Migrant workers head home in coronavirus lockdown, exposed and vulnerable

Zeenat, who works in a garment factory in Delhi, says she wants to go back to her village in Uttar Pradesh as she won’t be able to make her ends meet in Delhi due to the lockdown. Photo: Somesh Jha
Durga Prasad, 34, made a life-changing call to his family living in Bulandshahr (Uttar Pradesh) last Saturday to say he was headed back home as his garment manufacturing unit was closing down for the next 15 days. This was a day before the Delhi government had announced an official lockdown in the national capital.

“I resigned after my employer refused to pay me for the shutdown days,” Prasad, sitting on a bicycle in New Delhi’s Okhla Industrial Area, tells Business Standard. “If the virus spreads further, it would leave me exposed without any earning. I’m headed home.”

A worker like Prasad, who’s an integral part of the country’s 471-million workforce, never felt more vulnerable. Around 81 per cent of this universe is unorganised, without any social security cover and outside the purview of a complex set of labour laws.

Like Prasad, 26-year-old construction sector worker Pintu Singh is looking for some odd job. While resting with other stranded workers outside the New Delhi Railway Station, Singh narrates his story.   On Sunday, the day of the janata curfew, Singh hurriedly left Rewari in Madhya Pradesh to travel back to his village in Champaran (Bihar) via New Delhi. His journey home had to be halted as the lockdown came into force and he couldn’t get into a second train to Bihar from New Delhi.

“I left behind all my belongings. I was supposed to get Rs 7,000 from my contractor, but didn’t even bother to take it. The contractor wasn’t allowing us to leave and promised us food but no salary. I want to stay with my family in these times,” says Singh, who’s been earning Rs 600 a day. He left his workplace with Rs 2,000 cash in  pocket.

Noida SEZ has 400 units and around 100,000 workers.
With all businesses and transportation grinding to a halt during the lockdown, millions of migrant workers hardly have any choice on how to isolate themselves from the deadly coronavirus.

Missing social security ring

Even as COVID-19 coronavirus has hit the labour force hard like never before, the social security cover remains more of a privilege for workers. Unlike many other countries which follow a right-based approach giving social security to everyone in the workforce, India sticks to an employment-based plan. Social security is limited to units employing a minimum number of workers. 

Headed home as migrants have no room to isolate

For instance, workers get compulsory health and other forms of insurance if they are with a unit employing at least 10 (through the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation). Workers are entitled to provident fund benefits only if they are working in an establishment with 20 or more (managed by the Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation). That too is rare.

According to the latest Economic Census of 2013-14, 98.6 per cent of all the establishments employ less than 10 workers. This suggests that workers belonging to all such establishments barely had any social security cover. Prasad and Singh belong to this 98.6 per cent of the work segment.

The lockdown

Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide 21-day lockdown on March 24, 30 out of 36 states had it in place to contain the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus.  It was after Maharashtra had announced a complete shutdown till March 31 that the migrant exodus came into focus. The images of hundreds of migrants workers thronging railway stations to return home sent panic waves in the power corridors. While there’s no official count, the Economic Survey of 2016-17 has been cited often in Parliament to state there are an estimated 100 million migrant workers. That’s a fifth of the total workforce in the country.

As the economy picked up speed over decades, the pace of migration also exploded. For instance, the Census data shows growth in migrant workers doubled from 2.4 per cent every year in 1991-2001 to 4.5 per cent per annum in 2001-11.

People gather outside DDU hospital where the bodies of four men executed at Tihar Jail, who were convicted in the Nirbhaya rape, were brought for postmortem, in New Delhi. Photo: PTI
No contract

The government has urged employers to allow workers to ‘work from home’, not to reduce their wages and appealed to citizens to take care of their domestic help even if they do not report for work.

The appeal for ‘work from home’ is expected to protect workers receiving regular salaries. But it hasn’t worked for 30-year-old Zeenat, who used to work in a garment factory in Seelampur with Rs 6,000 as monthly pay. Her employer refused to give her paid leave and the fact that she doesn’t have a work contract left her with no option but to try returning to her village in Uttar Pradesh. “I haven’t even received my salary for the past three months,” she says sitting with her family near the Anand Vihar bus station. She hopes to find a mode of transport to commute, when there’s nothing in sight.

Like Zeenat, over two-third of workers in India employed on a regular salary do not have a written contract, according to the official periodic labour force survey conducted by the National Statistical Office in 2017-18. With no written contract, where the employment terms are clearly stated, workers like her run the risk of being terminated without any pay.

With companies downing shutters on their plants and factories, retrenchments are likely to be the new normal, an official dealing with these issues pointed out.

Termination rights

The Industrial Disputes Act of 1947 lays down the ground rules for companies in case they want to retrench workers in the formal sector. In India, companies employing less than 100 are free to retrench workers. The government hardly has any authority to intervene. In fact, in many states like Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, companies with a workforce of up to 300 can retrench without government permission.  But these rules do not apply to the services sector at all as it only covers manufacturing, plantation and mining sectors.

If companies lay off, they have to pay 50 per cent of the wage to workers for three weeks. But companies employing less than 50 workers do not have to pass on this compensation.

What will add to the pain of the workers are some of the archaic provisions in the labour laws. For instance, In India, for termination of an employee who has a prolonged illness will not require companies to pay up retrenchment compensation. Other workers (if they qualify under the threshold-based norms) get retrenchment benefits to the tune of 15 days work every year to the total number of year worked.

Healthcare for workers

As for medical facilities in the organised sector,  establishments hiring at least 10 workers are covered under the ESI scheme, which involves 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 about 86 million beneficiaries and principals currently in the low-income formal labour market, according to a Niti Aayog report.

Volunteers distribute face masks among people to prevent the spread of coronavirus pandemic in Srinagar. Photo: PTI

But the ESI medical infrastructure is not in good shape. 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. Despite this shortage, the average bed occupancy in these facilities at an all-India level is 52 per cent and this is primarily because of a shortage of manpower. The total number of vacant posts of paramedical staff is pegged at 11,222.

The government is planning to earmark 15 per cent of ESI beds for the COVID-19 isolation cases. As is the case in other hospitals, the ESI facilities will be out of bounds for routine health checkups of workers during the pandemic, leaving them more vulnerable to other diseases they may contract in this period.

Timely intervention

On Tuesday, Labour and Employment Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar wrote to chief ministers of all states, directing them to transfer cash to construction workers from unutilised cess fund totaling around Rs 52,000 crore. The states maintain their own funds and a list of construction workers and identifying them would not be a major issue. Earlier, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had declared an immediate relief of Rs 3,000 to each registered construction worker in the state, Delhi will give Rs 5,000 each and Himachal Pradesh will also provide one-time relief of Rs 1,000 to such workers.

But Annu, a construction sector worker, will not be eligible for the benefit as he was hired through a contractor and doesn’t have an official identification card under the Building and Other Construction Workers’, Act 1996 to make him entitled for this benefit like other 3.5 million registered construction workers. Annu, who belongs to Panna in Madhya Pradesh, has been working in Delhi for almost a decade shifting his base from one construction site to another. When work stopped some days ago, he had Rs 1,500 in his pocket. On Wednesday, he spent the fourth day on the road. Now, he’s left with no cash, as his belongings were stolen when he slept on a footpath near the Sarai Kale Khan bus station. “I have spent the last two days near the railway station and it’s a real struggle and more so for my wife.’’

He asks, hoping for a positive reply, ‘’Will I be able to go back?”

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