Early this year, Hulas Chandra Singh, Ruplal Thakur and Deewakar Mahto along with 40 others went to Malaysia. All coughed up around Rs 50,000 each to work abroad. Before taking a flight, all were declared medically fit in India.
But after three months of employment, they were told by their respective companies that they were unfit. The companies neither wanted to give them salary nor send them back to India.
It was only after contacting Vinod Kumar Singh, a former MLA, that the 43 labourers could return home.
You must have watched the movie Airlift, which was made on an Indian businessman living in Kuwait who helped evacuate hundreds of Indian labourers during the Gulf War. You must also have read about foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and minister of state VK Singh bringing back stranded labourers from foreign soil.
But do you know that Vinod Singh, a leader from Jharkand’s Bagodar constituency, has since 2009 helped hundreds of labourers come home from exploitative jobs not only in Malaysia, Kuwait and Kango (Africa) but different states of India as well.
Singh's tireless efforts, sometimes single-handedly, have saved more than 500 labourers from being stuck abroad.
The CPI-ML leader was a legislator from Bagodar, the largest assembly segment of Giridih, from 2005 to 2014. Earlier, Mahendra Singh, his father, was a five-time MLA before he was assassinated in 2005.
The CPI-ML first created a wing called Migrated Labourers Association when about 100 people from each village of Bagodar and its neighbouring Bishnugarh, Barkatta and Dumri migrated outside for work, for lack of job opportunities in India, and were soon stuck in different countries. The wing was meant to help them. A villager named Sikander also runs a WhatsApp group relating to the same, called Migrated.
Efforts to bring back labourers from such situations had started seven years ago.
Singh, 40, recalls: “That year, in January, I got a call from Malaysia and the caller said he was from Bagodar but his passport, as well as that of some others, had been seized by their employer company. They were forced to work without salary and only given two meals." Along with the caller, there were 15 more people in the custody of the company this way."
|Vinod Singh (in a white shirt) stands next to a statue of his father Mahendra Singh along with the workers who returned from Malaysia.
The reason why Singh, a Master's degree holder from Banaras Hindu University, is so easily approachable, even from abroad is that he has always kept the same phone number, which is known to everyone in his constituency and remains available on it round the clock.
So even when the companies took away every document from the migrated labourers' possession, Singh's number remained handy in their mind.
Most labourers who sought his help told Singh that they were betrayed by agents or companies.
When contacted in distress, Singh uses his personal contacts and tries reaching out to companies and embassies, forcing the companies to end the exploitation and pay pending salaries. He has even managed to get labourers released from jails abroad.
In August this year, when 43 labourers returned from Malaysia, it was found that the companies which had employed them owed them more than Rs 1 crore.
Singh talks about 2009. “When state governments and the central government could not do much that time, I had tried to contact Indian embassy officials in Malaysia. This information got leaked to the exploiting company and its officials thrashed the labourers for contacting me. One day, the entire work force even escaped from there, but because they had no passport, they were arrested by the local police and sent to jail where they were kept in inhumane conditions,” he says.
“However, while I was in search of some contact in Malaysia and had even prepared my passport to visit the country, I got to know that my friend’s brother was the Indian ambassador there. He personally took care of everything and got all the labourers released,” he explains.
The entire process took eight months in 2009, but Singh's efforts to help such workers only intensified from then onwards.
He lives in a small village in the constituency, for he thinks it is necessary that he live with the people who voted for him and resolve their troubles.
“Even his father Mahendra Singh helped migrated labourers escape similar situations in 2003,” says Sandeep Jaiswal, a former journalist and now active member of CPI-ML.
Interestingly, among the latest returnees, one is Dewakar Mahto, cousin of present MLA Nagendra Mahto.
In 2014, Singh helped 150 labourers return to India from Kango, where the ebola virus had broken out. At least 13 labourers from the Jharkhand region also succumbed to the deadly virus.
In case a labourer gets killed, Singh often forces companies to pay compensation. On a few occasions, company officials have even visited Bagodar to pay up or deposit the money in labourers' accounts.
In the village Gohar, in Barkatta block under Hazaribagh district, four of the five Mahto brothers, their nephew and father got killed while working in different countries. Here also, Singh forced the companies to send back their bodies and compensate the deceased family.
The former MLA has demanded that the Jharkhand government pay compensation to those who die while working abroad.
“Not just abroad, Singh has helped workers facing problems in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to escape the clutches of the companies exploiting them and return to their respective states,” Pawan Kumar Mahto, president of Migrated Labourers Association, reveals.
“In an unknown country, when we lose all hope, there is only one person who brings us back. For us, Vinodji is a messiah,” Ruplal Thakur says.