Thursday, February 25, 2010

Day Laborers in Jodhpur

I was out wandering in Jodhpur one morning. It was just past eight in the morning when I crossed Sanjin Gate and entered the old city. The big square there that was full of men, standing and waiting. There were no women only men waiting. It was easy to see that these were day laborers waiting for work, and I decided to stay and watch since I had time.

Seeing me standing there, one man came over.
“Where are you from?” he asked, making conversation. He spoke in a mix of Rajasthani and Hindi and I could only follow him partially. Another man, his hair tinged with orange due to henna, also walked over.
“You are not looking for laborers, are you?” he asked. Before I could respond, the first man said, “Maybe he too is looking for work!” and they both laughed good naturedly at the idea of me doing physical labor.

Spotting me talking to the two of them, some thought that I was looking to hire people. Many laborers rushed over. Suddenly, I was surrounded by over a dozen men, desperate for work. They hurled questions at me in Hindi, and it was a little scary.
“What kind of work do you have?”
“Tell. What is it that you want?”
“How many people do you need?”
No, I am a tourist and I am just watching, I explained. Most of the men lost interest and walked away.

Every few minutes, someone in a motorcycle would come up to the square. Men rushed towards these motorbike hirers. There would be a quick conference that lasted just a few seconds, and a few men would be selected and they’d start walking away from the square. The actual mechanics of the selection was never clear to me.

The man with the orange henna hair stayed with me. He was in his late twenties, wearing a short pant and a shirt, both of which were very dirty. He was walking around bare feet, no shoes or sandals when he worked.
“Is there work in Bombay?” he asked me. (I had told him that I had come from Mumbai.)
I told him that from what I knew, it was very difficult to get work there as well.

There were about 200 men in the square. “Will all of them get work?” I asked.
The man, surprised by my naivety looked up as if to see if I was joking. “Not even half of them will get work today.”
“What will the rest of them do?”
“They will go home. What else can they do?” It was a simple case of over-supply and thus a hirer's market. Those who hired the laborers got to pick and choose. Though I have never been a fan of labor unions, it occurred to me that a little bit of organization among the men would help them all.

I then asked the man what the daily pay was.
“200 rupees per day.”
“Has it been 200 for many years?” I was curious if laborers also got an inflation adjustment.
“No, it was increased recently. Five years ago, it was 150 Rupees. Then it became 180 and now it is 200. Sometimes, we can even get 250 a day. And this is for the common mazdoors. If you are a skilled worker, you can get 400 or more per day.”
“Is it for 8 hours of work?”
“Yes, 8 hours. We get tea at 11 o'clock, then 1 hour for lunch, a few minutes in the afternoon and work till 6pm. It is tough, but we are happy to get work.”
“Why don’t you look for regular employment? Maybe in a shop somewhere.”
“They won’t pay us well. If you don’t get at least 3000 a month, it is very difficult. Even if they pay 2800 a month, it is not enough. That’s why we look for daily work.”

“Is 200 rupees enough to get by?” I asked him a leading question.
In reply, he pointed towards a woman in a colorful dress was walking by with a big bundle of wood balanced on her head. “Even firewood costs five rupees a kilo. Just to get the stove going! And you know what the prices of dal and atta and vegetables are.”
He was silent for a few seconds. “Actually, 200 rupees can be quite enough," he said. "There are some men who are even able to save some money daily after all expenses.”

Gesturing towards the laborers in the square he said, “But most of the men here, they drink it away. Me, I have 4 children at home. So I give a little money to feed the children.” He then laughed. “The rest, I drink away.” He emphasized that by taking his thumb towards his mouth.

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