The Poor Can’t Work From Home, Now Face Risks to Health & Income

Here’s a look at the risks faced by those who can’t work from home and what it means for India’s coronavirus crisis.

8 min read
The Poor Can’t Work From Home, Now Face Risks to Health & Income

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Virus se darr toh lagta hai, par abhi pet ko thodi darr lagta hai. Jo hoga hoga. Hum toh ghar se kaam nahi kar sakte hai na. Idhar aana hi padega. (I am scared of the virus, but my stomach cannot afford to be scared. Whatever has to happen, will happen. We cannot work from home. We have to come here and work.)”
Sangeeta, Vegetable Seller

Sangeeta is a 48-year-old woman who sells dhaniya (coriander) right outside the largest vegetable market in Mumbai’s bustling neighbourhood of Dadar. She stays in Mankhurd, more than 15 km away from where she sells her produce, and travels in the crowded Mumbai local to reach her workplace every morning.

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Sangeeta is one of the many millions in India who do not have the option of working from home, for whom social distancing is not a choice within their means.
Sangeeta sells dhaniya (coriander) right outside the largest vegetable market in Mumbai’s bustling neighbourhood of Dadar.
(Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

As India grapples with the spread of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, more and more companies are asking their employees to work from home. Sports events have been cancelled, colleges and universities closed down, and public gatherings restricted. But missing from all of these measures are steps that provide relief to workers of the unorganised sector, who are still largely going about their work.

From daily-wage labourers who live hand-to-mouth, to food delivery agents, cab drivers, security guards, here’s a look at the risks faced by those who can’t work from home (or afford to take several days off) and what it means for the coronavirus crisis in India.

Here’s a look at the risks faced by those who can’t work from home (or afford to take several days off) and what it means for the coronavirus crisis in India.
(GIF: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

A Loss-Loss Situation

Agar ek din sab band rahe, chalo ek din aaraam kar liye, chhuti kar liye. Par agar 4-5 din band hai, toh ghar nahi chal payega. Kharcha paani kaha se aayega?” (If there’s a shutdown for one day, I can understand. I’ll rest for that one day, think of it as a holiday. But if there’s no work for four to five days, then I will not be able to run my household or make ends meet. Where will the money for expenses come from?)

Mohammad Isaq is 27. Like Sangeeta, he sells vegetables in Dadar. He travels to work by bus. There is an unmistakable worry in his voice as he asks repeatedly, “What will we do? How will we eat? What will our kids eat?"

Isaq’s fear stems from what he has been hearing from other vegetable sellers. “The wholesalers are saying that there are chances that the mandis in Vashi and elsewhere may be shut for around a week.”
Mohammad Isaq’s fear stems from what he has been hearing from other vegetable sellers.
(Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

Monu Yadav, a 21-year-old resident of Dadar, who sells cucumber and carrot, says “Mall band hoga, chalega. Par mandi band hoga, toh nahi chalega. (It is alright for the malls to shut down. We can still carry on. But if the vegetable market closes, we won’t be able to.)"

A shutdown would indeed hit them very hard, financially. For example, Isaq earns between Rs 600 to 700 a day, and says his family’s daily expenses come up to around Rs 500. He has to fend for his wife and three sons, two of whom are in school and the third is only a year old. "Not just us, this will cause a lot of difficulty for many people”, he rues.

Monu Yadav, a 21-year-old resident of Dadar, sells cucumber and carrot for a living.
(Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

There is a feeling of being caught between a rock and a hard place.

On the one hand, Sangeeta says, “We too feel scared of the virus. We know we are at a greater risk of contracting it because we are working here and travelling in crowded trains.” On the other hand, she counters, “But if we don’t work, how will we feed our families? I have a husband and three daughters. As it is, already, fewer people are coming to buy vegetables here since the last four to five days, we’ve been selling half our usual quantities.”

I probe her about the dilemma she has described. About the health risks on one side, and the financial risks on the other. Should the mandis be closed for a few days then, I ask?

“From how I see it, the mandis should continue working. From our perspective. For our stomachs.”
Sangeeta, Vegetable Seller

With Kerchiefs as Makeshift ‘Masks’, Work Goes On

Dinesh Kanojia, a 43-year-old Uber driver, has a handkerchief strung around his neck, intended to serve as a makeshift mask.
(Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

Dinesh Kanojia, a 43-year-old Uber driver, has a handkerchief strung around his neck, intended to serve as a makeshift mask. But he isn’t wearing it (or using it to cover his face) when I get into the vehicle.

I ask him why that is so as we strike a conversation about coronavirus. Kanojia explains, “Only if I feel that a passenger is not healthy, then I put it on."

Kanojia, who lives in Andheri with his wife and three kids, admits he is very concerned about coronavirus. But beyond wearing his kerchief mask, he says there is little he can do to take precautions.

“I can’t stop working, this is my rozi roti (daily bread). Agar gaadi khada kar de, kamayenge kaha se?” (If I don’t go out to drive, how will I earn?)
Dinesh Kanojia

“But I keep this handkerchief on me. Rumaal best hai. I can wash and reuse it, which I can’t do with masks.”

Sangeeta too has started wearing a mask over the past week, one that she bought for Rs 20. She says, “I start feeling uncomfortable after wearing it for a while, so I take it off.”

Monu Yadav nods in agreement, “Main mask nahi pehenta, usse aur khaasi aati hai, aur taqleef hota hai.” (I don’t wear a mask, it makes me cough even more, and I feel more uncomfortable.)

I ask Sangeeta how long she’s been wearing the same mask.

“I’ve been wearing this mask for the last three or four days. Only if it tears will I buy a new mask.”

Sangeeta has been wearing this mask over the past few days.
(Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

According to doctors, these regular medical face masks cannot protect one from the coronavirus. The N95 masks, which are effective, are significantly more expensive, with one piece costing anywhere between Rs 300 to 400, making it beyond the means of many of these workers.

Which is why Monu has a request to the Prime Minister. “Modi ji ko boliye mask free karein, yeh ek meherbaani karein.” (Please ask Modi ji to provide us masks free of cost. It would be a great service.)

He begins to show me a video on his mobile phone, of the Prime Minister speaking about coronavirus.

Monu says, “Modi ji ne bhaashan de diye ki mask peheno, public place mein zyada mat raho, logon se door raho, par public place mein nahi rahenge toh dhanda kaise hoga?” (Modi ji, in his speech, asked us to wear masks, avoid public places, and stay away from people as much as possible. But if we won’t stay in public places, then how will we do our work?)

Monu shows a video on his mobile phone, of Prime Minister Modi speaking about coronavirus.
(Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

From the ISL Final to Parliament, What About the Workers?

On Saturday, 14 March, the final of the Indian Super League went on as scheduled in Goa, albeit in front of empty stands. Earlier the same day, the Goa government had announced the closure of educational institutions, casinos, pubs, discos, public swimming pools, cinema halls, gyms and spas. But the football match was allowed to continue.

At a time when numerous other sporting events, in India and across the world, either stand postponed or cancelled, the ISL organisers chose to go ahead with the final. Not only did this pose a risk to the players, coaches and team staff, what is often easily overlooked is that this also posed an arguably greater risk to the ground staff, security personnel, and other workers at the stadium who would have had no choice but to show up for duty.

What about the safety of these workers? The validity of this concern becomes even more apparent when you consider another example, that of our Parliament.

On 17 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told BJP MPs that the ongoing Budget session would continue till 3 April and would not be curtailed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Now, while the MPs themselves may travel to Parliament in their cars, can the housekeeping staff of the Parliament complex do the same, or even get to work in cabs? They will likely still be availing crowded public transport for their commutes, placing themselves at a greater threat of contracting the virus and speeding its spread.


Let’s also look at the world of showbiz. The producers of daily TV soaps are currently scampering in Mumbai to shoot stock episodes that can be aired once all shooting is suspended.

Sushant Singh, honorary General Secretary of CINTAA (Cine and Television Artists Association), told The Quint, “In my personal opinion, it (the suspension of all shoots) should have been immediate, but I am guessing because of the pressure under which all the daily soaps operate, I guess they decided to give a three-day leeway to create some sort of a bank of episodes, that’s the only explanation.”

But here’s the thing again. While the actors and directors of these episodes will have greater access to precautions, from N95 masks to personal commutes, the spot boys, junior artists and other sundry crew members will not have the same privileges.

Neither will their commutes be in air-conditioned cars, nor will they have the option of keeping a physical distance from other people. Which makes you question if that “bank of episodes” is really as important.


Social Distancing: Weighted by Privilege

On Tuesday, the Maharashtra government’s cabinet held a detailed discussion about whether Mumbai should be placed under a virtual lockdown. There were doubts about whether the local trains and the metro service would be halted as well. The government eventually decided against the move, for the time being.

The Mumbai locals are the lifeline of the city and the only feasible means of travel for millions of Mumbaikars, especially those who belong to the economically lesser- privileged sections. The lives of women like Sangeeta, who will not be able to get to work if not for the locals or other forms of public transport, will be severely impacted financially in such a case. And the increasing urgency of the health crisis only brings to the fore these added concerns about what it will mean for these workers and their families.

One thing is clear though. As a result of the size of the unorganised sector in India and the many conditions restricting workers in the sector from being able to practice social distancing, the country faces a greater challenge in curtailing the spread of the virus, which places an even greater responsibility on those privileged enough to work from home, to do just that.

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