The worst is yet to come: The impact on subsistence of migrant labourers during and post lockdown
Migrant workers in India start walking back to their villages. Photo by Hema K. Pillalamarri on Flickr.
The COVID-19 pandemic has opened the eyes of Indian society towards the crucial role of labour in building and maintenance of urban cities. The pandemic, and the lockdown that took place as a response, have exposed how these cities have been built and further developed due to the continuous labour of the working-class population of the country. It is this same working class which has now been made invisible by the very spaces they built and are forced to leave in order to reach home to survive or face starvation in the cities. The lack of redistributive measures that have been advanced towards the migrant workers by the central government has translated to large-scale reverse migration, a movement which must be seen as the migrant working-class exercising its autonomy and rejecting the current system, a system which has no respect for their labour and lives. There are two points of inquiry here: the subsistence of the migrant labour during the lockdown; and the future condition of the migrant labourers once the lockdown is lifted and the economy can re-open.
The mass exodus of migrant workers from cities is a result of the callous planning that went into handling the COVID-19 outbreak. When the lockdown was called for in March, little to no warning had been given to all sectors of the Indian economy. This led to huge levels of confusion and panic, and suspension of all work in the cities, having a disastrous impact on the wages of a majority of the Indian workforce, particularly those in informal sectors. A report published by the International Labour Organisation in 2018 showed that approximately 81% of the Indian workforce was part of the informal economy. A majority of those in the informal economy earn their wages on a day-to-day basis and thus, when the lockdown was announced, it also shut down their means of livelihood. This led to a struggle for survival for migrant labourers who now had no option but to await relief packages to be announced by the central government.
The initial Rs 1.7 lakh crore relief package that was announced for those hit hardest by the pandemic fell far short of its intended aim. Yet again, migrant workers experience discrimination due to the caste system, where caste biases have been carried on in an inter-generational manner, with the majority of the migrant workers belonging to low castes, bringing disregard for the labour they perform. Surveys carried out a few days after the announcement of the first relief package revealed that 96% of the migrant labour workforce across India had not received food rations and was running extremely low in cash. The starvation that was taking place in cities due to a lack of distribution of food and the hiatus in work led to migrants taking the step of migrating back to their homes in rural India. The numerous cases of police brutality that was directed towards the migrant workers in the cities further fuelled their desire to return home. The state responded appallingly and refused to set up special transportation facilities that would enable easier commutes. These factors combined forced the migrant workers to start walking distances ranging from 100 to 1000 kilometres to escape from the clutches of exploitation in the cities and the upper-class biases of the state. When the central government did decide to open up transportation facilities, it was due to the large public outcry towards the journeys on which the migrant workers were forced to embark. The cost of train or bus travel, which should have been state-funded considering the daily-wage occupation of many migrant workers, was high, forcing many to choose the walk back home due to non-affordability.
So what will the future hold for the migrant working-force in a post-COVID-19 India? The central government of India, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, announced on 13 May its 20 lakh crore Aatmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan (‘Self-Reliant India’) package. The main aim of the second package is to act as a stimulus to reinvigorate the Indian economy. The package entails many policy reforms such as the opening of many otherwise public sectors to private players, financial support for micro, small and medium enterprises, and reforms in the public banking sector. Yet once again the plight of the migrant workers has been ignored as the package did not include direct cash transfers that the government opposition and civil society organisations had been advising the government to put into practice.
Indeed, the one major policy change that was brought forth by the second relief package was the conditional increase of state borrowing limits from 3% of Gross State Domestic Product to 5%. What must be viewed with scrutiny is the conditional clause for this increase in borrowing. The most significant pre-condition is improving ease of doing business to attract investment from the capitalist class. Considering the present circumstances, the move would be highly detrimental to the interests of the migrant working class due to the impact it would have on labour laws. States such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh have already moved to suspend labour laws for a significant period of time. The labour law reform will allow companies to ignore the minimum wage act, and abuse working hours and safety guidelines. The move falls perfectly in line with the Bharatiya Janata Party’s agenda of neoliberal reforms for the Indian economy, with the distraction of the pandemic allowing them to do this unopposed, leaving the migrant working class as collateral damage.
The focus of the government on the demand side of the economy while not addressing the impact on consumption during this crisis displays its bias towards the private sector and capitalist class, and its utter disregard for the labour that runs the economy. This disregard for migrant workers in India is a fusion of privatisation and the historical allocation of labour decided by the caste system, that looks down on manual labour performed by migrant workers. Until these inherent biases of the Indian government are countered, the future of migrant workers is dark.
Rashad Ullah Khan is a recent graduate in Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in India. He wishes to pursue in-depth studies in themes of knowledge connected to society using an intersectional framework, in order to ensure that those who have been historically marginalised are included in mainstream discourses.