Migrant Labour in India : The Human Cost of Covid 19 & the Crisis of Conscience

The Indian economy was slowing down in early 2019 much before the coronavirus outbreak that began in China at the end of that year and soon engulfed the world transcending socio-economic and geo-political borders. The second quarter (July-September 2019) of the financial year ended March 2020 witnessed a drastic fall in gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate to 4.5 percent, the lowest in the previous 6 years.

Life went on as normal as myriad experts / talking heads on media channels spun their versions of the economy through charts and figures which always seemed to be based on some English alphabet shaped recovery or drop (W, V, N, U take your pick). Real estate, automobile, construction and consumption were all under stress. Then along came Covid 19 and broke the proverbial camel’s back. The economy ground to a halt and large scale devastation ensued across the economic landscape of our country.

The Corona virus Lockdown from the end of March 2020 has brought to the forefront the human cost of the exploding Migrant labour crisis in India. Within the fist weeks, across India we were inundated with images of migrant labour, facing loss of jobs, livelihoods and shelter using increasingly desperate measures to get back home including walking back thousands of kilometres on our highways, packed tightly in any form of transport they could arrange with their meagre resources, including trucks, trains, autos and bicycles. In desperation no one observed social distancing guidelines and the invisible enemy, Covid19, spread its tentacles across the nation. It was a reverse migration to the villages with no parallel in the annals of independent India.

According to latest figures from the MHA, India has more than 4 crore migrant workers engaged in different parts of the country, out of which 75 lakh workers have reached home. It makes no mention of the innumerable people still on the road or waiting to leave for the simple reason that the vast majority of these workers are invisible to the system. They are caught in a   strange no man’s land, cut off from both State and Govt initiatives /entitlements at the ‘origin’ where they come from and the ‘location’ where they work.

This gigantic labour force inclusive of regular daily wagers and agricultural labour across the country is one of   the foundation pillars of our economy (since MSMEs employ maximum migrant workers and contribute 30%of the GDP and about 50% of our exports).

The cyclic and ever changing nature of their work  means that the workers are caught in a perfect storm of poverty, low skills, lack of collective bargaining power and an overall trend toward contract  labour (The share of contract workers in total employment increased sharply from 15.5 per cent in 2000-01 to 27.9 per cent in 2015-16, while the share of directly hired workers fell from 61.2 per cent to 50.4 per cent over the same period- Hindu business line 2019)that leads to exploitation.

The fact that a very small percentage of migrant labour actually has access to a social security net of any kind and state governments across India are trying to make labour laws even more tilted towards industry post-Covid to improve competitiveness, throws in sharp relief the magnitude of the problem. The rot runs deep.  

This hold true across India, whether it’s the Gem and Jewellery / Textile workers in the urban centres in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, the construction labourers in Delhi, the agricultural labourers of Malwa in Punjab or Chikkamagaluru in Karnatka, sugarcane fields of UP, Bihar or the tea plantations in the North Eastern states.

The dark underbelly of our economic system has been exposed baring for all the systemic exploitation and oppression of labour at the bottom of our social pyramid that have fuelled the Indian economic boom.

The reality of innumerable migrant workers trudging back towards their villages, of death, starvation and hopelessness on our highways, of a system that largely abandoned them should shake our collective apathy.  Millions denied pay, shelter, dignity, treatment and left to fend for themselves in a nationwide lockdown. These unprecedented events shine the light on us as a society for how we treat the weakest amongst us says a lot about who we are, both as human beings and as Indians.

Within this litany of bad news, there is a silver lining as well. Tales of individual bravery and redemption  like that of the 15 year old girl who cycled 1200 kilometres to bring her father home, a man who stuck by his dying friend on a lonely road, or the stranger who helped a disabled man on a tricycle by pushing it for 5 days to his home in UP.

For every capitalist, businessman and landlord in India who has turned out migrant workers to fend for them, there are examples of individuals and organizations that have risen to the occasion. There are Industries that have retooled to make essential supplies and equipment (Maruti for ventilators) and Sai Synergy (PPE), those who have given raises to their workers instead of firing them (Asian Paints, HCL), or closer home UID thatin one of its first decisions chose to make a commitment to protect the jobs and livelihoods of all its Class IV employees.

In every sector there are examples of employers doing their best to protect staff in the wake of the Coronavirus but are vastly outnumbered by stories of those who have shown little regard for their employees’ welfare, using Covid 19 as an axe over their employees. The gap between what organizations say and what they do is increasingly under scrutiny.

The shared experiences of indignity, indifference and injustice by migrant and contract labour will fundamentally alter industry labour relations in the decades to come. Concepts of migration, labour loyalty and remuneration will be altered in ways that we cannot begin to imagine today. The coming labour shortage will force a day of reckoning for those who abandoned their workers in their time of need, just as those who stood by them will be remembered.  

The words, “accha company hai, karigar ko dhokha nahi deta” in Hindi and various Indian languages literally translating to “it’s a good company, doesn’t betray it workers will slowly filter amongst the work force creating a word of mouth and a reputation it takes decades to build and HR departments will give and arm and a leg for.

The Covid pandemic is both a health crisis and a crisis of our conscience as a nation. It is a wakeup call to all of us to create a more inclusive human centred economy that takes care of the weakest sections of our population. There is a need for a balance between competitiveness, industry and the need to create jobs on one hand and worker welfare and dignity on the other.

They need us today and tomorrow to get the economy back on track, we will need them. That simple fact and stark reality should guide all our decisions.

(Added Data from study by Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), a group of 73 volunteers comprising academics, activists and students, who spoke to 640 groups of stranded migrant workers adding to 11,159 individuals between March 27 and April 13). Click here to read.

Rudrajit Bose, Assistant Director, Lifestyle Accessory Design, Unitedworld Institute of Design (UID)

Disclaimer: The opinions / views expressed in this article are solely of the author in his / her individual capacity. They do not purport to reflect the opinions and/or views of the College and/or University or its members.

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