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Opinion: The Coronavirus Outbreak Has Had the Worst Impact On The Labourers

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.
Migrant Labourers
Migrant Labourers forced to walk home during the Coronavirus lockdown in India.

The Coronavirus lockdown has left more than 90% of Indian workers in a precarious situation, without food, work, and shelter. Their mass exodus from big cities to the hinterland, at their own risk, exemplifies the impact of lockdown.

These days, what they are facing, is a risky present and a future which is getting riskier with the changing scenario of rules made and unmade by the government. Here is a situation where they do not have even basic income and are about to lose their basic rights also.

Decent, safe secure condition to work is acknowledged as a part of the fundamental right to life with dignity under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Right to unionisation and social security also constitute international human rights. These rights are indirectly implemented through labour laws where the government is supposedly the custodian of the rights and also empowers the labours and labour union.

There are certain rules, like 1921 of the ILO, that are implemented through labour laws. The workers in the factory face problems of lighting, temperature, dust, fumes, and more. This leads to unsafe working conditions and also an extension of working hours, repetitive work, deficient working conditions, which pose a considerable threat to occupational safety and health of the workforce. All these rights are getting traded off without the consent of labourers for a farfetched hope – employment.

This started happening when several state governments introduced or passed an ordinance abolishing almost all the labour laws in the region for a certain period. Till date, these ordinances have been introduced in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, and Odisha.

These states have diluted the existing labour rights enabling the industries, in certain cases, to increase the working hours up to 72 hours a week.

it seems that the State governments are doing this as they feel that relaxing these laws and introducing some flexibility will help the business to recoup from the impact of lockdown by attracting fresh investments and establishing industries in non-industrialised states.

people working in a factory.
Representational image.

It will make the Indian industries attractive place of investment and can help in getting a chance to make a place in the global value chain. What we are talking about these days is about big industries. But what about the large number of medium and small firms where labourers are not in such good condition? 90% of the labour force is engaged in the informal sector.

They are already not enjoying many rights because of unfair practices. This change in the law further takes away from them the shred of formality that they might have thought was available to them.

The Other View

I feel that what our government is thinking is not entirely wrong. In fact, it is trying to make our economy work in this era affected by the Coronavirus. But, the desired result it wants will not come out only by these efforts. It needs some structural reforms.

What we actually need is not cancelling the existing laws but new laws which are made according to the needs of the 21st century. We need to understand why labour laws were there in the first place and without harming the basic structure of these laws we should aim for reforms. Yes, easing the laws will definitely bring some impetus to the economy. But, for drastic change, we need other reforms as well.

Also, it is important to look at the problems of labours. Most of them survive hand-to-mouth with very little savings and if there is no security of employment and income, it will become very difficult for them to survive.

Representational image. KHOJWAN KIRAIYA, VARANASI, UTTAR PRADESH, INDIA – 2015/07/09: A 22-year-old veteran weaver, Abu Umair works in a handloom factory. It is one of the promises of India’s Prime Minister, the revival of Handloom Industry and better deals to the weavers in Varanasi. Separate policies for Powerloom and Handloom must be established to avoid cannibalism for both. (Photo by Akshay Gupta/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Flexibility in hiring and firing of employees can help in a situation where there are so many jobs that employment security is replaced by income security and states can provide unemployment allowances.

Economists maintain that labour laws changes giving flexibility to the employer will be meaningless unless supply-side measures are designed, such as wage subsidies, cheaper capital and more access to the market because of piled up inventory due to lockdown.

We know that we are a labour-surplus country, and when we talk of the unorganised workers, we really have an excess of labour. So, in such a situation, the responsibility of the state should be to safeguard the interest of labour because the market will not be able to provide the necessary protection.

Constraints in jobs reflect the overall health of the economy, level of demand in the economy, peoples’ purchasing power, level of wages, export conditions, etc. Increase in employment needs overall structural reform and not just diluting away the rules which guarantee the labourer their rights.

Overall, business depends upon the reliability of the state and its policies, the infrastructure situation, electricity supply, logistics, transport, the quality and skill of labour, human capital issues, and more.  It can improve only when there is overall development in all these.

Featured image for representation only.
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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