On March 25, my colleagues and I at the Aajeevika Bureau, which tries to address the economic and socio-legal problems of migrant workers in Gujarat and Rajasthan, woke up to dozens of messages of utter distress, both on our personal phones and on our toll-free Labour Line.

Among the people who phoned was Devaram. He told us how, minutes after Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced a 21-day lockdown to contain the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic the previous night, he and 12 co-workers were told to pack their bags immediately. They were ordered to leave the textile factory premises in Ahmedabad that had doubled as their night sleeping spot for over six years.

Between them they barely had Rs 500. The only way to get home to their village in Pali district of Rajasthan over 300 km away. When they asked their contractor for the money they were owed them, which worked out to about Rs 12,000 each, he threatened them – and then fled.

Another caller told us that 200 fellow workers in his Jaipur factory were brusquely informed that business has shut down and they would only be paid once the lockdown had finished. They were offered Rs 1,000 each as an interim payment and told not to return in a hurry.

From Mumbai, Suraj and his group told us that they had been made to sign blank papers in lieu of half the wages for March. They later realised that they had signed off on resignation letters.

Supreme Court indifference

These callers were among estimated 400 million Indians who earn daily wages or are casually employed in construction, small manufacturing, transportation, head loading and agriculture markets. They are the section that has been hit hardest by loss of the wages and jobs losses because of the lockdown.

Yet a Public Interest Litigation filed in the Supreme Court by activists Harsh Mander and Anjali Bhardwaj seeking immediate government action in the payment of minimum wages attracted a surprisingly indifferent response from the Supreme Court bench on April 7. Not only did the bench observe that policy decisions are the prerogative of the government, it also said that wage payments need not be a high priority since adequate arrangements to provide shelter and food for migrant workers have been put in place.

Nothing could further from reality. Evidence coming in from everywhere suggests that migrant workers and daily-wage earners face an unprecedented livelihood disaster. At our Labour Line, over 200 calls of stranded workers just in the first four days of the lockdown indicated the mass abandonment of workers. Contractors pleaded that they had not received their own payments from people up the line and fled work sites without paying any wages or offering paltry sums.

Another 300 calls reported that they were denied their wages outright or given vague promises that they would be paid when the locked is lifted. We have heard hundreds of cases from every part of the country where workers left for their homes virtually penniless.

Migrant workers try to board a crowded bus in Ghaziabad on March 29. Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Like wages, jobs have been suspended everywhere in informal labour markets. At one franchisee of a well-known hotel chain, the staff was made to sign pre-drafted resignation letters as soon as the lockdown was announced. We were told about workers also receiving expulsion notices on WhatsApp and SMS. Their attempts to make inquiries were met with switched-off phones and locked doors.

Possibly the worst blow was delivered on the large numbers of invisible migrant workers who lived inside factory premises or construction sites. Not only did they lose wages, but also the dinghy roofs over their heads – turning them out to join the exodus returning to rural homes.

Of course, this isn’t as unusual as it sounds. Wage denial, salary forfeitures, forced retrenchments and bonded work are deeply normalised in India’s informal economy. The aftermath of lockdown is an amplified reminder of this reality. A study by Aajeevika Bureau conducted in 2018 estimated wage frauds in the construction sector to be in the range of Rs 6,400 crores per annum – and that is likely to be an underestimate.

Just from our presence in the Rajasthan-Gujarat labour corridor, we have registered an average of 2,000 cases of wage denials and frauds a year for the past three years. These are cases that pass without formal legal recourse not because the workers do not know better, but because a legal response needs representation and evidence – both of which are scarcely available in the world of informal work.

Unrealistically low wages

These problems cannot be delinked from the fact that India’s current real wages are simply too low to a support dignified life. We have neglected with scathing impunity the idea of a living wage that, according to the International Labour Organisation, allows “workers and their families to afford a basic, but decent, lifestyle that is considered acceptable by society and allows them to live above the poverty level, and be able to participate in social and cultural life”.

The ILO’s India Wage Report confirms that almost a third of waged workers in India are paid less than the national minimum wage. Rural wages are less than half of urban wages and a gender gap of 34% keeps average wages of female workers in rural areas as low as Rs 104 a day.

Not surprisingly, the early evidence from our relief operation in migration-dependent adivasi villages of south Rajasthan has found that they are sliding into penury, facing acute shortages and hunger within few days of the lockdown. A recently released report by Jan Sahas, a rights organisation with a special focus on women, said that of its rapid survey sample of over 3,000 construction workers, over 90% reported that they have no savings to feed their families beyond one week of lockdown.

Notwithstanding the relief measures announced the government, it is imperative that workers’ wages are reclaimed and not treated as an unavoidable collateral loss in the fight against Covid-19. This requires a commitment to treating wages and work as an inviolable right and a radical repurposing of the legal aid machinery.

An astonishing Rs 1,800 crores remains unpaid to workers under the government’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme across the country. Many have been waiting for well over four months to collect their dues. The government must immediately disburse these wages and establish exemplary precedence by crediting another month of wages in advance into accounts.

Migrant workers in Mumbai's Bandra area watch a protest demanding that trains be resumed. Credit: PTI

Second, a call must be made to migrant workers and daily wagers to self-declare and attest their wage arrears as of March. Workers should be asked to furnish whatever information available to them on their employers / contractors and on the wages. This mass of worker-generated evidence must be collated and sent to workers’ facilitation centres run by workers’ collectives, unions and civil society organisations. These centres must have backing of an urgently resourced labour administration and be charged with the task of following up with employers and conveying state’s intent to legal action.

The quantum of lost wages and jobs is sufficient to establish special status fast-track wage and employment mediation cells and courts in all major cities and industrial clusters.

Third, all packages to bail out industry and businesses must lay down exemplary protocols of labour practice and make these conditional to institutional support – written contracts, documentation, adherence to fair and equal wages, social security and workers’ safety. A wage compensation fund for workers in medium and small scale enterprises must be announced as this is the hardest hit economic space. This is the opportunity to re-inject the value of labour rights and welfare as central to the recovery of the collapsing economy.

Fourth, there should be an urgent re-examination of labour codes that are likely to compromise the claims of workers in the informal economy. The Labour Code on Wages (2019), for instance, has diluted the responsibility of the principal employer for the payment of wages. It does so by broadening the definition of “principal employer” to include contractors and site managers as well. Such a definition creates difficulties in fixing accountability on the principal employer in cases of wages being denied, especially where there are long chains of intermediaries with multiple labour contractors involved.

It also weakens institutions responsible for enforcing wage protection, by replacing labour inspectors with labour facilitators who can give concessions to employers for wage violations, with only compounded offences leading to penalties. The hollowing out of institutional mechanisms under the Labour codes must be revoked.

National minimum wage

A national floor minimum wage must be declared under the Labour Code on Wages, based on the recommendations of the Anoop Satpathy-led expert committee, which proposed Rs 375 per day. This protection under minimum wages legislation must also be extended to home-based or own-account workers, as well as domestic workers, who have multiple employers and are facing cancellation of orders or loss of work due to the pandemic and lockdown.

In addition, it is essential to establish tripartite bodies based on the Industrial Disputes Act (1947) to allow the government to broker negotiations between employers and workers in sectors such as garments and textiles. This is necessary to ensure that the enforcement of minimum wage regulations reaches sectors where workers’ bargaining power is low.

The confidence and morale of the Indian worker is at its lowest. Even as many among us have sought to provide immediate relief in terms of food and supplies, this is not sufficient. Workers not only need food, but are also due their rightful wages – both during this crisis and after. Decades of a lack of commitment to minimum wage standards and institutional protection against wage fraud have made workers increasing vulnerable, leading up to this collapse under the pandemic and lockdown.

The Supreme Court must not stop at applauding the government’s relief measures – it can empower waged workers to seize this epochal opportunity to belatedly remedy a long-standing unjust wage norms and offer a hope for dignified life as they find their way out of the lockdown.

Rajiv Khandelwal is the co-founder and director of the Aajeevika Bureau, Udaipur, which provides services and support to migrant workers and their communities.