Observations From A Community ‘Mahasabha’ Of Migrants

by | Nov 16, 2019

Audience of migrants in rapt attention to the proceedings of the Mahasabha in Surat, Gujarat.

Pravasi Shramik Suraksha Manch (PSSM) is a group of migrant workers who work in the textile sector of Surat. PSSM organized a Mahasabha at Amroli Shiva temple on 30th October 2019, to reach out to more migrant workers working in Surat and its neighboring areas regarding their work. PSSM members utilized their two day Diwali holidays to reach out to maximum migrants to invite them to the meeting by distributing pamphlets and posters around migrant hubs in Surat. This post is to help the readers see through the nitty gritties of a community awareness event of this nature and significance – something that goes a long way in work of grassroots initiatives that rely of people’s collective strength for accessing their rights and entitlements.

Workers started to gather around 9 in the morning and the program started with a dance performance by children who were trained by a core committee PSSM member. Close to 500-550 migrant workers assembled within the next half an hour. After the performance, Saroj bhai, a gifted orator and also a core committee member of PSSM since its inception formally started the Mahasabha. He introduced PSSM as a stage where workers collectively fight against the discrimination and the exploitation they face in their work and outside it. He brought out instances of how a migrant worker works in Gujarat and helps to grow it’s economy and is deprived of the basic rights, facilities and allowances they deserve. Saroj bhai was successful to unite the crowd as he spoke what their heart knew and was perhaps keen to hear. He concluded his speech by saying that the fight against exploitation and discrimination cannot be fought alone and won overnight. It needs the determination of the thousands of workers like themselves to bring a change. It’s not yet late and giving up will make the future even worse. So, he urged everyone to not shy away but be hopeful and be united to bring the change they all wish and deserve. By the end of his speech, people were excited and charged up and a lot of them wanted to pour their heart out if given an opportunity.

Saroj Kumar Mahapatra, PSSM member addressing the people that gathered.

Sanjay ji, Surat centre coordinator of Aajeevika Bureau, took over the stage to introduce Aajeevika Bureau and explained how it provides all the technical support required by PSSM. It was followed by the felicitation of PSSM core committee members by giving them a token of appreciation, who have done excellent work in the last two and a half years to make PSSM what it is today. Saroj bhai was encouraged for his presentation skills, Simanchal bhai, for his ever-enthusiastic attitude, Sushant bhai for his great work to register maximum members to the group, Shiv bhai for his contribution in the Sayan region. Ashwin bhai, field coordinator of Aajeevika Bureau, Surat who has been one of the pillars of PSSM since it was formed then addressed the crowd. He addressed on the different programs that are carried out throughout the year. Here is a summary of them:-

  1. PSSM with support from Aajeevika organizes legal awareness programs in different migrant hubs of Surat. Ashwin bhai also motivated the crowd to not take their exploitation for granted. That now was the time to stand against it, face it and fight for their own betterment.
  2. Shiv bhai also took the stage and explained how they were responsible for their own misery. How the migrants have not taken any step to fight against the exploitation they face. He said that the workers were the one who have to be aware of their situation and fight against it.
  3. Fighting with the loom owners since last few years and how they have been successful to improve the basic facilities of a number of units in the Ved Road area. Drinking water, toilet facilities in the units of Ved road are common nowadays.
  4. Different cleaning drives that the PSSM has undertaken in different mess rooms of Ved Road. How they had collaborated with SMC to run these drives.
  5. The different cases in which PSSM has been successful to bring justice to the families of workers who died due to accidents in their respective working areas. PSSM members have been successful multiple times to negotiate the compensation with the power loom owners to provide the deserved compensation to the families.
  6. One of the migrants pointed out an interesting observation. He said that the owners get their Adhaar card and all other details from them, but they refuse to give any information about themselves in return to the worker. They even threaten to remove the worker from his job when some of them are adamant to get the owner’s details. 
  7. Explanation of the registration process to become a member of PSSM. Sanjay bhai assured that how a mere amount of Rs. 30 that a migrant pays to become a member of PSSM was conceptualized. How paying Rs. 30 creates a sense of ownership of the services that they will benefit from and how they will not take these services for granted if they were for free. Workers were informed that by becoming a member they will be assured a PSSM badge which unites them with other members. The badge will provide them the power to represent PSSM to resolve possible conflicts with support from other members.

Lastly, the future goals of PSSM were discussed. The crowd was asked if they were aware of the law in which the organizations in which they work were registered. As most of the workers had little knowledge about the process, they were given a small introduction to the Shop And Establishment Act, in which most of the power loom units in Surat and in its neighboring areas are registered. They were not happy to know the number of benefits and facilities they are deprived of due to this illegal process. It was already half past noon by then, PSSM decided to end the Mahasabha as most workers were supposed to start their daily shift after a couple of days of Diwali holidays. Although the Mahasabha was formally over, people stayed back in great numbers with their doubts and queries. The PSSM members ensured that not a single doubt was left out. It took another hour to clear all the doubts and for the crowd to dissipate.

Shiva Malik in white t-shirt clearing the doubts of the migrant workers with other PSSM members

The huge turn-around of almost 600 migrant workers in the Mahasabha speaks for itself about its purpose and success. The number of calls since received in our Surat office with queries and requirements of services has suddenly been peaking. We have been observing a lot of workers voluntarily coming to the office to register themselves as a PSSM member. The PSSM members did a great work to organize the Mahasabha and they deserve all the success.

Side Note On Findings Of Research On Legalities, Shared With PSSM

Aajeevika Bureau did its research to understand the complexity of the powerloom units with relation to Shop and Establishment Act, 1953 and the Factory Act. It tried to understand how the power-loom units are registered inside Surat city as well as on the outskirts of Surat Municipal Corporation jurisdiction and its implications. The aim of the research was to understand how the power loom factories are registered illegally under Shop and Establishment Act and understand due to which the fundamental rights and benefits which the workers are deprived of.

The PSSM core committee conducted this meeting with the purpose of creating more awareness.

The findings of this research was planned to be shared with the workers to understand their perspective, which would help us to plan our future move. Core committee PSSM members gathered for the sharing to make their views and demands. The assembled people were then divided into four groups. Two topics – (1) Shop and Establishment Act, 1953 : how it impacted the workers and (2) Factory Act : how it can help the workers was given to two groups each The members penned down their opinions in the respective chart papers that were provided to them. After the activity, couple of members from each group were asked to present their points.

  • As part 1, the team first helped the people distinguish the two Acts. Listed the different benefits that are promised from the two Acts and how the power loom workers are wrongly deprived of them. Also explained how the power looms are illegally registered under the Shop and Establishment Act in Surat and places around it.
  • Team urged the people to be patient and battle together with assistance from Aajeevika Bureau to find a possible solution to the long hours the workers has to do, the low wages, lack of safety measures in the units, lack of basic amenities. 
  • Assured the members that the battle was not a fist fight against the power loom owners but a long legal battle against them on legal grounds. One needs to be patient and hopeful, as the battle cannot be left in the middle or be won overnight. It will take time, but once, it is won, it will benefit not only a few thousand but lakhs of people. 
  • Presented the concept of the new Hazira (attendance) cards to the members and how it will help the workers to keep a record of their work which can help them avoid payment related issues. These cards will be introduced to the workers as soon as possible.

Aajeevika Bureau will now proceed further on legal grounds. We look forward to grow the strength of PSSM by increasing its members and strengthening their work. The Mahasabha described above was a take away from this entire process. The number and power of this group will help us make a strong case in the legal fight.

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