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How Have Our Labourers Fared Post-Lockdown? Their Conditions Have Worsened

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As the Indian economy officially heads into a recession and news of layoffs and unemployment reaches us with increasing frequency, we at Gram Vaani turned to workers to hear their side of the story. Industrial sector workers, largely engaged in the automotive and garments factories in the Gurgaon-Manesar belt, spoke to us about the turn that their lives have taken due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Most of them—being migrant workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh—were forced to return to their homes during the lockdown under distressing circumstances. Having remained out of work for several months, they ultimately had no choice but to come back.

The media reported companies sending chartered buses and paying for flight tickets to bring their workers back when the lockdown was eased. It briefly seemed that workers would finally be in a valued position now that companies honoured their worth. However, workers have increasingly reported that the opposite is happening, with exploitation and inequality getting institutionalised.

Post-lockdown working conditions look Bleak

Employers are said to use other means to hold workers back, such as withholding their pending wages or threatening to block their Provident Fund withdrawals. | Picture courtesy: Flickr

Of the 372 migrant workers we surveyed during October-November 2020, through our voice-based community media platform Saajha Manch, 60% reported that they were out of work. Of the remaining, 65% reported getting only erratic work, for hardly 3 to 4 days a week. Our volunteers told us that companies have no new orders and are shutting down one branch after the next.

Up until August 2020, it seemed that companies needed workers desperately to complete their pending orders. Not enough work is available now, and companies ask the workers to go on leave for a few days, then give another day of work. Anil, a worker who returned to Gurgaon from his village around this time says he has been walking from company to company, looking for work. “Just another few days,” he says, “If I don’t find anything then I will go back.” 

Due to this work crunch in both the automotive and the garments sectors, there is pressure on workers to do as the company says, else forsake their jobs. More than 50% of workers reported that their workload had increased tremendously. Working hours have increased as well, but most workers in the automotive sector are only paid for overtime at the regular wage rate.

Conditions in the garments sector are worse, where 37% of workers reported that they worked longer hours but were only paid for their regular 8 hours. “If you don’t like it then you can leave, is what the employers tell us,” they reported.

Employers are also said to use other means to hold workers back, such as withholding their pending wages or threatening to block their Provident Fund (PF) withdrawals. Whether this is happening because companies are struggling to meet their bottom lines or because they are using this opportunity to increase their margins, it is the workers who are suffering.

There has also been a strong shift to piece-rate work and of outsourcing to local fabricators. A seasoned worker, Harsh explained that companies prefer to outsource now (without bothering to do quality checks). It helps them save on overheads, forsake giving Diwali bonuses to workers, and meet social security compliances.

Fabricators engage workers on a piece-rate basis and pay in cash. Workers prefer this these days to get immediate cash in hand and do not have to contribute part of their wages to mandatory social security systems such as the PF.

Piece-rates have also reduced. Earlier, workers were paid ₹10 per piece, but now they are only paid ₹8. A worker from Bihar, currently in Ahmedabad, explained that they cannot protest because they have no bargaining power—once they arrive in the cities, they have to agree to whatever work they get because they have rent to pay.

Social security is Elusive

Working on a reinforcing bar structure
70% of workers prefer receiving cash instead of contributing part of their salary to PF.

Without enough income opportunities available back home, many workers have wanted to withdraw funds from their PF. During the lockdown, the government announced that workers could withdraw up to 75% of their PF, or three months of wages, whichever is lower, from their accounts.

By the end of August, a massive amount of ₹39,400 crores had been withdrawn, with 79% of the PF contributors having incomes below ₹15,000 per month. However, we found that this is an underestimate. Of the workers we surveyed who were out of work, 53% wanted to withdraw their PF but failed, and another 30% either did not have PF or were not aware that they had an account.

Even among those who had managed to find some work, 35% were unable to withdraw funds. The reasons in almost every case were to do with broken systems and procedures.

Mehtab told our community manager, Varun, that he had not been able to withdraw anything because the spelling of his name on the PF account did not match his name on his Aadhaar card. With Akbar, there was a mismatch in his date of joining. Workers also told us that the HR in many companies is also complicit, deliberately making mistakes and then charging a commission to fix them.

Staff at the PF office are not cooperative either, people said. They are made to visit repeatedly while foregoing their wages or are asked to fill forms online even though many workers are not tech-savvy or literate enough. Consequently, PF shops run by agents have proliferated to help workers navigate the system, but complaints of fraud are also regularly heard about them.

Currently, PF has an unclaimed balance of ₹42,000 crores and a social audit is needed to explain this, given the difficulties workers face in claiming their PF.

Saddled with these issues in not being able to access money that is theirs, most workers naturally perceive PF as a burden, as reported in a 2016 study by Nagaparaju and Sharma from IIM Indore. 70% of workers prefer receiving cash instead of contributing part of their salary to PF, it found. They do not foresee themselves utilising these funds in their old-age, especially in the current circumstances.

Many prefer to work on piece-rate where they can decline having to make PF contributions. This is not ideal, as acknowledged by Shanti, working in Tiruppur, since regular salaried employment, where wages come directly to their bank accounts, helps them build a good credit score to avail loans.

According to labour rights expert Professor KR Shyam Sundar, other than issues with providing reliable social security, India has not been strong in giving unemployment benefits to workers. This continued with the announcement of an unemployment allowance for Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) holders.

Like PF, ESI is a mandatory social security scheme that both employers and employees contribute to—primarily for health insurance benefits. However, the allowance announced as part of the scheme is riddled with unrealistic conditions that make it almost non-applicable. The workers should have been in insurable employment since at least 2 years and should have contributed for 78 days in the period preceding unemployment.

The first condition immediately brings down the eligible poor. The second condition of 78 days is meant to restrict the eligibility to workers who had been working since at least three months before they lost their jobs, but companies are known to avoid regularising workers as a workaround to the law by laying them off at a steady frequency.

No chances of Redress

india migrant worker
A migrant worker wears a face mask as he walks towards his home state during the nationwide lockdown, at Raisina Road, on May 10, 2020, in New Delhi, India. (Photo by Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

With so much stacked against them, are any redressal avenues available to workers? Justice delivery for labour has only worsened over the years, with a growing number of pending cases. Additionally, many workers told us that they do not consider the laws to be of any use to them, neither the old ones nor the new labour code that was recently passed.

A worker from Uttar Pradesh, Rajesh, says, “Laws were around even earlier but didn’t work, we had to walk back home and we will have to walk back again.” Another worker Prashant adds, “It is difficult for us to put documents together and take leave to go to the labour court; we can’t use the laws.”

Even if workers go to the labour court, Manish reports that workers have to stand in long lines with severe overcrowding to get their work done due to under-staffing at the office. To bring the law closer to the workers, better functioning workplace committees, worker participation in management, and helplines and violation reporting through simple technological systems like Interactive Voice Response (IVR) are needed. This is so that irrespective of whether anybody has a smartphone or internet access, they can get guidance on how to proceed without foregoing their wages in their search for justice.

Is there any hope for Labourers? 

Instead of securing rights for workers, states such as Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh tried to suspend labour laws to spur recovery during the slowdown. Thankfully, sense prevailed at the Supreme Court. But the new labour code passed without any due deliberation continues to be employer-sided and makes it harder for workers to seek redress and protest against injustice and exploitation.

The reason behind these changes in the labour code is not hard to understand. A neoliberal state strives to maintain a balance between keeping wages, working conditions and social security at a bare minimum to avoid protest, but never high enough to give strong bargaining power to workers and reduce the competitiveness for Indian companies in today’s globalised markets.

This has been apparent throughout the lockdown, where few benefits reached workers. Social welfare such as the Public Distribution System (PDS) and cash transfers under schemes like PM-KISAN and Jan Dhan fell short as well. Fallback options, such as MGNREGA that can retain migrant workers at their home locations and thereby strengthen the collective power of workers in the labour market have been plagued with operational issues.

Serving as a basic floor wage, MGNREGA has pushed higher wages for agricultural work in rural areas. Similarly, PDS is known to have led to a lowering of labour supply and consequently higher wages.

In the current pandemic, a better functioning MGNREGA that paid higher wages could have led to a similar effect of securing higher wages in the cities by reducing the labour supply of migrant workers, but this has not come to pass. As a result, the workers had no option but to come back to work under even more exploitative conditions.

Consequently, the already frayed bonds between employers and workers are getting even weaker. The recent violence by workers at Wistron’s iPhone factory to protest against labour violations don’t come as a surprise. Workers are increasingly beginning to view their employers and contractors with suspicion, warning one another to take everything in writing, first get their pending wages before agreeing to anything else, and share malpractice information.

The need for workers to unite has been recognised by the workers too, with emerging solidarity between contract and permanent workers. But with the new laws being created to weaken the power of unions and collective action, it seems likely that we will see more spontaneous action by workers to make themselves heard.

By Aaditeshwar Seth

This article was originally published on India Development Review.

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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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

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.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

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
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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