Migrant workers head home in coronavirus lockdown, exposed and vulnerable

Durga Prasad, 34, seated on a bicycle in the Okhla industrial area of ​​New Delhi, called his family living 70 kilometers from Bulandshahr in Uttar Pradesh to tell him that he was returning home while his unit clothing manufacturing was closing for the next 15 days. . It was Saturday, a day before the Delhi government announced an official foreclosure of the national capital.

“I resigned after my employer refused to pay me for these 15 days,” says Prasad. “If the virus spreads further, it would leave me exposed without gain. I am coming back home. “

A worker like Prasad, who plays a dominant role in the country’s 471 million workers, has never felt more vulnerable. About 81 per cent of workers are in the unorganized sector – devoid of any social security coverage and outside the scope of a complex set of labor laws.

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The work market

Indeed, the coronavirus has hit the workforce hard as never before.

In India, social security coverage is no less than a privilege for workers. Unlike countries such as South Africa, which follow a rights-based approach providing social security to all who join the workforce, India sticks to an employment-based approach.

Social security coverage is limited to units that employ a minimum number of workers. For example, workers have health insurance and other forms of insurance if they are employed in a unit employing at least 10 workers (through the Public Employees Insurance Company). Workers are only entitled to pension benefits if they work in an establishment with 20 or more employees (managed by the Employees’ Provident Fund).

Noida SEZ has 400 units and around 100,000 workers.

Now in India, even this is rare. According to the last economic census of 2013-2014, 98.6% of all establishments in India employ less than 10 workers. This means that workers belonging to all these establishments barely had any social security cover. Prasad belonged to this 98.6% of the work segment.

The lock

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day nationwide lockdown on March 24 – when 30 of 36 states have already implemented it as a social distancing measure to contain the spread of the virus.

Maharashtra was among the first states to announce a complete shutdown until March 31. Images of dozens of migrant workers rushing into stations to get home sent waves of panic through the electrical corridors. As such, India has not kept any official count of the total number of migrant workers. But in Parliament, the Minister of Labor and Employment, Santosh Kumar Gangwar, repeatedly cited the 2016-2017 economic study to state that there were around 100 million migrant workers in 2016 across the country. – one fifth of the total workforce.

As the economy accelerated over the decades, the pace of migration also exploded. For example, census data show that the growth in the number of migrant workers has doubled, from 2.4% per year in 1991-2001 to 4.5% per year in 2001-11.

With the public transport system down for the next three weeks, millions of migrant workers are no longer able to stay in the cities of their workplace. In fact, there is virtually no other choice before them on how to isolate themselves from the deadly virus.

People stand in queue at pharmacy while maintaining social distance during nationwide blockade following coronavirus pandemic in New Delhiv (Photo-Dalip Kumar)

People stand in queue at pharmacy while maintaining social distance during nationwide blockade following coronavirus pandemic in New Delhiv (Photo-Dalip Kumar)

Pintu Singh, a 26-year-old construction worker, had found his corner in the shade outside New Delhi train station where he was seated with other workers stranded due to the lockout. On March 22, the day of the “janta curfew”, Singh left hastily from Rewari in Madhya Pradesh to return to his village of Champaran, in Bihar. When he successfully boarded a train, all of the fresh train services were braked and he was unable to board a second train for Bihar from New Delhi when he arrived on March 23.

“I left all of my personal belongings. I was supposed to get 7,000 rupees from my contractor, but I didn’t even bother to take it. The contractor did not allow us to leave and assured that he would give us food but no wages. I want to stay with my family in these times, ”said Singh, who earns 600 rupees a day and left his workplace with 2,000 rupees in cash in his pocket.

No contract

The government has urged employers to allow workers to “work from home”, not cut wages, and called on citizens to take care of their housekeepers even if they don’t show up for work.

Undoubtedly, the call to “homework” will better protect workers who receive regular wages. But this is not necessarily the case. Homework is not music for the ears of Zeenat, 30, who worked in a garment factory in Seelampur with 6,000 rupees a month. Her employer refused to grant her paid time off and the fact that she did not even have an employment contract left her with no other choice than to try to return to her village in Uttar Pradesh because joining the two ends in a city without income the sight was impossible for him. “I haven’t even received my salary in the past three months,” she said, sitting with her family near Anand Vihar bus station, hoping that she will find a way to transportation to get around.

Like Zeenat, more than two-thirds of Indian workers employed on a regular salary do not have a written contract, according to the periodic official labor force survey conducted by the National Statistical Office in 2017-18. Without a written contract, where the terms and conditions of employment are clearly stated, workers like her are likely to be fired or fired or asked to return home without any wages and the government will barely be able to keep an eye on it.

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The companies closing the shutters of their units and having no commercial prospect in sight, the companies will be obliged to dismiss or dismiss (the difference being that in the latter case, the employees may be invited to leave temporarily, without the company does not provide any monetary benefit).

Cancellation rights

The Industrial Disputes Act of 1947 establishes the basic rules that companies must follow when they want to fire workers in the formal sector. In India, companies employing less than 100 workers are free to fire workers, which means most of them, and the government has no power to intervene. In fact, in many states like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, companies employing up to 300 people can fire workers without government authorization (since state governments can also develop their own labor laws ). But these rules do not apply at all to the service sector as they only cover the manufacturing, plantation and mining sectors.

In the event of dismissal, companies must pay workers 50% of their wages for 3 weeks. However, companies employing less than 50 workers do not have to pass on this compensation.

What will add to the workers’ pain are some of the archaic provisions of labor laws. For example, in India, for the dismissal of an employee suffering from a prolonged illness, companies will not have to pay severance pay. Other workers (if they meet the requirements of standards based on thresholds) receive severance pay at the rate of 15 working days per year compared to the total number of working years.

Health care for workers

How adequate are medical facilities for workers in the organized sector? As mentioned earlier, establishments that hire at least 10 workers are covered by the ESI scheme, which involves an equal monetary contribution from employers and employees. ESI is the largest contributory health insurance in India and one of the largest in the world, covering approximately 86 million beneficiaries and executives currently in the formal low-income labor market, according to a report by Niti Aayog.

But the ESI medical infrastructure is in ruins. There are 0.6 hospital beds per 1,000 beneficiaries, according to its annual report, out of a total of 159 hospitals and 1,442 dispensaries at present. Despite this shortage, the average bed occupancy in these establishments across India is 52%, mainly due to a shortage of labor. The total number of vacancies for paramedics was 11,222.

The government plans to allocate 15% of ESI beds to COVID-19 isolation cases. And as is the case in other hospitals, ESI facilities will be banned for routine health checks of workers during the pandemic, leaving them more vulnerable to other illnesses they may contract during this period.

Governments intervene

Labor and Employment Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar wrote to chief ministers across the state on Tuesday asking them to transfer money to construction workers from an unused termination fund totaling around 52,000 crore rupees. States maintain their own funds and a list of construction workers and their identification would not be a major problem. Already, the Punjab chief minister, Amarinder Singh, had declared an immediate relief of 3,000 rupees to each construction worker registered in the state, Delhi will give 5,000 rupees each and Himachal Pradesh would also provide ad hoc assistance from 1,000 rupees to these workers.

But Annu, a construction worker, will not be eligible for the benefit because he was hired by a contractor and does not have an official identity card under the 1996 Building and Building Act. other construction workers to qualify for this benefit, as did 3.5 million other registered construction workers. Annu, who belongs to Panna in Madhya Pradesh, has worked in Delhi for almost a decade, moving his base from one construction site to another. When work stopped a few days ago, he had 1,500 rupees in his pocket. On Wednesday, he spent the fourth day on the road. Now he has extinguished the money, even though his belongings were stolen while he was sleeping on a trail near the Sarai Kale Khan bus station. “I have spent the last two days near the station and it is a real fight and more for my wife than me. Can I go back there? ” He asked.

Zeenat, who works in a garment factory in Delhi, says she wants to return to her village in Uttar Pradesh because she will not be able to make ends meet in Delhi because of the foreclosure. Photo: Somesh Jha

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