On November 9th Penn IUR, in partnership with Perry World House and PennDesign, hosted a lunch talk on “The Urbanization-Construction-Migration Nexus in South Asia” with Sunil Kumar, Former Dean of Graduate Studies and Lecturer, Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics and Political Science, London School of Economics.
Kumar’s research interests initially focused on the rental housing market, but he began to wonder about the relationship between the housing market and labor market. With previous research on the effects of migration and relocation in mind, he discussed how he began a literature review of existing studies and noticed a gap at the nexus of migration, urbanization, and construction. Kumar developed a research question asking: how do investments in large-scale urban construction and the demand for labor it generates give rise to varied forms of migration? To answer this question, Kumar mapped 1,000 projects in 5 cities in South Asia.
Using the Indian city of Chennai as an example, Kumar noted that the large-scale construction projects were often temporary, but required a supply of labor that was greater than local labor markets could supply, so labor contractors would go to rural areas recruiting migrant workers. Kumar found that compared to local laborers, these transient migrant laborers were paid the lowest wages and sometimes required to live onsite in worker housing. Local workers would not want the construction jobs where they were forced to live on-site, so these roles went to transient migrant workers. In this way, he argued, housing was being used as a mean to control labor.
Kumar summarized five key findings from his research project. The first, he explained, was that the gated labor camps where transient migrant workers often lived are invisible and hard to reach. The camps are often out of site and inaccessible, Kumar argued, noting that the landowners or developers often approached members of his team interviewing laborers and forced them to leave. His second finding, he explained, is that transient migrant construction labor is heavily dependent on labor-contractor patrons, who provide laborers to the construction companies. These patrons provide work opportunities for laborers as well as cash advances, but they make collective organizing impossible.
The resulting difficulty in collective organization, Kumar argued, was his third major finding. The worker housing camps were typically very poor quality, he explained, but transient workers could not argue for better housing or wages because they were considered subcontractors who would quickly be replaced if they resisted their employer. Further, Kumar noted, workers could not ask the state for housing improvements, since the government considered that the responsibility of the migrants’ home states. His research also demonstrated that transient workers were not well integrated with the host communities due to language and other cultural barriers, which could have a multitude of effects on the migrants’ education, health, and opportunities for economic mobility.
Finally, Kumar concluded that as long as large-scale construction remains a substantial part of the new form of urbanism, the recruitment and employment of contract migrant labor will remain and grow. He argued, in the case of India, that the country needs a policy for migrants to protect them from this system.
The event concluded with a range of questions from the audience on categorizing migrant types as part of a national policy, how migrants often find themselves in a “monkey trap” without work after a construction project ends, and how the long-term migrant worker conditions differ from those of the transient worker. Genie Birch wrapped up the proceedings by thanking Sunil Kumar for sharing his research findings. The lunch talk was part of an ongoing series of events jointly hosted by Penn IUR and Perry World House.