For Migrant Workers in India, Healing and Well-Being are About Relationships

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In this article, researchers found how well-being among migrant workers in India is about fulfilling their social roles, and about hopes for a better future for their family/community.


Researchers Sangeeta Yadav and Kumar Ravi Priya of Jindal Global University and Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, conducted a study to understand how migrant workers in Delhi and Kanpur understand healing and well-being. The researchers set foot in Delhi and Kanpur to interview 40 migrant workers working in domestic labor or manual labor in factories or industries. They found that the way migrant workers experienced healing was influenced by multiple socio-cultural factors. Their understanding of well-being focused on the values of family and community relationships during distressing times. In other words, for migrant workers, peace of mind was relational, such as knowing that their children will be provided for. Healing was often about being able to fulfil one’s social roles and responsibilities towards others, such as taking care of one’s parents. 

The researchers noted that there is a bias in mental health research and psychological theories. These often don’t value the political, cultural, and social realities of people’s life. These realities are central to how people understand healing and experience well-being. This research aims to bridge this gap. Their findings are in direct contrast to traditional psychological work on healing which focuses on the individual and their own life.

Around 450 million Indians migrated internally in 2011, 37% of the total population. They authors write:

“These migrants often find themselves surrounded by conditions, lifestyles, accents, and beliefs that may be different from their own culture— creating a variety of everyday challenges for them to meet. For example, they often have to face physical assault, abuse, charges of theft, and forcible eviction by police or urban authorities from their houses. Furthermore, they have to put up with improper housing, inadequate sanitation and health facilities, lesser wages, lack of social or legal security coverage, long working hours, and unhygienic/unhealthy working conditions”

In their analysis, they found that 20% of laborers suffered from depression, while 21% exhibited symptoms of anxiety. However, the global guidelines on mental health support are mostly based on data collected from immigrant and refugee communities in Europe and North America. The global studies of mental health among migrant workers have largely ignored the relational and socioeconomic context. Therefore, Yadav and Priya conducted a qualitative study to gather data from migrant workers to understand what they think of as wellbeing. To do this, it is important to use people’s own expressions (language) of distress and happiness and not words that are irrelevant to them.

Initially, the researchers had trouble translating academic language such as “sukh” or “mansik shanti” to denote migrants’ sense of well-being. But they realized that using these terms was not making sense to the participants. They soon reached an understanding of the language preferred by the workers:

“They denoted their small, significant, and day-today happiness or mental peace through words, such as “tasalli” and “sukun.” They felt happy and relieved when they were able to give good education or values to their children, or when they nurtured their family by providing food and money. The understanding of these local idioms about well-being (day-to-day mental peace) used among the communities of migrant laborers served as a common vantage point to explore healing.”

They found that for migrant workers, wellbeing was understood and experienced as: nurturing relations, hope of being nurtured, witnessing well-being of close ones, adhering to socioreligious values, faith in metaphysical phenomena, choosing the righteous path, better job opportunities despite hardships, and better opportunities for children’s education.

‘Nurturing relations’ included things like sending financial support to close ones and teaching good values to one another. ‘Hope of being nurtured’ entails the desire that in the future, their children will care for and provide for them. Dinesh, one of the workers interviewed, stated “If I am lucky enough, my children will take care of me and my wife during our old age.” He also derived a sense of relief that “at least he is able to provide food to this family and education to his children” which is where “witnessing the well-being of close ones” comes in:

The only source of relief is my family. Despite living in such a restricted condition, I am relieved that my children are getting food thrice in a day. I am happy and satisfied that my family is healthy and happy. Otherwise, life is miserable. Happiness of my family gives me a sense of satisfaction.”

Workers also reported that strong trust and faith in God to give them strength to face the challenges in life. One worker stated, “Whenever I am scared [of future] or bewildered, I think of God. He is the ultimate creator. If he has brought me into this world, he is going to take care of me.” Following the righteous path is another category in which workers identified their sources of strength. Workers valued following the righteous path shown by their religion, which may say to serve others and do good work.

Additionally, workers valued having better job opportunities despite hardships. Having better opportunities for their children’s education is another motive to continue the work the unskilled migrants are doing (“We are trying our best to give good education to our children so that they can have a better future”). An underlying thread that ties them together is “healing as reaffirming the value of familial and community relationships even during distressing times.”

Past research has similarly noted that in societies that value group-wellbeing over individual well-being, healing from systemic or generational hardships happens through relationship and community. Generational hardships include difficulties that are passed down from one generation to the next, like poverty, caste and gender violence, sociopolitical events like the partition. One such example is Joseph Gone’s research on how the healing of generational trauma  of indigenous people in North America is done through community healing (i.e. group dancing, spiritual and cultural practices together) as opposed to individual work in therapy, etc.  

Douglas Bloch in his article uses Buddhist teachings to note that just as we cannot become enlightened alone (and need a sangha), we cannot heal alone. We are meant to heal in community.  Our need for one another is both our greatest vulnerability and our greatest strength.

It is clear that providing support and resources to their family and children, following the righteous path, and being able to have better opportunities going forward are key motivators for the migrant workers to be on their paths. Even though their work may feel meaningless at times or prove to be difficult, many workers stick to the above benefits of working in their fields to continue doing so.

Isha Aggarwal

Isha Aggarwal is a clinical social worker trained from Erikson Institute, Chicago, USA. She has worked in severe mental health, refugees, and trauma. She explores the link between mental illness and spirituality on the side and incorporates it into her clinical work with clients.


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