Corona Outbreak: How the life of millions of migrants workers have changed after lockdown

Massive exodus of migrant population at ISBT, Delhi.
Massive exodus of migrant population at ISBT, Delhi. Image Source: Twitter

The sight of the ISBT at Anand Vihar in New Delhi, thronged by thousands of migrant workers, was a horrifying one. Equally painful were the words, “Lene aa sakte ho toh aa jao”, the cry of a man who dared to walk from Delhi to Madhya Pradesh on foot, amidst the lockdown. While these incidents highlight the suffering of the poor during the government enforced lockdown due to the Corona outbreak, to tackle the spread of Corona, it, more importantly, highlights the plight of the migrant worker in India.

According to the NSSO Employment-Unemployment Survey Report (2011-12), a staggering 92% of the workforce in India is employed in the informal sector, and therefore are forced to work without the guarantee of a minimum wage or any form of social security. Migrant labourers form a major chunk of this informal workforce. While the precise number of migrant labourers in India is debatable, as per various reports, it ranges from 1.2 crores to 4 crores annually.

“Lene aa sakte ho toh aa jao”, the cry of a man who dared to walk from Delhi to Madhya Pradesh on foot, amidst the lockdown.

Migrant labourers form a major chunk of this informal workforce. While the precise number of migrant labourers in India is debatable, as per various reports, it ranges from 1.2 crores to 4 crores annually.

The migrant workforce is primarily absorbed by the construction sector, followed by domestic work, textiles, agriculture, transportation, mines and brick kilns among others. This emphasizes the significance of the migrant class to the Indian economy.

Life of Migrants Workers after lockdown

The Corona outbreak and the subsequent lockdown has exposed the fragility of the Indian economy. With businesses and production activities forced to shut down or to operate at a reduced capacity, such daily wage earners were left with no choice, but to travel to their hometowns. The bulk of the migrant workforce comes from the economically backward states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Assam, Odisha, Jharkhand among others. They migrate to the major metropolitan centres of the country like Delhi-NCR, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad and are forced to live in inhuman conditions for paltry wages. This symbiosis between the islands of abundance and the vast pool of poverty is a unique system which drives the Indian economy.

Such unprecedented economic situations do not solely affect the internal migrant labourer. A huge influx of workers has been witnessed from West Asia and the Middle East. As per an ILO report, about 30 million Indians are working overseas, which has led to India becoming the top recipient of remittances in the world. This figure stood at a whopping 79 billion US dollars in 2018, as per a World Bank report. With the return of this migrant workforce to the country due to the global outbreak of Corona, these remittances are bound to decrease. This, in turn, would put greater pressure on the domestic market. With an unemployment rate of 7.78%, as per CMIE data, the domestic market doesn’t have the capacity to absorb this additional influx of labour. The repercussions of a globalized economy will surely be felt in India too.

Despite the immense dependence of the Indian economy on the unorganized and migrant workforce, the steps taken by the governments over the years to address this issue, have been inadequate, to put it mildly.

The Corona outbreak and the subsequent lockdown has exposed the fragility of the Indian economy.

The codification of 44 labour laws into 4 labour codes was a welcome step to address the labour issues of wages, social security, occupational safety among others. However, deeper scrutiny of the proposed laws points to the fact that the prime intent of the codification is to promote the ease of doing business, and not the welfare of the labourers. A case in point is the fact that, lay off, retrenchment and closure seem to have become easier and more flexible, while difficult conditions have been laid down for formation of labour unions.

Image showing the high rise buildings in a modern Indian city.
The Indian economy is set to undergo testing times due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo by Nitin Mendekar on Unsplash

A glimpse of Future After COVID-19.

The economic crisis that is likely to ensue in the aftermath of the pandemic could have an impact on the working behaviour of organizations globally. Work from home has gained traction among MNCs. This might have an impact on the way these global companies leverage digital technology to execute their tasks. Shortage of labour affected production activities of several firms. Could this lead to a greater degree of automation? Additionally, the trend towards a gig economy is bound to have an impact on labour relations across the globe. This crisis has given time to the global community to pause and think on several fronts. It would be beneficial if corporations around the world gave some thought to the condition of labour today vis-à-vis the insatiable desire to make profits.

The advent of a crisis, like the current one, cannot be easily predicted. Preparation for such adversities is the safest way forward. Building a strong industrial base within the country, upskilling of the labour force, and ensuring social security for the unorganized workforce are some of the measures which can ensure security, dignity and a decent standard of living for the unorganized migrant labourer. After all, isn’t that a directive to future governments, as mentioned in the Constitution of India!


About the Author:
Mr Saugaat Yashvardhan is pursuing his M.A in HRM & LR from TISS, Mumbai. He also has previous experience in public policy studies and has been an active volunteer in urban focused NGO activities.


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