The outbreak of COVID-19 in India has laid bare the precarity of life for millions in India. The livelihoods of daily wage workers, domestic workers, home-based workers, vendors, and gig workers working in construction sites, factories, malls, hotels, and households across the country have been manifestly disrupted.
Though the government has passed directions to employers to retain and pay them, these have meant little in the absence of implementation mechanisms. Workers in the informal sector, many of whom are migrants, are usually hired through middlemen without written contracts. Several hustle for work at labour addas daily. No one is answerable for their foregone wages or accountable for their safety. In times of sickness, no one ensures paid leave for them.
No Safety Net For Daily Wage Workers, Debt Is a Way of Life
In the absence of assured wages, contracts, rent agreements, and social security, they are thrown into the deep end with no recourse in sight. They then look to welfare schemes to keep their heads above water. But the welfare system has long failed migrant workers. Due to the non-portability of entitlements across states, these workers have remained devoid of schemes such as PDS, Ujjwala, and ICDS, and struggle to access services such as healthcare and education.
Women informal workers are especially susceptible to being ineligible for social security and welfare schemes, as registration usually happens at the household level in the name of the primary male earner.
Moreover, women are disproportionately engaged in unaccounted and undervalued work, which is completely out of the state’s purview.
In situations of distress such as the one they are in now, workers turn to borrowing from contractors and moneylenders to survive. Thus, debt becomes a way of life and the only social safety net for many.
Migrant Workers Are Our Lifeline – Why Exclude Them From Policymaking?
India has an estimated population of 139 million migrant workers as per 2011 Census. They are mostly from agricultural families with dwindling incomes. Due to a decline in employment in rural areas, people are forced to migrate to find work in the informal sector in cities, often seasonally or temporarily.
The highest proportion of people in this so-called migrant working class are from scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, exposing how dispossession and marginalisation is reproduced along caste and ethnic hierarchies.
Despite the role migrant workers play in building and sustaining our cities, they are all too easily ignored in policymaking, removed from their traditional networks of political patronage as it were. The state is absent in the day-to-day lives of these workers, as enforcer of contracts, as provider of welfare, or as protector of human rights, but comes back in heavy-handed ways to police their bodies and curtail their choices. We are currently witnessing this in the way in which the lockdown has been planned and implemented.
Minimum Wages Need to be Revised, Women Workers Need More Recognition
The disruption caused by the pandemic could last for months, and its effects will reverberate for years to come. We must seize this moment to tackle the structural issues which act to deny migrant workers their political identity and agency, and allow them to exist only in the periphery of our consciousness.
The informality of work has become an undesirable but undeniable reality today. We need to reimagine the world of work to ensure that this informality does not translate into insecurity. The government needs to first and foremost ensure a decent living wage for all workers.
The existing prescribed minimum wages in many states and the proposed floor wage at the national level are too little to be of consequence to significant improvements in their condition.
The government needs to overhaul its framework for the valuation of labour. The skill classification system, which is integral to wage determination for different sectors, is too outdated and uneven across states. It continues to reflect our biases towards certain kinds of work and the people who are engaged in them. For example, women workers are often engaged in work which is categorised as ‘unskilled’ work, be it in agriculture, fisheries, or construction. Further, several forms of work which are categorised by a higher participation of women – such as domestic work and home-based work – are largely excluded from such classification.
Transient State of Migrant Workers Can’t Be a Reason to Deny Them Rights
It is also necessary to ensure safe working conditions for workers, including safety in transit for migrant workers. All categories of workers, including migrant workers and other contract workers, must be protected by labour laws. They should have access to mechanisms such as local committees for the prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace.
The government should push for the setting up of Migration Facilitation Centres in all districts.
They can play a pivotal role in maintaining database of migrant workers both at the source and destination, providing information and access to welfare schemes, and ensuring access to grievance redressal processes.
The transient state of migrant workers should not become cause for permanently denying them their rights.
They must be provided access to their entitlements such as food rations, maternity benefits, subsidised cooking fuel, and health insurance among others, regardless of their location. This would entail better registration processes, linkages with bank accounts, and accepting Aadhar cards, BPL cards and other forms of government issued identification, instead of putting workers through tortuous processes of authentication.
Decent Housing Must Be Ensured to Migrant Labourers
It is imperative that workers have access to education, healthcare, water, and sanitation, wherever they are based, including remote work sites. The government must utilise money from labour welfare funds and education cess, sanitation cess etc. for this purpose.
Equally important is the need to ensure access to decent housing.
Several low-income workers, especially migrant workers, are left out of existing housing schemes due to the insistence on proving long-term residency in a city. There is a need to make more housing units available and enable in-situ slum redevelopment to the benefit of workers.
The focus should be on low-cost rental housing and dormitory accommodation with basic amenities such as water, sanitation, and electricity for migrant workers, based on considerations of distance from the workplace, assurance of basic amenities, and security of tenure.
Labour Legislations & Schemes Need Better Enforcement
The government must also endeavour to arrest distress migration. This requires ensuring people’s access to land, forests, and water.
The long pending land reform agenda needs to be put back firmly on the table, with a focus on land ownership to the tiller.
Other forms of support such as income support, remunerative prices, direct procurement, crop insurance, and higher investment in irrigation must follow. The government also needs to expand rural employment guarantee. In recent years, the demand for work under MNREGA has outstripped the provision of work, wages have remained almost stagnant, and are running into backlog of several months in many states. Yet, it has been effectively used to reduce seasonal migration and ensure income security, particularly in situations of drought.
We need to bolster the enforcement mechanisms for labour legislations and schemes.
Governments could set up interstate coordination committees to monitor work and living conditions of migrant workers and facilitate greater convergence among various ministries such as labour, women and child development, and health and family welfare. They could also set up a Task Force on Migration with representatives from different departments, worker facilitation centres, NGOs, trade unions, and informal workers’ networks in order to better inform migration policy.
Workers Need to Be Made ‘Visible’
It is critical to enable workers to collectivise and organise through unions and workers’ collectives. These spaces not only serve as safety and solidarity nets; they also act to make workers visible and their voices heard.
Our attitudes about migrants also need to be more welcoming. Instead of viewing them through a nativist lens and painting them in exclusionary and threatening tones, we need to recognise their contributions and protect their rights to decent work and fair wages. Promises of inclusiveness would only be realised when we ensure dignity and security to the multitudes of hitherto faceless workers in India.
(Divita works as Programme Manager, Policy and Research with ActionAid Association. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)