They chose to stay
By Geeta Padmanabhan
In the middle of the haunting images of migrants walking the highways to reach “home” in remote villages comes the story of these 300+ guest workers – residents of Marundeeswarar Nagar in Thiruvanmiyur - who chose to stay and ride out the Coronavirus onslaught. Significantly, most of them are in the beauty business, which stayed shut the longest.
Pooja Lama, 23, is from Darjeeling, West Bengal, and worked at an Indira Nagar beauty parlour till it shut down in March. “We got a 50% salary in the lockdown months, but had to pay full rent,” she said. Husband Karma Lama served customers in a smaller saloon, and his salary too went down by half. “We went home in December and had to pay rent for those months. So, the rent had to be paid, but we stayed on because our jobs were secure.” Nearly 90% of the staff in his shop are “guest” workers, there was no way the employer could have let them go.
Their cousin Diwass Lama, all of 18 migrated to Chennai lured by the multiple job windows and the moderately good pay. “I worked at a Thalappakatti hotel, and was given free accommodation by the owner,” he said. He’s planning to join a beauty parlour, for diversifying his skills. His story highlights a common reason for migration – the strong clan affiliation that brought them to Chennai and helped them stay on.
Chatty Sunita Tamang, 30, from a village in Nepal, has been dressing hair at a Thiruvanmiyur parlour for six years. She came down in 2013, stayed with a friend, took training in a Tambaram outfit, and has gone up the ladder in the business. On the 15th of March, the mall where she worked closed. On 20 April, she was given 50% of her salary (Rs.6000/-) and nothing since then. “Half the workers in my parlour left,” she said. She came close to leaving, but couldn’t because of her baby. She could have caught the bug during the 3-day travel.
Another feature of travel that spooks them is the quarantine. “We are safer here. We are a joint family here with my husband, brothers, and sister. I help my siblings study. We pooled savings to buy food and pay rent. It will be nice to visit our farmer parents, but it’s better to save the travel expense, right?” She isn’t sure she will get her back-pay, but she takes it philosophically. “We have no ambitions like going to the Gulf. And in an emergency, we can fly home quickly.”
After 10 years of wielding fine scissors, Rajib Biswakarma from Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, counts scores of customers who insist on his services. He was paid Rs. 30000 in an Adambakkam parlour, got full pay in April and half in May. His wife works at a women’s parlour, but got no compensation after the lockdown. “My owner insisted that I had 100% job security,” said Rajib. “Asked me not to leave. Yes, I’ll go home, when I save up.”
Dinesh Raj is with a saloon in Kottivakkam. He walked in 5 years ago through friends, got trained, met and married Ronju, another beautician. For three months they have received half their salary, but there is no point back-tracking to their town. “No jobs there. It’s ok, here we are with friends.”
Many reasons to stay, is their collective argument. “Thought I would go, but there is a strong network of friends and family to count on,” said Sonam Tamang. Their skills are valued, they feel wanted; fair compensation; customer loyalty. “Parlour visitors ask for their favourite service-provider – one who understands their skin type, hair, and preferences.”
The heart-warming aspect though is how they have been accepted in Marundeeswarar Nagar. “When our savings were gone, we approached Krishnaveni akka and she arranged rations. Some house-owners have taken a rent cut, have treated us like family. There’s no problem with water or electricity. This place feels like home.”