Volunteer-driven initiatives are offering relief and aid to migrant workers hit by the COVID-19 lockdown
It was the heartbreaking image of India’s lockdown: migrant workers finding themselves jobless overnight leaving cities in droves, on foot, carrying their possessions on their backs. These faceless, nameless people, who shape our cities, triggered a discussion about the value of human life. In Goa, where migrant workers are the backbone of the real estate economy, the situation was no different. They struggled to get food on their plate.
Enter the Goa Humanitarian Helpline. The volunteer-run helpline, functioning mainly through Whatsapp, provided ration and relief material and helped in mobilising travel of migrant workers.
The group that started as a grocery helpline soon reached different corners of the state, roping in locals. “The Goa Humanitarian Helpline has answered calls from physically challenged senior citizens who needed food, cancer patients who were running out of medicines, pregnant women, daily wagers who had no food for days and many citizens who had no access to essentials,” says Vijaya Josephine Pais, one of the core members.
Varun Hegde of Soul Travelling, an offbeat travel company, co-managed the relief work from Margao in South Goa. "Our one motive was to provide relief and aid. We raised funds, helped people obtain essentials, and provided dry ration kits to migrants who were leaving by train,” he says, adding that they were helped by Gujrati Samaj Margao.
This was just the first step.
A directory of resources
The Helpline’s initiatives were directed at locals, working migrants, and those who wanted to travel to their homes. They still had to address a large chunk of migrant workers who stayed back and needed jobs to pay their bills.
In May, when the lockdown was partially lifted, volunteers found that the major challenge was the disconnect between employers and employees. “This is when we had the idea of creating an online labour directory where prospective employers could post their requirements and be matched with workers in our directory,” says volunteer Miriam Koshy-Sukhija, an artist based in Panaji, who had earlier volunteered in providing relief.
"We realised that the best way to support these marginalised and undocumented communities would be to help them access work."
Koshy-Sukhija and 40 volunteers including engineers, filmmakers and writers, researchers and retired professionals, started COGOLD (Covid Outreach Goa Online Labour Directory). It launched on May 5, 2020, using a database of 5,000 workers created during relief efforts.
This online directory gives skills, location of the workers, and connects it with prospective employers. This directory on Covid Outreach Goa allows prospective employers to fill a form with details related to the type of work, duration, location, etc. Volunteers then screen suitable workers and send their contact details to the employers. They have simultaneously created a form for volunteers to help workers looking for employment. This Goa Humanitarian Helpline aids them in continuously onboarding workers.
The Directory received more than 100 queries in the first few weeks of its launch. COGOLD has since connected 200 workers to prospective employers. “We currently have over 1,000 workers enrolled in the directory. We are continuously pruning the list to reflect only those that remain in Goa, are not in containment zones, and are actively looking for employment,” says Koshy-Sukhija.
The queries have come in from builders, architects, interior designers, cafes, e-commerce platforms, farmers, to private individuals looking for domestic help.
Moira-based Pooja Rani, co-founder of Khoj-aao! Adventures signed up seeking a house-help. “The first time we needed someone to do some cleaning. We received the services of Neelima. She did a great job and we hired her again. The second time I contacted them for some garden work. The response is prompt. This is such a cool initiative as it supports the local community and it is mutually beneficial,” says Rani.
Savio Henriques, who is part of COGOLD, hired three men who were fishermen by trade to build a fence around his paddy field in Merces. “They worked for half a day and I paid them the equivalent of minimum daily wages and also gave them some dry food rations,” he says.
Along with employers, many workers have benefited from this Directory. Abdul from Porvorim registered in May. “I work on a contract basis and take civil work like plastering, plumping, etc. Through this Directory, I managed to get two employers. Many architects contact them for my work. I take work in Panaji, Mapusa, and Porvorim.”
Building a future
To widen access, COGOLD is working to develop a conversational bot – Hindi, Kannada, and Konkani – for user-friendly submission, and onboarding.
COGOLD has a database of 1.5 lakh workers who left Goa, and approximately 20,000 who are in Goa and want to use it in the best possible manner.
Koshy-Sukhija elaborates that during their three-month relief work, they realised there are challenges related to rights of workers and to improve access to housing, sanitation, education, and healthcare facilities. “The magnitude of data gaps on migrant workers is a moot cause of the inadequate disbursement of direct benefit transfers (DBT) and exploitation of informal workers at all levels including middlemen (thekedars),” states Koshy-Sukhija.
She further points out that neither destination (eg. Maharashtra, Kerala, Goa) nor source (eg. Bihar, MP, UP) states classify or track them. This motivated them to start Change on Ground (COG) Foundation, which takes a data-driven approach to provide transparency, accountability, advocacy, and policy recommendations for informal workers’ rights.
They are now working on to enroll the workers with the Government Liaison Agency, LabourNet. This will help them to get access to multi-benefit BOCW (Building and Other Construction Worker) cards. The COG is also aiming to get these workers under the purview of the Labour Department and work on their skills via LabourNet's skill-building platform.
Details: To volunteer, email email@example.com and a form with different volunteering options will be sent in.