Monday, July 27, 2020
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Workers are finding it tough to hold on to jobs. Image: Pikist

Covid-19 and subsequent govt policies underscore inadequate social security for poor

RAHUL SHARMA, 25, resident of Ekta Colony in Moradabad district of Uttar Pradesh, used to work as a truck driver in Meerut. His work involved extensive travels to different parts of the country and helped him earn Rs. 25,000 at the end of the month. He had no work for some days due to COVID-19 and subsequent lockdown and had to take loan to sustain his family.

“I don’t think there have been any benefits from the lockdown. When the cases were few, lockdown was announced and now when it is spiraling up, the government has done away with the lockdown,” Sharma says. “The government had issued the order that employers will pay wages to their employees for the lockdown period, but I haven’t received anything yet. I’m still a truck driver under the same employer. All I have is hope.”

On 25 March 2020, India entered a nationwide lockdown in wake of coronavirus pandemic. This led to a complete halt in passenger trains and bus services, leaving millions of interstate migrants stranded, and the suspension of almost all economic activities pushed them out of work. The enforcement of successive lockdowns along with a permanent halt in economic activity forced these migrants to return to their home states.

Millions of migrants began a journey on foot or cycle to reach their home states safely with no food or water supplies, dealing with hunger, starvation, and exhaustion. Many even lost their lives while trying to make this journey. Data compiled by various individuals and agencies have painted a grim picture.

According to the data provided by Thejesh GN, the lockdown has resulted in the death of 884 migrants as of 26 June 2020. Those who managed to reach their home states were again meted with inhumane treatment and some hosed down with disinfectants on arrival.

The government had issued the order that employers will pay wages for the lockdown period, but I haven’t received anything yet. I’m still a truck driver under the same employer. All I have is hope

With no financial help provided by the government and household income quickly drying up, many were forced to take loans from moneylenders to sustain their families or to pay for their return journey home. In addition, the lack of work in rural areas further increased the burden on migrants, pushing them into a debt trap, says a report put together by the Digital Empowerment Foundation.

According to a rapid assessment survey conducted by Jan Sahas over 79 percent of migrant labourers have outstanding debts which they won’t be able to pa. Around half of them were fearful that this would put them at risk of violence. With no way to sustain their livelihood, a journey that resulted in mass suffering and death ended in uncertainty about future prospects in the rural areas where there is no infrastructure, employment opportunities to accommodate the returning migrants.

Shramik Trains: Too Little, Too Late

On May 1, the Government announced that it will run special trains called Shramik trains for those who were stranded. The workers again had to deal with endless delays, unhygienic conditions, food, and water scarcity on the train leading to the death of 80 migrants, according to the report by Railway officials. 

In addition, lack of clarity on how to get the tickets, forced many to resort to agents who were charging higher prices for the tickets. Although the railway officials claimed that 85 percent subsidy had been provided on the fare of train tickets with a 15 percent burden on the states, it is estimated that ticket prices were 80 percent higher because of the burden placed on states.

Workers were forced to pay Rs.600-1000 for a train ticket. The government and administration failed to ensure the safe passage of travel for stranded migrants and others. The migrant crisis has also brought to light the failures of government policies and the lack of legal safeguards required to ensure the safety of the socially and economically weaker sections of the society.

Lack of clarity on how to get the tickets, forced many to resort to agents who were charging higher prices for the tickets

PDS and Food Security

Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana on 24 March 2020. Under this scheme, a relief package of 1.70 lakh was announced, which included free rations. To deal with the increasing food insecurity, 80 crore people who came under the National Food Security Act were to receive 5 kg of food grains and an extra 1 kg of pulses. 

However, 200 million beneficiaries did not receive the promised free rations in April according to the report published by the government in May. There are two reasons for this:
First, it is based on the data provided by the Census of 2011, which is inadequate and leaves 100 million eligible people out of the scheme.

Second, a ration card if not used for three months can be deactivated. This has resulted in the deactivation of ration cards of migrant workers who moved out of their home states. In addition, getting new ration cards is a tedious process, leaving millions of people with no food security. As a result, the Right to Food Campaign has called for an extension of the public distribution system to everyone so that no one is left out of the scheme because of a lack of ration cards.

MGNGREA To The Rescue ?

Representation pic. Source: Hamish John Appleby/ IWMI.According to the report published by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, unemployment rose from 7 percent to 27 percent during the lockdown. Providing livelihood to the returning migrants has to be an immense task for the government. Many are relying on job scheme under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 for livelihood opportunities.

However, the Act has its own pitfalls. In recent years, the number of guaranteed days has fallen from 49 to 41. Also, the work listed under the Act is not diverse enough to accommodate inter-state migrants.

Many have not yet received assured assistance from the central or state government. For instance, the Bihar government promised Rs. 1,000 to every returning migrant in their Jan Dhan account and reimbursement of the train ticket along with Rs. 500. Those who don’t have a Jan Dhan account have been left out of this scheme, with many still waiting to receive the money.

Changing Labour Laws

To ensure that the employees receive their wages during the lockdown, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs issued a notification stating that there should be no delay in payment of wages. However, this notification did not translate into action and many migrant workers did not receive their wages even after months. 

Later, a new notification by the National Executive Committee suspended the mandatory wage payment from 18 May 2020. Several states have also passed ordinances and notifications providing exemptions to certain labour laws, diluting their effectiveness. On 8 May 2020, the Uttar Pradesh Government came with an ordinance ‘Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020’ which resulted in exemption from labour laws for almost three years.

Removal of labour laws will turn all employment effectively into informal and further reduce the wages. Suspension of these laws would lead to exploitation of those employed in the informal sector with lowering wages and an increased number of hours

Several states followed the example of Uttar Pradesh and issued relaxations in labour laws to attract future investments. The list of laws suspended includes the Minimum Wages Act, Maternity Benefit Act, the Factories Act, and many more. Since labour laws come under the concurrent list, States only need Centre governments’ permission. 

“Removal of labour laws will turn all employment effectively into informal and further reduce the wages. Suspension of these laws would lead to exploitation of those employed in the informal sector with lowering wages and an increased number of hours,” sayso Amarjeet Kaur, general secretary All India Trade Union Congress. “It would also lead to an increase in contractualisation leaving workers with no job security and forcing hem into the informal sector.”

The migrant crisis has highlighted the deficiencies of India’s social protection infrastructure in providing benefits to those who are underprivileged and has exacerbated the existing socio-economic inequalities, leaving millions of people with no means of sustained livelihood. 

Scrapping of Indian labour laws has also rendered enormous sections of India’s working population vulnerable to exploitation and with no safeguards or rights. According to the International Trade Union Confederations Global Index 2016, India is one of the worst countries in terms of labour rights. It is necessary now that the governments take rapid and urgent action to ensure the wellbeing and safety of those on whom the economy depends.