In what is being known as the greatest exodus of people in the Indian subcontinent since independence, migrant workers in millions had to leave cities to return to their home towns. The pandemic-induced lockdown has led to loss of jobs and security for migrant workers owing to their non-binding status as most of them are engaged in informal labour relations.
Covid-19 has exposed the deep-seated inequalities in our society, with women, especially migrant workers, bearing the maximum brunt. A strong, gendered perspective is required in our Covid-19 response across all aspects — prevention and containment of the virus, distribution of relief, economic policies and setting gender equity goals. Inclusion of voices of women and girls, especially from marginalised sections of society, is mandatory in forming response policies, as they are the ones who are suffering the most economically, socially as well as mentally. The implication of the pandemic has a differential impact on women and girls, which should be taken into account while formulating policy measures, especially for migrant workers.
However, the state’s response to the migrant worker crisis has been apathetic to say the least. Most of us are not unaware of the train accident in which 16 migrant workers were killed because they had dosed off on the track after walking for miles towards their hometown. There have been many such instances of road accidents, police brutality on migrant workers, human rights violation and other unfortunate incidents that migrant workers had to face because of the state’s irresponsive attitude.
About 400 million workers in the informal sector, of which migrant workers form a large section, are at a risk of falling into a deeper poverty trap than they are already in.
The pandemic will have an overwhelmingly negative impact on women migrant workers who form a large part of the informal sector. In a report by the Periodic Labour Force Survey (2017-18), it was found that approximately 88% of total women’s employment is informal and comprises mostly of domestic workers, construction workers, street vendors and daily wage workers in factories.
The National Federation of Hawkers accounts for almost four crore people engaged in business on streets, out of which 30% are women streets vendors and majority of them are migrants. Even though vendors with carts had some access to erratic sources of income throughout the lockdown, they have been subjected under RWAs, police and local people due to fear of the spreading of the virus. The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014, sought to bring about a change in the precarious existence of the street vendors by registering and licensing them.
However, this very benefit proved to be a curse for them over the last few months, as they were not qualified to get anything else except rice under the Public Distribution System. Amidst the lockdown, these vendors have lost their source of livelihood and regular flow of income, thereby putting them on the verge of starvation. A lot of them are migrants and do not have ration cards and other necessary documents to avail the benefits that they otherwise might have got.
Another occupation that is largely dominated by women is that of domestic help, who are perpetually taken for granted. According to the 2005 reports of the NSS, there are around 4.75 million domestic workers in India, a large proportion of whom migrate from rural to urban areas as their demand is high in cities. The pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have further aggravated the suffering of the highly demanded yet grossly underpaid domestic workers. Some of them continue to get employed with half the pay, while for a lot of them, employment has been revoked.
Many have been subjected to discrimination by RWAs and employers. In fear of the spread of the virus, many high end colonies in various urban regions have banned the entry of domestic workers and also stopped their pay without any consideration of their economic position. In such dire circumstances, they have been facing food shortage and at the same time, have been subjected to increased burden of work at home with no one to help.
About 50% of the informal workers are construction workers, out of which 11% are women who are mostly migrants. The lockdown has given a severe blow to the construction business, which contributes 9% in the GDP, thus putting almost all construction workers out of job.
Most of them do not fall under the purview for social protection measures, owing to the precarious and informal employment relations that have further worsened the situation for them. Due to low income, they cannot afford private social insurance schemes. Furthermore, lack of a proper insurance for their health, assets and other aspects of life have hindered them from availing any social security benefits in times of crisis, especially for single women who have no one else to depend upon, and instead have families relying on them in some cases.
Other social benefits such as affordable child care facilities for toddlers and young children in cities are also not available to these informal migrant workers. This is often one of the reasons why these workers have to struggle between managing their homes and work. This, in turn, can sometimes become a hindrance to their efficiency and productivity, thereby causing employers to throw them out of their jobs.
There are no such social protection measures for young teenage girls as well, who are involved in odd jobs and daily wage work in various factories where they are prone to being harassed, fired easily and sometimes sexually exploited as well. Hence, women and girls are most susceptible to the adverse effects of the lack of adequate social protection, which would otherwise have acted as a safety net amidst the lockdown.
Women’s wages have always been systematically lower than men, and post the pandemic, the wage inequality is likely to deepen further as businesses have shut with zero or minimal income and will cause workers to suffer wage cuts, no pays and job loss. Even though the pandemic affects everyone irrespective of gender, women are likely to be hit harder than men owing to the misplaced notion that they are less productive and less efficient than men as they are considered to be physically weaker and have to cater to their families as well.
Our society often turns a blind eye to the work of informal women workers at construction sites, in farms, as street vendors, domestic workers and rag pickers. Distanced, discriminated and distressed women workers are especially susceptible to being ineligible for social security and welfare schemes and find it hard to get their groceries and other essential items due to loss of jobs for the ongoing crisis.
With little or no savings as well as uncertain wages, women are not only worried about their next meal, but also fearful of contamination in the precarious conditions of quarantine facilities and slums. With the recent job losses and changes in labour laws in various states, gender wage gap can get worse and women are likely to be affected more than their male counterparts. This problem can only be solved by gender equal policies and a general change in mindset of the people regarding women being secondary to men. However, all this is easier said than done and changes from the grassroots level is needed.