In May 1886, Chicago saw a watershed moment for labour rights worldwide with the Haymarket protests. The aim of the strike by workers and labour rights activists was to legislate an 8-hour working day. To commemorate these protests, 1 May is now celebrated as International Labour Day.
Thus, it is ironic that the last two May Days have seen the plight of workers increase in India due to Covid-19 and the government’s mismanagement of the situation. What is indicative of the government’s contempt for workers is the attempt to increase the working day from 8 to 12 hours after the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the government was criticised and failed in its attempt to increase the hours in a workday, many states have gone on to suspend major labour laws in the aftermath.
Effectively, workers’ rights have taken a hit in the country over the last year. More significantly, due to the unplanned lockdowns, labourers and migrant workers lost their lives and livelihood. Instead of a social security net, the poor and marginalised in our country are now on a tightrope.
The government had no data on how many migrant workers had lost their jobs or had died due to the effects of the nationwide lockdown. It did not have any data on migrant labourers in general, and thus, the free ration, monetary support and welfare schemes aimed at the poor hardly reached the vast migrant workforce.
The Atma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyan was aimed at providing free ration to an estimated eight crore migrant workers. By August 2020, only one-third of them had received the benefits of the scheme. The Centre justified this by claiming that the eight crore figure was a “liberal estimate“.
A study by Azim Premji University (APU) estimates that almost 81% of migrants lost employment in the lockdown and about 31% of migrant workers reported not being able to access rations.
After the first nationwide lockdown was imposed in March 2020, Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) received hundreds of calls from migrant groups. From the data they gathered, they estimated that 96% had not received rations from the government and 70% had not got cooked food. Till 13 April, 2020, 44% of the calls they received were from people desperate for food or cash.
Maharashtra accounted for most of the workers in the data and less than 1% had received any ration from the government. They estimate that 3 weeks into the lockdown, only 4% of migrant workers had received any ration.
About 10 crore Indians lost jobs during the nationwide April-May 2020 lockdown. Even by the end of 2020, about 1.5 crore workers remained out of work. Similar trends are being seen this year as well. Localised lockdowns have resulted in 75 lakh jobs being lost in April this year.
A recent SWAN study estimates that 81% of workers stated that work had stopped due to localised lockdowns and restrictions. Only 18% received any money from their employers after work had stopped.
Most migrants have decided to cut their losses and go back home again. They fear a crisis similar to last year is imminent. Although state governments are assuring that the current situation will only last a couple of weeks, migrant workers have not forgotten the almost identical statements made last year. In April alone, more than 80,000 migrant workers have returned to Agra.
The APU study also estimates that the first wave of Covid-19 pushed almost 23 crore Indians into poverty. This means that the number of people who lie below the poverty threshold has increased by 23 crores. They estimate that in April and May of 2020, the poorest 20% lost their entire incomes.
The study used a ₹375 daily wage as the threshold to get to the estimate. It should be noted that even though ₹375 is not the most conservative figure, using the recommendations of the 7th Pay Commission, the Delhi government fixed the daily wage of unskilled labourers at ₹598. The living wage in India is estimated to be between ₹15,000 to ₹20,000. Trade unions also have for long demanded ₹600 a day be set as the floor wage.
SWAN has recommended that the Centre provide ₹7,000 wage compensation to all priority households and migrant workers. According to their survey, over 70% of workers need ration or cash support immediately.
The PM has urged states to use lockdowns as a last measure even though the country has witnessed an average caseload of almost four lakhs in the last 7 days. He fears it will impact economic activity. He would rather see workers go back to unsafe environments to work than provide relief to them.
The numbers clearly indicate that the government has failed to protect the most vulnerable communities in the country. With the second wave, the number of people below the poverty threshold is only going to increase. Scientists also warn that a third wave is likely to hit India. The poor and marginalised have been affected disproportionately by the government’s policies as well as the Covid-19 virus.
Currently, the country has been gripped by a shortage of oxygen, hospital beds and other medical supplies and is seeing the worst daily death tolls recorded due to the virus. Simultaneously, migrant workers are forced to go back home at a time when the virus is at its deadliest. Thus, policies like Universal Basic Income (UBI), Universal Healthcare, Public Housing and Food Security are important to help those who have lost everything in this pandemic.