Going jobless at Labour Chowk: ‘Eating at temples to save cash’

Vijender Kumar, 35, a daily wage labourer in Gurgaon, has had no work since the Centre announced demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes.

A father of three, Kumar has spent most of the last seven days at the chowk near Gurgaon’s Sidheshwar Mandir, popularly known as Labour Chowk. Like countless others, he arrives at 8 am, hoping luck will favour him and he will return with some money in his pocket.

“Usually, of the seven days I come here, I get work on at least four. But for the last week, I have earned nothing,” says Kumar, standing in the middle of a group of other labourers like him, all of who nod in agreement.

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Workers at Labour Chowk complain that ever since the notes were scrapped, many contractors who come looking for labourers have been attempting to dispose of these notes by paying them wages in scrapped currency.

“Usually, we are paid in notes of Rs 500. Even though these are now invalid, most people make us work all day and then hand the scrapped notes to us. What will we do with these? We don’t have bank accounts and most of us don’t even have ID proof, so we cannot exchange the money,” says Amit Kumar Thakur, another daily wage labourer.

Others add that they cannot afford to spend several hours in bank queues. “We have a hand-to-mouth existence and hardly have savings. If we spend our time in queues, who will earn money for our families?” says Thakur.

Others complain that they spent a couple of days last week attempting to get currency changed, but returned disappointed as the banks ran out of money.

As a result, several workers have started ensuring they are paid in valid denominations before taking up work. This has, however, further reduced options.

The men at Labour Chowk claim that usually, of 50 labourers at least 30 find work a day. With demonetisation, this figure has reduced to 10-15, since contractors are either unwilling or unable to pay them in valid currency.

“We have been trying to put together money by begging and borrowing, and most of us eat free meals temples or gurdwaras, regardless of our religion. Faith has become secondary because we are so desperate,” says Hamid, one of the younger labourers in the group.

At 25, Hamid is more vocal. “If they had to cancel currency, they should have told us. I had Rs 5,000 saved in notes of Rs 500, and now it is all worthless. Jeb mein paise hain lekin unse pet mein khaana nahi aa sakta, kya faayda? (We have money but can’t buy food. What’s the point?)” he says.

If demonetisation will impact black money, a labourer says, “When your family is starving, that is little comfort.”

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