A phone-based system using the interactive voice response technology has become immensely popular with migrant workers in the Industrial Model Township Manesar in Gurugram, Haryana. Called the Saajha Manch Mobile Vaani, this unique platform launched by communications platform Gram Vaani, encourages discussions centred on important topics such as Provident Fund clearances and withdrawals for labourers, wage deductions and the lack of basic amenities provided to them at various factories where they work.
After the announcement of the lockdown last year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Saajha Manch received as many as 100 calls daily from distressed migrant workers living outside their home states. To access Saajha Manch, one has to give a missed call from any basic mobile phone on the number 9211153555. After that, a call back happens and the listener can navigate through a variety of content and even record anything they wish by pressing the number 3. Though some volunteers with three years of experience of working with Saajha Manch have automatic publishing rights, there is nevertheless a moderation team. The Saajha Manch platform has a monthly listener base of over 4,000 mainly catering to industrial workers.
Rafi Ahmad Siddiqi works for Gram Vaani, which aims to lend a voice to people at the grassroots level. He said most factory workers also act as volunteers for Saajha Manch. Their primary role is to identify grievances of co-workers and act as their leaders. For this, they discuss important topics with them and then prepare reports. When the number was distributed, it was a great help to workers and helped reduce communication gaps. A lot of workers started narrating their ordeals frankly without any apprehension.
“The volunteers have a deep knowledge about the kind of issues workers face in various factories in Manesar. Four volunteers are selected area-wise for identifying and resolving workers’ problems. We also want to form media clubs in a particular area with three to four volunteers and the initiative has recently started in Delhi-NCR. The club name is yet to be decided. Such clubs will deal with grassroots-level information and grievance redressal,” Siddiqi added.
As part of the media club model initiative, many workers are also being trained to act as citizen journalists where they talk to their colleagues and ask them about the problems they face on a regular basis. They conduct interviews and address grievances. Siddiqi pointed out that as part of this exercise, workers have the advantage of being faceless and some may also choose not to disclose their names during the course of a programme. For this, there is a readymade format and volunteers acting as journalists follow it. They begin by addressing the audience and introducing their guests. Journalistic trainings are imparted on a quarterly basis and volunteers are taught how to avoid repeat questions during interviews.
Siddiqi became associated with Saajha Manch in 2017. “It is important that workers highlight issues on their own on our platform. We make them work as reporters so that they discuss vital issues for our listeners. Provident Fund (PF) is a common problem faced by several workers and most of the times claims get rejected either due to errors in documents or the lack of important documents. Thus, workers have to do a lot of running around for PF clearance and withdrawal,” he pointed out.
The volunteers are free to use the Saajha Manch platform for highlighting whatever issues they want and can also run campaigns. During the lockdown, they had campaigned for food shortage and ration by connecting with several
Besides problems related to PF and wages, many workers are harassed by their landlords over the payment of rent. This reached its peak during the lockdown period. Many workers live in groups in rented accommodations far away from families to avoid high expenses. COVID-19 has affected wages to a great extent.
Deepak Kumar, who works in IMT Manesar at a factory making automobile parts, said his shift starts from 7am and ends at 3pm except Sundays, which is a holiday. A resident of the nearby Kasan village, Kumar is forced to share lodgings with another co-worker. His wife, son and daughter reside in Patna and he has not been able to visit them since lockdown. Back in 2016, Shankar Pal, a resident of Palamu district of Jharkhand, lost his finger during an accident at his factory in IMT Manesar, which manufactures auto parts. At that time, he wanted to withdraw his PF, but his form was rejected thrice. After that he gave a missed call to the Saajha Manch number and listened carefully about all labour-related issues. There are different programmes and a popular one is Rafi ki Diary (Rafi’s Diary). Another is Poochho and Jano (Ask and Know).
Kumar agreed that many workers find PF withdrawal to be a difficult process. “As many have errors in details their PF cannot be processed on time,” he said. He also works as a citizen journalist and records the stories of several workers who approach him from time to time with their grievances. “Sometimes names are changed for safety reasons. While interviewing them, I ask workers about issues related to canteen facilities, PF, salary and even toilet breaks. Many factories refuse to give workers too many washroom breaks. Owners feel that frequent breaks mean wastage of precious work time.”
Like Siddiqi, Manohar Lal Kashyap, who lives in Bahadurgarh, Haryana, has been associated with Saajha Manch for three years. “There are many companies in IMT Manesar. Most are footwear plants and workers mostly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar work in these. Locals are not employed in these companies and there is a lot of pressure on labourers who come from outside but they still fight for their rights. Most workers get very less payment,” he said.
Vikas Kumar Singh from Latehar district of Jharkhand said sometimes workers are told to leave for no concrete reason even after working diligently. When this happens, Saajha Manch becomes the perfect platform to share grievances. As a citizen journalist, he has talked to many such workers and the interviews last for four five minutes. He works in Myntra warehouse in Manesar. Singh cited the example of a worker who faced PF withdrawal issues after switching his job.
Orlanda Ruthven of Gram Vaani said the Saajha Manch platform is dominated by men and not women. “It is focussed on inter-state Hindi-speaking migrants who come to work in Delhi-NCR from Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand.”