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Labour and Work in the COVID Pandemic: A Belated May Day Post

By Sana Contractor
on May 7, 2020

Spending “May Day” by myself at home this year, seemed very strange. It was the first time in a very long time, that I did not attend some sort of protest or event of resistance. But I do not think there has ever been a time in my life when concerns of workers’ rights have been more pronounced than they are in India today. Like most of the world, India’s (already flailing) economy has come to a grinding halt since it announced a nationwide lockdown on the 25th of March 2020. 90 percent of India’s labour force works in the informal sector which provides no employment, health or social security. Over the past forty days these workers, many of whom have migrated from rural to urban areas – people who literally run the Indian economy and especially the large metropolitan cities that have been my home – have been hit hardest. Ever since the lockdown was announced, migrant workers have been desperately trying to return to their homes. Many are daily wage workers, and due to loss of work they have found themselves turning destitute overnight. With no food to eat and no money to pay rent, thousands looked for ways and means to get back home. With rail and road travel suspended, they decided to return home on foot and many died on the way. The most heartbreaking of these was a 12 year old girl from Chhattisgarh who collapsed and died of exhaustion after she walked from Telangana (where she worked on chilli fields) to her home state of Chhattisgarh. This show of absolute desperation on the part of the migrant workers should have caused the state (and indeed many of us privileged citizens of the country), to reflect on the grave humanitarian  crisis that was unfolding due to an ill-thought out, mis-managed policy decision. The gross injustice of it all was so clear – after all, the Indian government had  gone through great lengths to bring back Indians stranded abroad (who we don’t call ‘migrant workers’ for some reason), and continues to do so. Instead, these “migrant” workers largely from marginalized groups, were portrayed as uneducated, irresponsible people who were going to spread disease. Law enforcement agencies unleashed violence, and workers returning to their villages were hosed down with disinfectants. The crackdown by the state meant that those stranded in cities would have to just stay there until the lockdown lifted, which, at the time, we thought would be on April 15th. When April 15th arrived, once again, workers who had bought railway tickets to go home crowded around railway stations and were dispersed through violence and intimidation. Migrant workers stranded in cities continue to live in destitute conditions, with little food to eat, while voluntary agencies scramble to provide rations through individual donations. The state per se, is unable to meet the demand. A recent survey by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) found that that 96% of migrant workers stranded across India had not received rations from the government and 70% said that the rations they had received (from voluntary agencies) would only last them two days. 90% had not been paid wages through the lockdown despite the fact that the government had issued an order on 29th March that all employers must pay full wages to their workers.

If the present situation seems dire, forecasts for the future are no better. Even as workers struggle for the right to work and livelihood, exploitation is certain. In an interview recently, IT giant and Infosys chief Narayana Murthy, opined that Indians would now have to work 60 hour days to revive the economy. (as an aside: why do we think tech entrepreneurs with a lot of money have the answer to public health problems?) Murthy seems to be unaware of the fact that a large majority of Indians work much longer hours and informal employment, especially piece wage work, has no concept of “hours-per-week”. While he received a fair amount of scorn on social media, in reality, between April 11th and 21st, four Indian states have issued notifications to increase working hours from a maximum of 48 hours per week (as mandated by ILO), to 72 hours a week – citing reasons such as worker shortage due to the pandemic, restricting movement of workers and “safety and social distancing”.  Further, in the bid to “revive the economy”, clearance for projects is being accelerated which has raised environmental concerns among experts. Union Minister Nitin Gadkari recently emphasized that India must capitalize on the ostracization that China is facing in the global markets, and must attract new foreign investment through “removing investment bottlenecks” and fast tracking clearance of new projects.

In many ways, the past 40 days have only exposed what we already knew – that our social security nets are practically non-existent and that those who face the brunt of this are informal workers. But what has also come very starkly to the fore is how little we care about the men and women who build and run our economies, and how much we have pushed them to the brink. While I am ever so happy to see clear blue skies in Delhi and the chirping of birds that I had never heard before, I am also acutely aware of the fact that this improvement in the environment comes at a cost – that of work and livelihood for the most poor. While large businesses will probably survive this crisis, it is the small and medium enterprises that will be hit the most, and along with that all the employment that they also support. This is the unfortunate reality of the economy that we have built. There is no doubt that in order to avert an even larger humanitarian crisis, the Indian economy must restart. But in this state of emergency, now more than ever, we need to rally and hold the government accountable to protect worker rights.

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1 comments
werner soors says:

Good one, Sana, a much needed message. Thanks by the way for sharing the May Day spirit. As for your between-brackets question: yes it would be unwise, in most cases, to blindly follow tech entrepreneurs in search for public health solutions. But it would be equally unwise to copy the frantic coping of the medical clique. What we witness is at the core a socio-ecological turmoil, with a viral pandemic as business card and a vicious economy in between. Thanks again, and warm regards.