Aug 17
Managing the Migrants
Managing the Migrants
IT seems incredible that COVID-19 - a virus so miniscule in size - should have made such a staggeringly devastating impact on every single aspect of human life.  Across the globe, COVID has sent airlines crashing into insolvency, driven businesses to bankruptcy, caused unemployment on a massive scale and wrought widespread havoc in every direction. And who can forget the haunting, stark images of India’s migrant labourers wending their weary way to their villages hundreds of miles from the project sites that employed them?
In a welcome contrast to the scenario playing out at many engineering and construction project sites in India, Larsen & Toubro stepped up to the plate. At L&T, the lockdown did not mean a loss of livelihood for the thousands of contract labourers at its project sites. Before the lockdown, most of L&T projects, spread across India, as well as overseas, were running in full throttle. To bring them to a shuddering stop was a huge setback. Nevertheless, it accorded topmost priority to the workers’ welfare, health and safety.
Swinging into instant action, L&T’s top management took the decision to look after the contract labour, spending about Rs 500 crores a month on their wages, food, housing and medical care. The key to overcoming a problem is to stay a step ahead. Several steps, in this case. L&T’s initiatives were determined by several factors, such as the swiftly-evolving governmental rules necessitated by the dynamic situation, and the changing needs of the workforce.
As the saying goes, the more we sweat in peace, the less we bleed in war. The rigorous environment, health and safety (EHS) systems and procedures that L&T has had in place for decades now stood it in good stead when it came to the meticulous implementation of the stringent hygiene rules necessitated by the pandemic. It undertook large-scale sanitisation across common areas and key locations. Made regular thermal testing and medical screenings mandatory to nip infections in the bud. 
Accommodation at project sites was redesigned to enforce social distancing. Despite the practical difficulties involved in obtaining basic provisions for the workmen, particularly in remote areas, L&T managed to provide satisfactory meals. Keeping the workmen physically and mentally stable was critical, as was building their immunity. Various project sites of L&T undertook measures to ensure this. Distribution of vitamin tablets, yoga sessions, regular check-ups, health briefings, counselling, etc. played a major role in labourer welfare.
A close-knit group, workers are used to interacting closely with each other, so it became critical to impress upon them the need for social distancing, a task which L&T accomplished with success. In some cases, leaders were chosen from among the ranks of the workmen for better control and monitoring. To stall the spread of fake and fearsome information through social media, many project teams formed WhatsApp groups and disseminated authentic news.
That said, at no point L&T prevented workers from leaving for their native places if they so wished to; those who wanted to go to their hometowns were left to act freely. Take the example of L&T Hydrocarbon project site at the Guru Gobind Singh Refinery in Bathinda, Punjab. Around 200 workers, who lived nearby, left for home in the early days of the lockdown; the rest remained at the camp realising they were better off there.
But there have been occasions when L&T teetered on the edge.  At the Chennai Airport Phase-II project site, for instance. With about 650 workmen and 45 staff there, the project management faced a crisis when a workman developed high fever and a fast-declining platelet count. He was rushed to a hospital and got treated, and to the relief of the entire team the worker recovered to health.
L&T’s project sites vary in many respects, and the situation in them all was deftly handled using an empathetic approach and constant interaction with the workers. Several airport projects being implemented by L&T faced an added dimension of risk, being in the discomforting proximity to the hotbed of infection that any functioning airport becomes during a pandemic. In such circumstances, extra precautions were taken to prevent the spread of the virus.
Road and railway projects posed a unique set of challenges as they stretch for kilometres on end. The instant lockdown stranded thousands of workmen along alignments, with no way to return to base or leave for home. It was also difficult to reach provisions to them. However, L&T secured vehicle passes that would allow staff to relieve the stranded workmen. 
Comfort goes a long way in building worker morale.  The lockdown hit at the height of summer, and at a project site in the tropical state of Andhra Pradesh, over 1,600 workers were rehoused in a hostel, instead of their usual heat-absorbent structures. Pre-monsoon works and irrigation works could not be stopped without severely affecting the general public, such as in projects like the Mumbai Coastal Road, the Kachi Dargah Bridge across the Ganges and lift-irrigation projects. 
In such cases,  L&T put in place stringent strictures to enforcing social distancing and sanitisation SOPs, while ensuring that the needs of the workforce were met. Several of L&T’s project sites are in rural areas, and in some cases the villagers had misapprehensions of workers being the cause of the spread of COVID and wanting them out. To allay such fears, L&T held awareness camps, assured villagers of its efforts to curb the spread of the disease, and defused the situation. 
Not every country went into a lockdown. In Qatar, for instance, L&T’s Industrial Area Sewage Treatment Works project did not stop but continued without disruption in two shifts so to enforce social distancing.  Classified by the Government of Dubai under the ‘Vital Sector’, the Jebel Ali Sewage Treatment Plant project also kept running, with the utmost importance being accorded to hygiene, safety and wellbeing of everyone associated. 
Some overseas projects, however, were impacted by the pandemic, and L&T repatriated over a thousand workmen to India from Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE.

In keeping with governmental directives, many L&T project sites have resumed operations with strict SOPs in place. Various aspects of projects have been re-examined and changes effected in order to factor in the precautions needed to prevent the spread of COVID. L&T currently has over 900 ‘live’ sites, at which work has resumed, albeit with lower workmen strength. The company is making extensive efforts to get workers back from the rural hinterlands, including, in some cases, arranging for train, bus and air transport.
As COVID continues to spread but the lockdown eases, L&T is adapting to the ‘new normal’.This involves several initiatives to nip the virus on its tracks – mandatory masks, sanitisers, thermal screening, frequent wipe-downs of equipment and machinery, non-contact utilities such as water sources, staggered work hours, and social distancing. Separate isolation rooms are provided for new workmen. In many cases, L&T is arranging daily transportation to project sites so to avoid crowding the on-site accommodation. Regular pep talks are offered to boost morale of the workforce. 
L&T continues to stand by its contract workers despite the continued uncertainty around the future. It is gearing up to raise the bar with renewed focus, maximising potentials, consistently engaging with clients and offering them the best of technology and project management services.


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