The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

The migrant workers of Gurgaon struggling for visibility in the eyes of the government

Despite contributing to key export sectors of India's economy, all levels of government seem to conspire to overlook the needs of Gurgaon's migrant workers, both in their workplaces and in the informal villages where they reside, preferring to hold them in a permanent state of instability. Another in our series on urban livelihoods with WIEGO.

Tom Cowan

Tom Cowan

Cities: Delhi, Gurgaon

Topics: Property, rights and evictions, Private sector governance, Labour and livelihoods, Internal migration, Informal settlements

Gurgaon, India's 'Millennium City', thirty kilometres southwest of the national capital has undergone rapid transformation over the past thirty years. Once a small peasant village in arid south Haryana, liberalised planning and development legislation during the mid-1980s provided real estate developers the opportunity to build a city free from the obstructions of bureaucracy, regulation and municipal politics. What emerged was a city of middle-class splendour, housing over one hundred Fortune 500 companies, two golf courses, 43 malls, and the biggest public-private highway in India. Yet with regulatory market freedom and rapid urban development have come some serious dysfunctions for this million-plus city. Behind the gated communities lies a city with insufficient infrastructure, unsustainable water supply and growing unrest among the 800,000 'invisible' migrant workers on which the city's economic prowess is built.

Gurgaon's migrant workers are predominately from rural areas of the central and eastern states of Bihar, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh, driven to industrial employment through rural poverty and the dream of city-living. The workers are recruited and transported to the city by an informal network of village-based contractors where they are employed on three-month contracts. Without proficient Hindi, official ID, ration cards or voter registration workers are subject to persistent harassment and abuse by government officials. Indeed in 2010 the city came to a halt as 50,000 workers were forced to leave through threat of arrest and beatings in a government eviction drive in the build-up to the Commonwealth Games.

Behind the gated communities lies a city with insufficient infrastructure, unsustainable water supply and growing unrest among the 800,000 'invisible' migrant workers on which the city's economic prowess is built.

The workers live a volatile and often violent existence, politically and socially excluded, in unauthorised neighbourhoods; they are on one hand essential to the growth of Gurgaon's industrial economy which produces 25 per cent of all Indian garment exports and accounts for four per cent of the global business process outsourcing (BPO) workforce, and on the other treated as 'superfluous', held on temporary three-month contracts, subject to illegal working conditions, arbitrary dismissal and violence.


At the northeastern corner of Gurgaon, as you pass the gleaming factories of the Udyog Vihar Special Economic Zone (SEZ), lies Kapashera Border, an urban 'village' straddling the Gurgaon-Delhi border. Within the town of Kapashera lies an extensive network of unauthorised settlements, invisible to municipal planning authorities, housing 300,000 garment workers who make the daily pilgrimage to the SEZ to produce clothes for some of the world's top high-street designer brands. Kapashera residents, who manufacture 20 billion US Dollars' worth of India's total garment exports, earn around 5,500 Indian Rupees (65 British Pounds) per month for typically 500 hours work most of which in underpaid overtime. Typically, temporary contract workers are required to work 16-hour days with one day off per month. A great number of factories do not afford the day off each month.

The everyday life of the settlement is dominated by the workplace — workers migrating in and out at the behest of contractors or companies, garment training centres lining the roads of the neighbourhood promising to train up lower-skilled workers for higher-paid jobs, the weary procession of workers at the beginning and end of the 16-hour day. Accounts of worker exploitation are an everyday occurrence, with forced unpaid overtime, siphoning off of legal pension contributions, union-breaking and wholesale dismissal.

The predominantly male settlement has a socio-spatial hierarchy of slum tents, single-floor rowbuildings and multi-storey blocks each with a representative stratum of worker. Whilst garment workers might pay 1,600 rupees (18) per month to share a room in a workers block, the surrounding tents are rented for 500 rupees (£6) to lower-caste sanitation workers who in turn service the settlement.

When inquiring with workers about their sense of belonging in the neighbourhood, their claims to political and civic rights as residents, I was repeatedly met with perplexity.For most the 'everyday' is overwhelmingly dominated by the workplace. The settlement represents a transient space of survival, a respite from the intense struggle of the SEZ. In my conversations with workers they describe their mobile lives, moving from Bihar to Mumbai to Gurgaon, working in garment factories on temporary contracts and moving each time cheaper labour arrived or when factories temporarily close to void worker contracts.

In fact when speaking with workers across Gurgaon about their rights outside the workplace, time and time again the issue was sidelined in favour of a discussion on union-breaking, unfair labour practices, and the stark division between the minority afforded permanent contracts and the masses held on temporary contracts and thus entitled to fewer rights. In contrast to their submissiveness as residents, the garment workers of Gurgaon's SEZs are known for frequent, often violent workplace protests. In March 2012 2,000 workers of Orient Craft rioted following delayed wages and an instance of violent abuse directed at a worker, smashing windows and burning cars, which closed the factory for three days. In the same week, construction workers rioted after the on-site death of a worker, demolishing parts of the housing project and burning down the contractor's offices.

The miscounting of migrant areas is deeply political, enacted by both higher-caste villagers wary of migrant workers attaining political representation in the area, and by the government which is reluctant to extend public services to the unauthorised areas.


Despite the government's reliance on the neighbouring factories to attract capital, the unauthorised status of both workers and their living spaces, affords considerable power to local landlords. When speaking with locals about their relationship with migrants, a vocabulary of ownership rights over tenants was frequently used. The councillor of Chakkarpur, another urban 'village' housing around 90,000 workers, noted that there was an issue of 'exclusivity' among landlords over where workers were employed and spent their wages which would often cause animosity between groups. One migrant worker living in Chakkarpur described the relationship as abusive — 'the locals see migrants as their hunt', for example by forcing them to purchase rations from the landlord's shop lest they are evicted.  Recently a migrant had brought a car into the neighbourhood (presumably a rare occurrence) and within a few days the car had been destroyed by local teenagers.

The settlements' unauthorised status also renders workers invisible in official plans and statistics. The miscounting of migrant areas is deeply political, enacted by both higher-caste villagers wary of migrant workers attaining political representation in the area, and by the government which is reluctant to extend public services to the unauthorised areas. When speaking to residents in Chakkarpur, a recurring issue of concern was the village's lack of water provision. The village Councillor told me that he had recently received budgetary permission to construct a distribution line for drinking water in the village, after some 12 years of negotiating with local officials. The delay in infrastructure provision, he claimed, was due to undercounting of migrants (90 per cent of the population) from the village census. I asked whether a political effort to include migrant populations in the census might be beneficial to the village, to which he disagreed: 'if they get counted in … then what about the locals? We don't want a Bihari councillor!' Thus the desire to deny services to migrant workers prevents formal residents from accessing them as well.

Immiserated by government neglect and the unstable environment of the workplace, thus are Gurgaon's migrant workers neither included nor excluded, neither necessary nor superfluous, but held within an anxious, volatile state of exception.

Tom Cowan is currently completing the MSc in Urbanisation and Development at the London School of Economics.

This is part of a series of articles on urban livelihoods focused on inclusive urban planning for the working poor, produced through a collaboration between global action-research-policy network Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing & Organizing (WIEGO) and The Global Urbanist. WIEGO is a partner in the Inclusive Cities Project, a consortium of largely membership-based organisations of the working poor. Through organising and policy advocacy the Project aims to ensure that urban informal workers' needs are heard within urban planning processes. These articles draw from the experiences in the Project, as well as those of The Global Urbanist's network of writers.