Raju is a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh who has been working in Madurai as a belt-walla (belt seller) for the last five years. He is one of the fifteen employees who work for ‘Seth’—a middleman who procures knock off designer belts from Nagpur to be sold in Madurai. Raju wakes up at 5.00 AM every morning, and from 7.00 AM to 12.00 PM, he walks around the roads of the daily market, with his bag full of leather products. This is the time when Raju’s prime customers—tourists—are out shopping. After a short break, he resumes work again at 4.00 PM near Meenakshi Temple.
Raju does not have a salary; instead, his income is entirely dependent on the commissions he earns. Each belt costs INR 90, but Raju tries to sell them for a higher price by marketing them as branded belts—earning him a profit that he gets to keep. According to Raju, he typically earns INR 500-700 daily, which doubles during the peak tourist and local festival season, and falls to half during the hot summers and the rainy season.
When asked about why he migrated, Raju says, “Are you married? When family responsibility comes, the laziest person also has to work. I have a little girl, and it is for her future that I am working.”
Further, he adds that, “This is not only my life, but also of all the migrant workers from different cities. The middlemen from south India, who don’t know proper Hindi, hire migrant vendors from the north to tap into the Hindi-speaking northern customer base. The people from the locality in Madurai will never purchase items from such vendors. However, the tourists are attracted to the low-cost, branded products. The ‘Seths’ grab this market opportunity to make a profit out of it.”
Saswatik Tripathy works as a district coordinator at the Foundation for Ecological Security.
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