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India - Covid 19 Crisis & Labour

Where are the employers? | Rajesh Tandon

12 June

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The Times of India, June 11, 2020

by Dr Rajesh Tandon

In its recent order on June 9, the Supreme Court asked the central and state governments to “ensure the safe return of all those migrant workers who want to go home within 15 days.” It further advised governments to provide counselling to such migrant workers about possible livelihood locally or where they were earlier working, should they desire to go back. It took the Supreme Court two months after the ‘lockdown of work’ began to recognise the severe distress being faced by those workers who were ‘locked out’ from work, and therefore livelihoods.

Despite ambiguity about official data on the number of migrant workers in the country, and what percentage of those have returned home, it is clear that we are discussing about 30-40 million (3-4 crore) migrant workers who have decided to go home (and perhaps two-thirds have somehow managed to do so already).

But why are migrant workers, in such large numbers, from vibrant economic centres of the country, suddenly ‘home-sick’? Why did they start leaving en masse from the end of March itself, when the initial lockdown was suddenly imposed? Of course, the fear of infection and desire to be with family and loved ones is a very understandable reason. But, in the first announcement of lockdown on March 24, it was only for an initial period of 3 weeks, till April 13; so why leave just for 3 weeks? After all, many lakhs of workers are seasonal migrants anyways and tend to return to their villages during harvesting and sowing seasons. So why now?

The announcement about the extension of lockdown, with an air of uncertainty about the virus, for another 3 weeks caused some panic; the second wave of desperate departure by migrant workers happened after lockdown 2.0 was announced till May 3, and the numbers grew larger, and walking on the highways became more pronounced. Why in much larger numbers? Several appeals by coalitions of concerned citizens, civil society activists and academics have been pointing out such realities for the past two months.

In this entire issue of migrant workers, hardly any attention has been focused on the actions of their employers. A substantial percentage of those returning home were employed somewhere, by someone. Why did the employers allow their own workers to ‘uproot’ so suddenly, and begin to run away? Did most employers only look at their own immediate self-interest? That seems to be the case.

Most employers shut down work premises immediately, where many workers used to stay; they shut down canteen facilities for food, and they stopped paying wages. So, with no food, shelter and income, migrants had to run home? The rental accommodation for most of these informal workers was also taken away since their capacity to pay rent was blocked by these actions of their employers.

Even in urban metros like the National Capital Region (NCR) and Delhi, many middle-class households stopped payment of wages to their maids, drivers and other service providers. A recent survey (conducted by a group of domestic workers and Martha Farrell Foundation) showed less than 50% maids received full wages for the month of March, and only 10% had received any wages for the month of April.

Such widespread, almost universal, actions by all employers around the country reveal the precarious, informal, insecure and vulnerable nature of employment for millions of these workers. In a vast majority of cases, there is no formal contract; even when it exists, it is with some labour contractor or service provider (like housekeeping & security services).

In most of our urban middle-class homes, maids, domestic workers, drivers, caregivers, babysitters, etc. do not have a formal contract of employment. A big and critical part of such employment practices is mutual understanding and trust, largely built on word-of-mouth conversations. Did all such employers—informal enterprises, shops, factories, and even in homes—‘betray’ that trust and reneged on that mutual understanding?

Stories of exceptions to the above seem to corroborate this reality. In some middle-class households, maids, drivers and other service-providers were given full wages/salary for this period of lockdown, even when they did not provide the services. In conversations with a few house-keeping contractors and service providers, some (less than 20%) formal enterprises also agreed to pay salaries for cleaning and security staff.

Some stories from capitals of garment industry of India—Tirupur & Bengaluru— also show that thousands of garment workers did stay back during lockdown because their employers kept the living facilities open, and provided ration/food, and paid some compensation (even if not the full salary), while the production had stopped. This is particularly critical in this industry where wages are paid on piece-rate of production…. the number of units produced, not period of time worked.

Migrant workers living in tea/coffee plantation areas also did not run away because their shelter was not taken away; they were provided with some subsistence food.

As a society, therefore, we need to ask ourselves how much our culture of mutual understanding and trust has been badly destroyed during the pandemic. As everyday employers of many service-providers to our families, households and communities, how will we regain the confidence of those whom we employ? As economic enterprises and small-large businesses, it is important to recognise the importance of this mutual understanding in the relationship between employer and employee.

As plans are afoot to ‘regenerate’ economy and rebuild livelihoods, it may be worthwhile to think about ways to ‘refresh’ this relational ‘lockdown’!

Dr Rajesh Tandon is Founder President of PRIA, New Delhi

P.S.

The above article from The Times of India is reproduced here in Public interest and intended for educational and non-commercial use