A helpline that is a lifeline for migrants

A helpline for Indian migrant workers returning home during the COVID-19 pandemic has evolved into an 'embassy for migrants', offering support for low-income workers facing unsafe or unfair working conditions. Ritu Bharadwaj says the model has the potential to expand across India.

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1 June 2022

Ritu Bharadwaj is a senior researcher (climate governance and finance team), in IIED's Climate Change research group

Five women, wearing masks, sit at desks in front of computers and mobile phones

Volunteers take calls on the helpline at the State Migrant Control Room, which was set up on the second day of lockdown. Managed by PHIA Foundation, the helpline received 6,000 calls on its first day (Photo: Ritu Bharadwaj, IIED)

Semra village in Jharkhand state offers a grim picture of how climate change and economic inequality leave poor Indian farmers with little choice but to migrate to cities and undertake dangerous work for little pay.

There is huge social and economic disparity in the village. Upper caste Brahmins are economically better off and control most of the land and political institutions; lower caste Dalits are mostly landless and poor. Recurring crop losses lead them into debt bondage, and Brahmin landlords take possession of their farmlands. Most Dalit households have only one katha (0.02 ha) of land on which they have their houses.

As climate impacts make agriculture less viable, landlords lease their lands to brick kiln owners. There are 17 kilns near the village. They use up most of the water, leaving little for agriculture or drinking, and the kiln dust destroys whatever crop areas remain.

Crop losses due to climate change force distress migration, leading to family breakdown. Men move away in search of work. Women and girls as young as 16 work in the kilns to make ends meet.

Desperate for work, the men have little bargaining power, making them vulnerable to trafficking. Contractors often take them out of the state and employ them in dangerous construction jobs.

There are often deaths; usually contractors don’t inform the families to avoid paying compensation. Many individuals from the village have been missing for months. Sometimes returning workers tell families that their relative has died but, even in those cases, their bodies are not returned.

Semra's story is replicated across Jharkhand. Divided families and exploitative migration-based livelihoods are an accepted way of life.

A helpline to support migrants during COVID

When COVID-19 hit and India's government suddenly announced a nationwide lockdown, migrants were thrown on to the streets by employers and contractors and left to fend for themselves. This led to a mass exodus and reverse migration of workers. India's cities saw millions of migrant workers queuing up at railway stations and bus stands to return home.

To help migrants stranded in other states, Jharkhand launched a helpline called State Migrant Control Room on the second day of lockdown. The helpline, managed by PHIA Foundation, received 6,000 calls on its first day.

More than 200 volunteers joined to manage calls. Most migrants requested shelter, food and transport back home. Immediate help of INR1,000 (US$15) was provided to each migrant. Special train services were initiated, and an extensive network of partners helped stranded migrants reach the stations.

The helpline responded to 943,372 calls between 26 March 2020 and 20 April 2022.

An 'embassy for migrants'

What started as a free helpline for reverse migrants during COVID-19 has evolved into an ‘embassy for migrants’. Today, the helpline gets about 50 calls each day – about issues like non-payment of wages, accidental deaths, compensation and so on. The helpline supports callers in several ways.

Ensuring workers get basic minimum facilities and timely wage payments: the helpline maintains a database of where workers come from and where they are working. This has helped develop a heat map of out-migration areas.

These areas are being targeted to generate awareness among migrants of their rights and encourage them to register before leaving the state.

For example, many workers travel from Dumka to Leh to work for contractors for the Border Road Organisation. The helpline created awareness about e-Shram labour cards and their benefits, such as ensuring workers are paid minimum wages and provided with proper shelter and with health and accident cover. The helpline also engaged with contractors and middlemen to ensure that they complied with the provisions.

Skills training and employment support for returning migrants: for example, 365 girls working in the textile cluster of Erode, Tirupur, were helped to return and were employed in the state-owned textile centre after training.

Ensuring compensation for accidental deaths and the return of bodies: the bodies of more than 500 deceased migrants have been brought back and given a decent burial or cremation.

For example, in Goa, a worker laying transmission lines was electrocuted. The helpline intervened and arranged the post-mortem and made the employers pay INR 15 lakh (US$20,000) compensation and returned his body to his family.

Rescue of trafficked workers and, where needed, legal counselling provided with support from Bengaluru law school: in Chhattisgarh, 21 bonded labourers were rescued from a brick kiln and helped to get their due payment. Similarly, 60 migrants held captive in Tamil Nadu by an agent were rescued by the local magistrate and police.

The workers were geo-located using the mobile phone they had used to call the helpline.

Counselling support for migrants who call in distress: callers receive a warm and welcoming response, and each case is dealt with sensitively.

For example, a woman was rescued from a brick kiln in Agartala, Assam. After she first called and explained her situation, helpline workers made calls to counsel her and help her overcome her fears. Care was taken to call her at particular times, so the employer did not suspect. The helpline engaged with the family before acting.

What made this initiative so successful?

There are many helplines in India that tackle diverse issues. Key factors that made this one successful are:

  • A mass awareness campaign to reach out to migrants in different states and their families back home through state and national newspapers, posters, radio, social media and word of mouth campaigns publicising the helpline number
     
  • Ownership and support from the top, including from Jharkhand's chief minister and chief secretary, allowed the helpline to use their offices to issue letters, organise coordination meetings with other state governments and get support from counterpart offices in other states
     
  • Institutionalisation of the helpline within the Department of Labour helped in convergence with welfare schemes for skills training and placement of workers
     
  • Compassion from the team responding to the calls. People often call in despair: they need to feel they are being heard and will get help. Commitment from helpline staff is important: they don’t see their work as routine call centre work, and
     
  • Civil society partnership was useful as the state government does not have official machinery in other states to extend support to workers. Government and civil society organisation (CSO) collaboration linked more than 200 network partners in other states.

    The CSO network helped provide food, immediate counselling and logistical support to bring migrants home. Jharkhand's government issued letters to other states asking them to extend support to the CSO network. Network partners also publicise the helpline.

Jharkhand's migration helpline service provides many useful lessons for scaling up similar helplines in other states.

However, to ensure the long-term reliability of helpline services, state governments must provide sustained funding so that people can depend on these services and that they are not withdrawn.

A recent webinar discussed a new, groundbreaking report that details the extent and impact of climate change on distress migration and human trafficking. Watch the recording on IIED's YouTube channel.

About the author

Ritu Bharadwaj is a senior researcher (climate governance and finance team), in IIED's Climate Change research group

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