India’s migrant workers are facing the brunt of COVID-19 chaos

THE plight of almost 40 crores of workers, based on a very miserly estimate, out of 54 crores of workers with almost 90 per cent of them in the unorganised sector as of now in 2020 needs to be addressed immediately.

The estimates are that 10 crores and above are migrant workforces in various sectors including in construction, agriculture, factories, contract/daily/casual in private transport beginning from rickshaw pulling to all motored vehicles, those in domestic work, in piece-rated work in the home-based sector, workers in shops and dhabas, loaders-unloaders, coolies, porters at Railway stations, bus stations, mandies, hawkers and vendors, waste pickers and others.

They are very hard-hit and a substantial number of them could not reach their native homes as the Railways and road transport services were abruptly stopped without giving them advance warning and time to reach their respective homes.


Migrant workers in deep distress


The stranded workers are seen on roads walking for miles with their families in an empty stomach, except for some help now and then from some social organisations. Of late, some investment from some state governments has come in for those workforces. The LDF government in Kerala has done it in the most organised manner and the example could and should be emulated by other state governments.

With the clamping of lockdown, migrant workers are in deep distress having no work, no money and being thrown out from their workplaces. In many cases eviction from their rented accommodation and having nothing to fall back for stay and food those workers are desperately attempting to reach back their native home even facing police high-handedness.

Many of them are being stopped and or detained, insulted and humiliated by the police particularly at the inter-state borders forcing them to remain stranded midway under the sky. Further, there are even reports of deaths due to accidents and unbearable hardships.


Act of crime


The use of the disinfectant spray on the migrant workers in Bareilly, in Uttar Pradesh, for their ‘crime’ of being desperate to rush back to their native home even by walking on the highways was shocking and the most condemnable inhuman act.

It is criminal to use chemical spray on human bodies as it can cause nausea, vomiting, headache, irritation, and damage to eyes. In severe cases, it even causes commotion from within, delusion, drowsiness, hallucination, impaired judgment, excitement, and mood changes and could be fatal in the case of children and those with ailments of asthma, diabetes, etc.

In another place in Bulandshahar, a police person on duty is seen writing on the forehead of a worker that ‘I am a lockdown breaker’. Could anybody witness such a scene with an affluent, some of them in high positions violating advisories on lockdown even though having a history of traveling in Corona-effected countries in the months of February-March 2020?

The migrant workers in Surat were lathi-charged and even cases have been filed against them. There are no efforts by the authorities to reach out to the places where those workers are held up in various states after losing their livelihood and having no resources to feed themselves. No effort is being made to explain to them the need for the lockdown while ensuring their basic essentials of food, water, and medical care.

It is shameful that some of those in power including some responsible government officials are having scant regard for basic human rights of crores of vulnerable, helpless poor workers who are desperate having lost their livelihood, place of stay and compelled due to circumstances to walk for miles to reach back homes in villages.


Retrenchments, wage cut and forced unpaid leaves


The central trade unions including AITUC had demanded immediate announcement of strong statutory enforceable measures to arrest and put a ban on the ongoing spree of retrenchments, wage cut, forced unpaid leave, etc. being perpetrated by the employers on the workers, particularly contract, casual, temporary and or fixed-term workers in various establishments, particularly in the private sector throughout the country to be enforced both by the central and state governments.

We are still regularly getting information of forced unpaid leave, etc. including from the NCR region. Appeal/ advisory by the central government, both the labour ministry and home ministry is not at all working at ground level to prevent loss of employment and earnings and also eviction from local residence in the process of lockdown. We had detailed the demands about the need for immediate packages for various sectors of workers in the letter by the CTUs to the Prime Minister on March 26 itself.


Government agencies unprepared 


We had also informed the ministry of labour that the employees manning essential services run by the public/government sector are being stopped and detained by the police, in spite of their holding valid Identity Cards issued by the concerned authorities. Also, the contract/outsourced workers are mostly not being provided with any protective gear.

Even the ASHA and Anganwadi workers who are working in the frontline in combating Corona are being tortured and manhandled in various states by police and local miscreants with impunity.

The government has not mobilised any machinery to transport grain in the god-owns to various rationing outlets in states. Restriction on the inter-state transport movement made the situation difficult further. Hoarding is rampant and the prices of essential commodities are shooting up which is causing further hardship to the working people.

The poor working masses have lost their livelihood in the lockdown/curfew situation, have been left in the lurch for nothing to bank upon. Their very human survival has been put in total jeopardy as they lost the only means of their income and sustenance due to the lockdown situation.

The door-to-door delivery of essentials like medicines, hygiene materials, vegetables/fruits, and other food items need to be allowed and facilitated. The government should immediately check the black- marketing and hoarding of essential commodities.


Economic task-force


We were aghast that the government’s economic task force headed by the finance minister was only busy in announcing an extension in deadlines for filing IT returns, GST, about TDS or the cases under Bankruptcy Act, etc, benefitting mainly the defaulters among the big-businesses but in this first package, there was no announcement made for the 40 crores out of about 54 crores of working people whose survival was put in stake and who were looking towards the incumbent government for urgent help.

We had demanded on March 26 itself that the government must immediately come out with a clear announcement of concrete package/scheme on income-support/livelihood-support for the most vulnerable 40 crores of informal sector workers to deal with all these issues at the earliest.

As otherwise, anxieties of ‘no work and no food’ amongst toiling masses will create problems in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. We also demanded that the government immediately increase the financial package for the health sector to tackle the emergent needs of the medical fraternity and the expansion of health infrastructure.

The CTUs raised the issues of provisions to be made for concessions and debt-moratorium for the MSMEs, small retail-traders, street vendors/self-employed, who were also badly affected by lockdown.

But in the second announcement by the finance minister for a package of Rs 1,76,000 crores a meager amount of Rs 500 per month to Jan Dhan account-holder women was made while out of 20 crores registered of which a substantial number of accounts are already dead.

Free gas schemes under Ujjwala will cover about 6.5 crore homes but this leaves out those who are homeless or migrant workers and are not covered under this scheme. As regards 17,400 crore transfer for Rs 2,000 for each farmer, they were already covered in the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Scheme and the government should have provided Rs6,000 to them.


Actions required


Presently there is a need to provide the facility of procurement of the small producers of perishable items such as vegetables/ fruits/poultry, etc. As regards the announcement of EPF to four lakh established units only about 4.8 crore workers will be covered because more than the registered establishments are those unregistered and hence their workers are devoid of EPF benefits.

District mineral funds of Rs 25,000 crores is already available fund for workers. In the nutshell, the high-sounding government package includes about Rs 90,000 crores out of already available resources for the workers from the cess collected in the welfare boards and ongoing scheme for farmers.

The government announced insurance coverage to doctors of Rs 50 lakh, for nurses Rs 30 lakh and others for Rs 20 lakh but this package once again ignores the emergency needs of health professionals and para-medicals and other workers of the health system to meet the challenge of the deadly disease. 

The immediate investments in the health sector for PPEs, masks, increasing beds in hospitals and the creation of new facilities in school buildings and stadiums to meet the emergency situation of testing, segregating and quarantine of those tested positive in these places. We demanded from the government to provide Rs 1 lakh crore for this purpose alone, to begin with strengthening the public health system to fight the disease in an organized manner.

It is heartening to note that the trade union activists and other social workers including ordinary people out of their conscience are in the streets to help the hungry and thirsty people.

It is shameful and disgusting that the communalists — the hate mongers — are trying to divert the meaningful debate and critical suggestions to the governments and the officials to hide the failures and shortcomings of those in governance in tackling COVID-19 crisis. (IPA Service)

The author is General Secretary of AITUC and CPI National Council Secretary