Informal migrant workers in metropolitan cities of India have faced multiple forms of vulnerabilities in the last two years of the pandemic. Linkages across schemes for such workers are absolutely critical to creating a social security net that protects them from falling into similar cycles of poverty and destitution during macro and micro economic distresses.
This is part of our special issue on May Day 2022.
ON the occasion of International Labour Day, or ‘May Day’, we explore the dimensions of vulnerabilities faced by migrants working as informal labourers in metropolitan cities of India during the last two years of the pandemic.
There are three distinct aspects of migrants’ livelihoods during the pandemic, which require critical scrutiny.
- Poor wages: A wage labourer’s wage is undercut by other bigger players in the corporate value chain. Did you know that a Rs. 40 mask prepared in a small garment manufacturing unit during lockdowns was prepared under Rs. 2 by an assembly line for four labourers? The Oxfam Inequality Report 2021 titled ‘Inequality Kills’ throws an alarming statistic: “It would take 941 years for a minimum wage worker in India to earn what the top paid executive at a leading Indian garment company earns in a year.”
- Lack of mediation mechanisms during wage losses: During the national lockdown, which led to sudden factory closures, migrant workers were denied their rightful wages. On non-profit organization Aajeevika Bureau’s Labour Line, in 2020, hundreds of distress callers who were casually employed as head loaders, or in construction and hospitality, complained of being defrauded of their wages by their employers (small and big) due to the lockdown. There is a critical need to set up fast-track wage and employment mediation cells and courts in all major cities and industrial areas, to deal with such cases.
- High indebtedness among workers: The level of indebtedness among workers has gone up significantly. Community and survivor centric not-for-profit organization Jan Sahas conducted two separate surveys in September 2020 and 2021 among 3,500 migrant construction workers after the second lockdown. It found that 31 per cent migrant workers had taken loans. Of these, 8 per cent had taken loans from multiple entities, and 79 per cent were unable to pay their loans back.
Also read: India Labourline launched: a new national labour helpline to serve India’s informal workers
Recently released data by the economic think-tank and business information company Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy [CMIE] provided some stark unemployment and labour force statistics. Employment in March 2022 has shrunk by 1.4 million to 396 million in March 2022, because of which (the central causal reason, presumably) the labour participation rate was at 39.5 per cent, lower than during the second wave of COVID-19 in April-June 2021. CMIE data revealed that industrial jobs (specifically construction and manufacturing) fell by 7.6 million in March 2022, making it especially hard for migrant labour, employed in large proportion, to secure work. A comment from the authors of this data brings the situation to its head – “Millions left the labour markets they stopped even looking for employment, possibly too disappointed with their failure to get a job and under the belief that there were no jobs available.”
During the national lockdown, which led to sudden factory closures, migrant workers were denied their rightful wages.
Mumbai: Disillusionment and insecurity in micro & small enterprises
The Aajeevika Bureau field team in Mumbai interviewed Sunil, who works at a garment manufacturing unit at Khairani Road, in April 2021. He told the team: “From the experience of last year, I am aware that, if I go back to my hometown, I won’t be able to get any paid work there. I will have to spend money from my pocket to buy ration. Even if I get some free ration, it won’t be sufficient for the entire family. Since I do not have any financial or livelihood fallback option in my hometown, I decided to stay here and work as long as work is available.”
Aajeevika’s field associate in Mumbai, Bhakti Vardam, mentioned that the situation post the third lockdown was even more severe. “In the last one month, we are noticing that the construction industry has seen some amount of new work being generated, but the metal and scrap industries have been brutally affected. The cost of raw materials, including stainless steel, has increased by at least Rs. 70/80 per kg; the entire supply chain has been affected. Due to this, migrant labour has become collateral damage.”
Also read: India’s migrant workers are facing the brunt of COVID-19 chaos
Surat: Lack of access to healthcare in the powerloom industry
During the lockdown, workers who work in the powerloom industry in Surat said that vaccination drives were not supported by employers. One worker, Aslam, said: “If we take the vaccine and fall sick for two days, the owner would sack us. I think it would be better to take the vaccine after reaching my village.” Another worker said, “If owners do not take initiative to vaccinate workers above 45 years, then the whole process would be futile as the malik is the mai-baap of the workers. Whatever steps the owner takes, workers will follow compulsorily. But I feel that they (employers) are least bothered about saving our lives as making profit is their only objective.”
Employment in March 2022 has shrunk by 1.4 million to 396 million in March 2022, because of which the labour participation rate was at 39.5 per cent, lower than during the second wave of COVID-19 in April-June 2021. Industrial jobs (specifically construction and manufacturing) fell by 7.6 million in March 2022.
Aajeevika’s Surat Center head Sanjay Patel explained that the situation in Surat over the last few months has been one of severe crisis for small metal and garment manufacturing units. even as big units have been functional. The rise in prices of raw materials has led to shutdowns of small plants and factories, and workers have had to work at almost half the wage rate compared to before. Since Holi, they have noticed that migrant workers at the naka who are daily wage labourers have been able to find work but overall, industry workers looking for work have not yet returned from their villages.
Also read: Surat: Diamond Workers Die of COVID-19, Economic Crisis, While Employers Neglect Directives
There were some fundamental changes that have occurred from the perspective of the policy and practice lens when it comes to solving labour management issues. On Labour Day, it is important to reflect on existing ground realities and the impact of the new labour codes on informal and casual labour.
In 2019 and 2020, the Parliament passed four bills that amalgamated 29 central labour laws into the labour codes. These Codes regulate: wages, industrial relations, occupational health, safety and working conditions and social security. Union Labour Minister, Bhupender Yadav recently has indicated that 90 per cent of the states have come out with draft rules, and will soon be ready to implement these four labour codes.
However, there have been a lot of administrative delays – the Centre as well as states are required to notify rules under the four codes to enforce these laws in respective jurisdictions and publish them within their respective gazettes for a period of 30 or 45 days for public consultation. An inordinate delay in notifying and implementing the hastily passed Labour Codes has led to a policy paralysis at the local level as several labour department officers, for example, advised us to wait until the notification of the Codes.
Also read: Delay and complexities plague labour reforms
In terms of the content of these Codes, they do signal some hope for casual workers – the universalisation of minimum wages and the implementation of the national floor wage, and the mandate for appointment letters in enterprises with over ten workers are some immediate positive outcomes. Several industry leaders have celebrated the legitimisation of fixed-term employment, indicating interest in hiring workers as fixed-term employees directly without labour contractors playing the intermediary. At the same time, protections specific to contract workers and migrant workers will deplete once the Codes are adopted.
An inordinate delay in notifying and implementing the hastily passed Labour Codes has led to a policy paralysis at the local level as several labour department officers, for example, advised us to wait until the notification of the Codes.
The transition from the current legal regime to the new one is hazy at this stage. Informal workers unions, while appreciating the e-Shram initiative – a portal launched in August 2021 for better execution of various social security schemes for unorganised sector workers – also wonder whether workers who were previously registered as unorganised or beneficiaries of other schemes will need to re-register.
In conclusion, linkages across schemes for informal workers are absolutely critical to creating a social security net that protects them from falling into the cycle of poverty and destitution during macro and micro economic distresses.