Mumbai’s migrant watchmen are on guard, always: Working in security comes at a cost

just finished washing his one pair of clothes. Dressed only in his underwear, he proceeds to hang them up to dry on a clothes lining slung between a tree and a bright yellow slide in a dimly lit children’s play park that he calls home for the night.

Arvind migrated to Mumbai two months ago from Buxar district in Bihar to take up a job as a security guard. He now works in shifts in two local parks in Borivali – a 12 hour day shift at a jogger’s park along with his uncle, followed by another 12 hours at the play park just a stone’s throw away. His second shift involves closing up the park for the night, washing his clothes and taking a bath, and taking a nap in the cabin next to the gate. When asked if he ever feels scared being in the park alone all night, he laughs and shakes his head. “It reminds me more of home than other places here.”

Arvind, like most migrant security guards in the city, is on duty round the clock. “We cannot earn enough in a single shift to afford renting a room in the city,” says Akhilesh Mishra, 41, who moved to the city from Allahabad district, Uttar Pradesh, when he was 14. Mishra started off immediately as a security guard at a shop near Haji Ali, and moved on to becoming a driver for a while. He lost his job as a driver about five years back and had to go back to security work. Currently he works as a guard at a shop in Bandra west during the day and at a residential building in the same area at night.

“Earlier building residents used to give us a space in the building, like the meter room, to rest after our first shift, but now due to some wayward incidents with watchmen, and safety hazards, they don’t trust us to hang around after work.” Their only option is to take up double shifts which ensures they have a place to stay throughout the day and also provides them with extra pay.

Chandan Kumar, who is organising secretary of the Working People’s Coalition, a group that works with organisations across India on issues related to informal labour, says that the situation for migrant workers moving to other states is often bleak despite government safeguards like the Interstate Migrant Workmen Act, 1979, because the definition of who qualifies as a migrant is murky. “Once you cross your linguistic territory, then you are citizenless, and when you land up in a city [like] Mumbai, you are absolutely like an orphan. There is no law which can guarantee your rights – what I call the right to the city, where you can access or pave your way to wages or sufficient housing, or more.”

Security guards doing 24-hour shifts in residential buildings and shops in Mumbai earn anywhere between 10,000-15,000 rupees a month. Those who work with bigger agencies that take up security assignments for clients like banks and jewellery shops, have a chance to earn more. 36-year-old Ranjit Kumar Yadav used to work for one such agency when he first moved to the city from Allahabad district in 2002. He was posted at a bank in Mira Road, where he worked a 16-hour shift and was provided with quarters where he could rest and unwind. Then the agency changed management and demanded a high school marksheet from its employees. “That’s where I got unlucky,” Yadav, who studied up till the 8th grade, tells me.

He had to shift to a smaller agency and move to residential work where he now works two shifts in different residential buildings in Dahisar, earning 12,000 rupees a month. “If I had my high school certificate, I would be earning 18 or 19,000 rupees by now.” This is not to say that smaller agencies don’t require high school certificates. Yadav’s current agency also requires a high school certificate from its employees, as its manager, Mr Sunil Mishra tells me, but the rules are comparatively lax.

The Maharashtra Private Security Guards (Regulation Of Employment And Welfare) Act, 1981, led to the setting up of a welfare board where workers can register and are legally entitled to social security, like having a provident fund, entitlement to bonuses, gratuity, etc. However, registration for migrant workers is hard due to lack of documents and linguistic barriers – the registration process involves a whole set of documents in marathi, which deters migrants from other states, as Kumar points out. Additionally, Kumar says, “The law doesn’t talk about the working conditions, like how to regulate working hours, how to regulate wages, how to ensure that your employer is giving you your dues.”

This leads to private security agencies profiting without having to take responsibility for their employees. Most security guards barely make above the minimum wage for unskilled workers in Maharashtra after working for 24 hours. Mishra, who manages an agency, tells me that given his agency operates on a small scale (they employ some 200 security guards, functioning in Mumbai’s suburbs from Goregaon to Mira Road), they don’t have the bandwidth to establish a provident fund for employees. Many employees don’t have bank accounts, and prefer to be paid in cash. In case a security falls ill, the company may pay for healthcare, but is not contractually obligated to. “Most of them prefer to pay themselves or go back home,” he says.

Many also prefer to take up a 24-hour shift with a building directly. 28-year-old Ravi Shankar Varma, also from Allahabad district, has worked at the same building since he first moved to Mumbai 5 years ago. He has built a rapport with the building’s residents now, and since it is a small building, he says he can manage a 24-hour shift by himself. He sits at the gate until 1am, after which he locks up the gate and retires to the guard’s cabin until 5am when he opens it up again. He doesn’t face too many problems except when he is caught snoozing by residents during the day. Building residents are often aware of working conditions but can be unforgiving when it comes to sleeping on the job. “I know that they work double-shifts, although the agency doesn’t disclose this to us, but I am not in favour of it. They stop being attentive and doze off during the day,” says Shanti Keswani, a resident of a housing society in Dahisar. This is a problem most security guards who work double shifts face. With being able to steal barely 3 to 4 hours of sleep a night, most of them fight to stay awake throughout the day. Yadav took to chewing tobacco to keep himself awake, while Varma turned to social media and its endless supply of reels. “When I go back home on holiday, I only sleep,” Yadav says.

Having a cabin or a meter room to relax in is definitely a boon. This is where most security guards keep their belongings too. Yadav keeps a bag with his stuff – his Aadhar card and ration card, and two pairs of clothes apart from his uniforms – in the building where he works the night shift. “It’s not as if it has any gold in it,” he laughs, when asked if he is worried about leaving his bag unattended during the day. “Only when we go back home, we buy gifts worth 1000-2000 rupees for our family. We come back practically empty-handed,” he adds. This is certainly true for 31-year-old Adesh Kumar, who has come back to the city after 8 months in his village in UP, without even a bag. He has a wallet, with his Aadhar card, and his phone charger, carefully stored in his pocket. “I came back with just the clothes on my back. Where would I keep everything else?” he says. “Once I get a job with an agency, they will give me two pairs of uniforms. I have no need for other clothes.” Until he finds a job at a building again, he has nowhere to keep his things. He is living with his friend, Varma, at his building, after getting permission from the residents to stay for two days. He hopes to find a job within that time. If not, he has more friends in the city.

While having a space to stay in helps add a modicum of security and stability to the lives of migrant watchmen, having a space to cook in is a bonus. Most security guards sign up for food tiffin services from local restaurants and spend close to 3,500 rupees a month on their meals. Those who are lucky, find buildings that provide them with space to cook and a kerosene stove. They only need to buy basic utensils and can cook their own meals. Vijay Shankar Tiwari, 47, learned to cook 15 years ago when he first moved to the city. He works a day shift in a building in Andheri east where there is a stove. He cooks his meals here and carries his dinner with him to his night shift. He saves more than 1500 rupees a month by cooking his own meals, but it is temporary. “If I go back home for a holiday, I will only come back after 1 or 2 months. By then the building will have found someone else, and the agency will send me somewhere else,” he says.

Finding the space to cook in other buildings is a matter of rare chance. Building residents can often be averse to security guards “living” in their buildings. Suresh Gurav, a resident of a housing society in Borivali, has been managing his building’s affairs for fifteen years. Recently the building opted to hire security guards from an agency rather than informally hiring someone. “If you privately hire someone, you have to give them a place to live. It becomes our responsibility,” he says. The building is also against allowing security guards to cook. “It is unsafe to cook in the meter room, and if they cook outside, its also dirty,” Gurav says.

The security guards I spoke to said they make it a point to visit home at least once a year for over a month. During this time, they choose to forego their earnings. “We yearn for our families,” Yadav tells me, “but we can’t call them here. We can’t afford it.”

Yadav and the others are constantly on the lookout for better-paying jobs. “We do this because we have no choice,” Tiwari tells me. “I am making sure my two sons study well so they can find better jobs. I don’t want them to do this job.” Yadav echoes this sentiment. “I am only here so I can earn enough to educate my three children well,” he says. “If there was any way I could get a job like this and earn 10,000 rupees a month in my own village, I would construct a building myself.”