the village didn’t understand the hardships he faced working in the city.

G: When I go to Mumbai or Goa, life there is very empty. The problem is that I have no one close to me. For example, let’s say that I’ve gotten a headache and I have to go to the doctor, and no one can take me. No one can massage my head because no one is there. At such times, I really miss home. 

We call home in the evening, talk to one another on the mobile phone. When it’s time to eat, we remember our home. At least we get cooked food at home. In the city, we come home after working so hard and then make food, then eat, then wake up at 5 in the morning, prepare food, and then we have to take lunch and go to work. We cannot eat in restaurants because the bill will be higher than my earning. 

If I plan to return home for one month, I have to arrange for a month’s earnings beforehand. And after that I have to set aside money for the ticket to return to the city. This is how life is right now. For those who have never left the village, they think that I lead an easy and comfortable life. 

I show them the videos I took. I say, see this, look at my condition there. See how I have to work in the sun, what sort of work I have to do. 

I say to them no place is better than here. 

SW: Gulzar never fully let go of his desire to want to have an education.

G: The place where I used to work, the contractor had a daughter, and she used to teach me. She said ‘Teach me cricket,’ and I said ‘You teach me how to write my name.’ She said ‘ok’.

When I left Mumbai and was in Gujarat, I asked the landlord about school. I asked him if he had any contacts in any school, if he could enroll me there. I’d work in the day and study in the night. 

But it didn’t happen.

I always wanted to study. I keep studying something or another. I even studied tonight for two hours.

I have very little hope of returning to school. But I have helped two boys to clear the 10th standard examination with my own money.

One boy, his father had passed away. I said I will educate him till 10th class. 

It used to cost me five hundred rupees. What is in five hundred rupees? It is worth one day’s work. I provided education to him.

Now he will decide his future course of action. 

SW: I sometimes think about how labor leaders are made and its sometimes that the conditions of the work propel you forward to become a leader that is suddenly ready to fight not just for your rights but the rights of those around you. 

G: This interest to fight for the rights of workers started from the days when I was in Mumbai. Our boss said to one of the boys that he’ll pay the money on Friday. 

When the guy went to collect his money on Friday, the boss said, “are you an idiot? I had said to come on Friday but I didn’t mean this Friday.

The guy came back to me with this and narrated it all, so I sent him back and told him to ask the boss to specify which day of the week, what month, what date and what year he means. I also asked him to confirm the time and if that time is in the morning or night. Or else he would again fool us.When he went there to ask all this, the boss didn’t pay anyone. 

The time of Eid is important and you can imagine what it’s like if we don’t get the money and are not able to send money back to our homes. Especially those who have kids.

VH: So Eid is a major holiday for Muslims right. And Gulzar was upset at the thought of kids not having anything for Eid. He’s the type of person who will buy sweets for a kid in the marketplace if they come up to him. So he was determined to get this contractor to pay. 

G: I called for a strike of all the workers and asked them not to report to work and not to take any of his jobs. No one should work until he pays our wages. 

When this happened, the boss called me and said that the manager at work had informed him that I had caused this strike. I said, see here sir, we all have families, other people are dependent on us. So please pay us all of our wages. 

He said, why are you bothering over other people’s money? I’ll pay you yours, you take your money and close the matter. I said, I won’t take a single penny from you unless you pay us all.

The talks went on like this, so I was kind of losing my temper.He threatened to call his goons. I said please go ahead, call them, call all the dons from Mumbai, I don’t care.

Then he just left, and at night he paid us all. After he paid everyone, I told the others that whoever has been paid should leave this job and go. I don’t like when someone has their money blocked. It’s not free money, he has worked hard to earn it, you know.

SW: Something Gulzar had noticed and experienced himself was that police are regularly harassing people from come from the villages and are doing migrant work.

G: I’ll tell you an incident that happened one night. Some friends, around 13 of us, had gone for a stroll near the Taj hotel. Armed guards and policemen surrounded us with their guns.

They arrested us and said it will cost you 50 thousand each to bail you all out. Call your boss. 

I called Maulana sir who came along and got us all bailed out. They let us go because he was a person with higher connections. 

I met him in the factory where I used to work, and he used to stay in that area. I don’t know what he liked about me. But he started looking after me and fed me.

VH: As of this recording, there are 32 million covid cases in India and many sources say this is a massive undercount. 

SW: When the lockdowns happened last year, there were no preparations. Basically, everything just shut down and all these migrant workers were left stranded. 

What we had was this mass migration of people going on foot, trying to get back home.

VH: I really wanna emphasize here, that this is a lot of people. The mass migration that occurred after the first lockdown is unlike anything India has seen since the 1947 partition and one of the biggest problems that people were facing at this time was hunger. 

G: Recently, where we were working, no one from the nearby houses would give us water.They were scared that they might get Covid from us, as we are labourers, roaming around. 

The last job I had in Goa was laying electricity cables. 

After that, the police weren’t allowing us to go to work. This was even before the lockdown was issued. 

The present Goa government is quite bad. They had not arranged to help us and so we had to starve in the last lockdown there. 

With the second COVID wave I thought it would be better for me to return to my hometown, whatever the condition is, at least I’ll be with my family.

When we went to the train station to return home, they asked for our train ticket. We said, take the ticket from Mr. Modi, the prime minister.

If there’s no work, and no one is getting paid, then how could we pay to get home? The government should let us ride the trains for free. 

The policeman finally said go without the ticket. He said this because he thinks that if we leave from here, they’ll be safe from Coronavirus. That’s why he’s loading everyone onto the train like sheep. 

When we reached Danapur they asked us why you are without a ticket? We said we will not pay the fine. We said take everyone to jail, we’ll like it there, we’ll be comfortable. Where will they go with thirty-five people? Does the government have money to feed us all? So they let us go, and we returned home. I had to spend some money on the bus ride, because it was a private non-government bus.

SW: When we started this story, Gulzar’s village was already confronting hunger and poverty and that only got worse during COVID. Now we have hardships layered on hardships because all these workers who have returned home have lost income and the villages themselves have lost incoming money from the cities and on top of that, you also have covid and the public health crisis. 

G: There are just too many cases of Covid in my village. I don’t know how this has happened. No one is going anywhere. Everyday we hear at least 4-5 people passing away due to Covid. The morale and the spirit of the people are quite low at this time.This is the condition of every household. 

VH: In 2021, migrant worker distress has really been underplayed.They haven’t received any assistance.  

G: In the previous lockdown last year when we all returned home there was some work available. Even then, the wage rate was only 194 rupees a day. 

If people with salaries of fifty or seventy thousand are finding it difficult to manage, then how can the labourer and farmer manage with 194 rupees. They are human beings too. Now even that work is not available. 

See, I understand that issuing a lockdown is important, and everything should shut down. But before doing so, the Indian government should first consider poor people who earn their bread on a daily basis. For them food is the priority.If we didn’t have to worry over food, then I wouldn’t mind such a lockdown.

Those with wealth, they go on tours, they go to America, they spend crores of rupees, the politicians go for vacations, they spend on the cars. Save it all and give to the poor and needy, right? What’s the need to go on vacation now? For them that doesn’t break the country’s budget, but helping the poor does. 

This system here is not right. 

Do think about the daily wage earning labourer, what will he do, what will he eat. Think about him.

I can bear it. I remained hungry for two days during the last lockdown. I fed others.Some do not have the capacity to face it. 

I am thinking that after Eid, I must go somewhere by the 20th. Because there is no work here at all. If I don’t go, all food and life at my house will stop. For sure. This is our life, hand to mouth. 

SW: Especially when there’s often the lack of government infrastructure and support, nongovernmental organizations come in and not only fill the gap, but actually bring the visibility that we all need to understand what’s happening. So it was really amazing to see an NGO like the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) building leadership of the stranded workers themselves.

VH: A lot of the volunteers at SWAN were largely from cities, upper castes, upper classes and they were connecting with the migrant workers themselves. And they were sharing access to information and resources. SWAN has fundraised and provided immediate cash relief. Its reported experiences of workers which drove ethicacy efforts. And it set up a fellowship for invested workers like Gulzar. 

SW: A crisis can also create networks and community building and you can really see that in the work Gulzar started to do with SWAN. 

G: There’s no guarantee on how many more days you’ll live, and on top of that, in these days of the pandemic there’s no guarantee of anyone’s life. So this fellowship interests me a lot and provides a lot of knowledge. See when you listen to multiple people, you think of things you never had thought of before. 

Poor people have a heart but not the rich. But if they join SWAN they’ll come to know what the world is and what humanity is. They’ll change and reform. 

VH: SWAN had a helpline and through that they were able to hear what migrant worker needs were. 

SW: You know, many of them had barely two days of food rations left when they were calling, some of them hadn’t been paid. 

VH: And the majority had at most, 200 rupees in there pocket. 

G: I feel that SWAN should go on forever. If someone is in distress, if someone in need is short on food, they supply them with some rations, some food items, or arrange for some money. Otherwise it’s a tough situation out there. 

This group should be registered as a government fund so that we’ll get money to run it.

For example, there are so many dying in this pandemic, and there is no money for treatment when one is alive, and then there is no money for cremation after someone dies. We could invest money for such causes to help those in financial distress.

SW: We saw both the chaos and crisis of the shutdowns. So, what do you think about, at that point?

G: We want to have dreams but they will never get fulfilled. What should we dream about? 

What we can think about is when the condition in Goa improves, I will buy a ticket, sit on the train for 4 days, earn some money and my  family will eat at home. That’s it. That’s it for dreams from people like me. 

If someone told me they could turn me into anything that I wanted to be, and I could have a second chance, then I would try to become a police officer. I would purge the entire corrupt system.

There’s a liquor shop about a kilometer away. There’s a crowd there, given any time of the day or night.

The police don’t see a Corona threat there. If a guy goes out on his bike to earn a living, and a policeman sees him, they’ll stop him. Then they’ll throw his vegetables away, break his bicycle, take all his money and leave. 

So if I ever get a chance, I’ll be a police officer. For sure. I want to cure the system.

VH: You know, it’s easy to forget how young Gulzar is, given everything he’s gone through. He’s only 24 years old and for him, the worrying doesn’t stop.  

G: I have a family of 10 to 12 people dependent on me.

If this lockdown continues even for another three months or six months then what happens to me? Daily wage earners like me – everyone knows that I can eat when I work. I have no savings or extra money. 

What happens to someone who’s even poorer than me? 

VH: Gulzar brings up so many issues that involve covid and go beyond it. It’s not just about the pandemic, but how that impacts being able to work. Being able to work impact having food to put in your stomach. And he also mentions the mental and emotional stress that puts on caregivers and also the kids who don’t have access to food. 

G: Imagine there are little kids in your family who are not able to understand the situation. They won’t understand that there’s nothing left to eat in the house or that my father doesn’t have any money to buy food. 

They’ll keep crying and asking for food, and their parents won’t be able to deal with this. That they can’t feed their kids. And in such a stressful fit they may do something terrible with their lives. There was a woman who set herself ablaze and died of burn wounds. Her child, he was demanding food, and she committed suicide. From where she could have arranged for food? 

So this could happen, right, if this lockdown continues for three, four months.

When the breadwinner for the house passes away, how does his house of six to seven family members live? No one has a job here. You, yourself, think about it. Who can take care of them?

VO: What Gulzar hopes people will take from his story

SW: Thinking about the global pandemic, the global economy, the global impact of climate change, how to nurture more of the fact that we are a global community. How can we understand that what happens here has a huge impact on what happens over there? How can we better work off of those connections?

G: Look around the world, everyone only thinks about poor people and poverty, but no one does anything much for them. These political leaders, they always promise that everything will improve later. 

After listening to my story, if someone who has heard me tries to take action, or is a part of the system himself and improves his work and makes others improve their work, then it will lead to some justice.

If I want to break the wall, mere thinking is not going to break it, I’ll have to work hard, then it will break.

You’re listening to Re:Work, which is a production of the UCLA Labor Center. 

Thanks to Mohammad Gulzar for sharing his story.