“My friend has been sick for the past four days after taking the vaccine. A relative in our village is sick, too. How can I trust this vaccine?”
Naveen (name changed) was upfront about his hesitancy when asked about getting the vaccine. He came to Surat from Odisha’s Ganjam district when he was just 19 and has been working in the city’s powerloom sector for over 20 years. The primary breadwinner, Naveen cannot leave his job to go back to his family.
The second COVID wave has hit India hard. Last year’s uncertainty has reemerged, with lockdowns in several cities putting the country’s already limping trade and commerce in an uncertain state once again. Its most horrific impact has been on the informal, migrant workforce. The highest risk at this time has been borne by labour-intensive sectors such as manufacturing and construction.
The Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) recently claimed that it is armored with vaccines, requesting all eligible citizens to get the jab. Since 1 May, everyone above the age of 18 is eligible, but for most migrant workers, their work and living conditions are far from ideal for mitigating the side-effects of the vaccine. This is compounded by a lack of adequate information and a fear and mistrust towards vaccinations in general. To this extent, it is imperative that a positive ecosystem be created that motivates migrant workers to get vaccinated.
While quintessential in battling COVID, how accessible is the vaccine to Surat’s informal, migrant workforce? Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit organisation working for the welfare and security migrant communities in India, attempted to find out by going directly to workers’ quarters and messes, where it gauged their everyday living conditions and asked them about their access to pandemic-related support and vaccination.
The Provisions in Law and its Implications
The tax goes directly to the local authorities when these units are registered under the Shops and Establishments Act unlike the latter, where it is paid to the state government. This extra incentive leads the local authorities to register these looms as ‘establishments’ and not ‘factories’ paving way for compromise of rights of labourers.
Owners also evade wage norms prescribed in the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, and so, no written records are kept. As a result, powerloom workers are bereft of paid leaves and employment security.
Workers are concerned more about saving their ‘rozi-roti’ than their health, which means that even during a pandemic, they are often not able to prioritise their health over their work and livelihood.
On the one hand, there is mistrust over the vaccine among workers while on the other, those who do wish to get vaccinated are not able to because of their workplace conditions and nature of employment.
“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.”Akram Ali (name changed), a 47-year-old loom worker, from Banaras.
Akram goes home once a year to visit his family. Being away from his family is a major hurdle for him. “If I fall sick, who will take care of me,” he asks helplessly.
Lack of Sensitisation
Powerloom workers in Surat either live in the shared rooms, paying approximately Rs 1,500 per person, or in the labour ‘messes’ spread across the city, which are situated right above or close to the factory units. Areas like Siddharth Nagar, Gopal Nagar, Udhana, Ved Road and Amroli are the places where a huge number of migrant workers reside in housing tenements that have been built under schemes for the Economically Weaker Sections (EWS).
According to a recent study by Aajeevika Bureau, most of the workers prefer to live in shared rooms. Besides EWS housing, migrants live in the informal settlements.
Claustrophobic rooms, littered corridors and open drains with uncollected waste inform the daily realities in these neighborhoods left indefinitely unattended by municipalities. Given these daily challenges in the lives of workers, following COVID protocols, such as masking and maintaining distance, remain secondary concerns.
To put the responsibility of COVID protocols on workers alone, while municipal administrations and employers fail to provide hygienic and safe living conditions for them, is unacceptable at the very least.
With minimum access to print and electronic media, most workers are unaware of the severity of the current COVID wave. Fortunately, since most use WhatsApp, they are constantly updated about the conditions in their villages.
“We have sent our teams all over city to make citizens aware of the current pandemic situation, asking them to track the number of cases in every locality and urging all eligible people to get vaccinated.”An SMC officer
Regardless, SMC officers agreed that language is a barrier in cities like Surat where migrants from all over the country have come to work do not speak Gujarati.
Owners are the ‘Mai Baap’
Akram works as a power loom machine operator, supervising around 12 machines. He gets to work at 7 am and leaves the floor only at 7 pm. He barely gets a few minutes in between to have lunch and some tea.
“Spreading awareness among the workers becomes an issue if the time of their availability in the living places is not taken into consideration. There is no point if they come to factory areas because everyone would be working then, and deafening sound of the machines makes it impossible to communicate anything for that matter.”An owner of a prominent power loom factory in the Olpadh area
According to Pritam, a worker, “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.”
Evident from our conversations with workers, employers, and SMC officers is a clear lack of communication and planning measures to safeguard workers during the second wave. Fearing a second lockdown, workers have already started deserting the industrial clusters of Mumbai, Delhi and Ahmedabad.
The Surat powerloom sector’s example suggests that employers and contractors must play an important role in facilitating the vaccination process at worksites. Since workers live away from their families, giving them paid leaves in the event of a post-vaccination relapse is the need of the hour. Employers must prioritise the health and wellbeing of their workers. It is imperative that employers and the government alike rise to the occasion.
(The author is a Research Executive at Anjeevika Bureau and would like to thank Maansi Parpiani and Anhaad Iman for their inputs. All ‘My Report' branded stories are submitted by citizen journalists to The Quint. Though The Quint inquires into the claims/allegations from all parties before publishing, the report and the views expressed above are the citizen journalist's own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for the same.)