Migrant workers were weeks from running out of food, struggled to access healthcare and faced acute livelihood problems during the partial lockdowns imposed by states to limit the second surge of the Covid-19 pandemic, shows a recent survey conducted by Aajeevika Bureau, a labour rights organisation.
Unlike the migrant crisis of 2020, covered extensively in the media, little attention has been paid to the provision of relief and social protection to migrant workers during state lockdowns, the study found. Since the restrictions this year were partial, some migrant workers chose to return home in the early days of the wave. But many chose to stay back in the hope of a quick revival.
However, the families that chose to stay back in the city struggled to survive, showed Aajeevika’s rapid telephonic survey of 195 migrant workers in Ahmedabad conducted in May. Up to 75% of Ahmedabad’s migrant workers chose to remain in the city or returned soon after leaving, it found. The city employs over 13 lakh migrant workers and is a popular work destination because of its construction, textiles and pharmaceutical industries, and the domestic work sector.
During Gujarat’s partial lockdown, lasting from April 28 to June 11, little or no work was available, workers said. Weekly earnings fell by 30%, and 60% of the migrant households interviewed said they were left with cash and dry ration for less than 15 days. Up to 27% of the respondents said they had health problems, including Covid-19 infection. Access to vaccines remains a constant worry too.
The relief measures initiated last year, especially those targeting hunger and employment among migrant workers, do not seem to have alleviated their distress in the ongoing wave either, as we explain later.
In a two-part series, we investigate the problems faced by Ahmedabad’s migrant workers who opted to stay back in the city. In this, the first part, we look at how they battled for livelihood and survival. In the second part, we report on how urban health networks, which routinely exclude migrant workers, left them even more vulnerable during the lockdown.
The latest crisis hit workers at a time when many had not yet recovered from last year’s economic shocks that depleted their savings and pushed up their debts. A May 21 analysis by the Stranded Workers Action Network, a migrant resource group, showed that 58% of migrant families were days from going hungry.
Up to 1.5 crore jobs were lost in May alone, said a report by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, a think-tank. “This is not as bad as the loss of 11.4 crore in April 2020 but it comes second to only that draconian month of a complete nationwide lockdown,” CMIE managing director Mahesh Vyas wrote.
In an interview with IndiaSpend, economists Amit Basole and Rosa Abraham of the Centre for Sustainable Employment had emphasised the importance of putting in place support systems for migrant workers before the declaration of a lockdown. “The most important lesson from last year was that the lockdown hurt the poorest the most,” they stated.
It may not be readily visible yet, but the impacts of deteriorating economic conditions of migrant workers will be felt in the long-term, drastically affecting their life cycle, said Divya Ravindranath, a researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements.
Lack of work
With restrictions on gatherings being imposed in Gujarat from April 28 onwards, daily wagers were among the first to be affected, said Mahesh Gajera, an Aajeevika worker in Ahmedabad. A CMIE report found that “of the total 2.25 crore jobs lost in April-May, 1.72 crore were of daily wage earners”.
Daily wagers obtain work through labour nakas, junctions where they wait for contractors to hire them for work on construction sites. “Aaj kaam nahi mila, kal mera chulha nahi jala [Today I did not find work, tomorrow my hearth will not be lit,” said Gajera of the precarious existence of daily wagers.
Most workers interviewed for the survey said they could get work for just two to three days in a week and have yet to be paid for it. The survey found a 51% decline in weekly earnings of daily wagers.
Durgaram (he uses one name), a community leader who works with migrant workers in Narol, Ahmedabad, recounted the troubles of a group of seasonal tribal migrants who had been contracted to operate a boiler machine at a garment factory in the same area.
“About Rs 3 lakh were due to them for over six months and the employer was coercing them to stay only to ensure the periodic upkeep of the factory’s boiler,” said Durgaram. “This when the rest of the factory was not operating.” The workers were forced to let go of this amount and take up daily wage work at another local plant so they could feed themselves. They have now filed a case for non-payment of wages against their employer at the local labour court.
Factories and stitching units could only operate at 50% capacity until June 7. Night curfews have affected those working in night shifts, a restriction that will continue until June 26. Anil Kumar*, who has been working in the textile processing sector for over 10 years, reported that his factory and many others in the sector have had no work for over a month.
Only export-oriented units were able to continue working. The textile industry in Gujarat witnessed an increase in export orders earlier in 2021 before the onset of the second wave, yet by the end of April, it saw a 25% decline in production as lockdowns were imposed.
“We are being called into work only on alternate days throughout this time,” said Anil Kumar. “I find odd jobs on other days to make ends meet.” Even though he was a payroll worker, he was being paid only for the days he was called in, which was just about half his monthly wage in normal times. He also added that some of his colleagues who were on the contract were asked to leave.
Garment units, small and medium-sized establishments employing 10-50 workers and relying on orders from larger factories, had completely shut down since no new orders were coming in, the survey found. Workers engaged in these units, who had been called in to finish pending orders during the second wave, cited a 47% drop in weekly wages due to non-payment of wages for this work. Employers, they said, use financial distress as an excuse–or promised payment when paid by their buyers.
Workers hit hard
Home-based women workers, who rely on outsourced value addition work such as thread-cutting and collar and button sewing, have not had any substantial orders since last year’s lockdown.
“Abhi to sab band hai. Ek saal se to bohot kam kaam hai. [Everything is shut. There has been very little work in the last one year],” said Chhaya Shinde, a home-based worker. She added that the frequency of thread-cutting work orders has reduced to once a month and the current rate offered by contractors is so low it cannot even cover the cost of thread and electricity bills. (Payment deadlines for electricity were extended in Gujarat during the last lockdown.)
Hotel and restaurant workers reported a 20% decline in weekly wages during the second wave. Hotel owners’ associations all over Gujarat were complaining that extended curfew hours and the cap on guests would be a huge setback and this could force them to shut shop.
Laxman Singh*, who has been working in this sector for the last 20 years, said that restaurants, operating only for home deliveries, needed just four to five workers. The rest were sent home before the lockdown.
Guidelines on restrictions during the partial lockdown were not very clear and night curfews have not been lifted since Diwali last year. Many Ahmedabad eateries have shut down. Workers have been left unemployed for prolonged periods, and have not been paid their dues, said Laxman Singh, who contracted Covid-19 at the restaurant where he was employed as a general manager. He managed to get a bed in a private hospital, where he incurred expenses upwards of Rs 2.5 lakh. He did not receive any support from his employer who has stopped answering his calls. Some of those from his village, Pali in Rajasthan, who worked in restaurants in Ahmedabad, was compelled to seek work in neighbouring mining sites, he said.
Though return migration has been widespread during the pandemic, Gajera of Aajeevika Bureau reported the reverse in Ahmedabad in April when the second wave was peaking in the city. Many seasonal migrants from the tribal pockets of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh were migrating to the city in even larger numbers. Most of them, he said, were young adults aged between 14 years-17 years. Their schooling had been disrupted and they were looking for work.
Why was this happening? In a crisis of this scale, there are mainly two fallback mechanisms in tribal belts:
- Subsidised rations available to each member of a poor household through the targeted public distribution system ensured under the National Food Security Act, 2013
- The guarantee of 100 days of waged manual labour to every rural household provided by the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, 2005
In response to the migrant distress of 2020, rural employment generation has been in focus, with the launch of schemes such as Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan. But ground reports suggested that these programmes did not necessarily translate into jobs due to enrolment issues and budget allocation cuts.
Also, rural and tribal areas in Gujarat were severely hit by the second wave of the pandemic. A June 8 Down to Earth analysis estimated that from April onwards, every second, a fresh case or a death was being reported from India’s rural districts. Worksites started closing, pushing young adults out of villages.
Lack of food
In cities, migrants have had to rely on their earning capacity to purchase rations. A study on migrants’ access to urban governance systems conducted in 2020 before the pandemic, had found that with access to PDS blocked by domicile restrictions, more than 50% of their income was spent on food and cooking fuel. Even with this, they were only able to afford bare essentials. During the lockdown last year, workers had to cut their food intake. This year too, the migrants we interviewed said they had to cut food consumption to survive.
Aajeevika’s survey revealed that migrants were left with 17 days’ worth of functional savings, that is cash and dry rations, in the city. Semi-permanent migrants, those residing for over 10 years in the city, found themselves in a worse situation than last year.
“We are only managing to eat, there is no saving,” said Chhaya Shinde. She added that the prices of cooking essentials had increased but her husband’s income had not. Her husband is employed in a listed textiles manufacturing company but he has not been given any increment this year or the customary Diwali bonus last.
Migrant households are burdened with debts that they are struggling to repay. Their savings were exhausted in trying to survive last year’s 2.5-month long lockdown. “Household debt to GDP ratio has been steadily increasing since Q1:2018-19 rose sharply to 37.1% in Q2:2020-21 [July-September 2020] from 35.4% in Q1:2020-21 [April-June 2020],” said the March 19 monthly bulletin of the Reserve Bank of India. The report admitted that these data do not capture households’ indebtedness to non-institutional lenders such as relatives, landlords and money lenders.
Ranjanben Parmar, a leader of a workers’ collective in Ahmedabad, said that some of her neighbours had to take private loans at a monthly 10% interest to just run their households. Now they are borrowing from relatives and others to repay the debt, she said. Relief schemes do not address this indebtedness faced by migrants.
The survey found that workers who remained in Ahmedabad expected relief mainly on two fronts –ration supply (57%) and cash transfers (49%). When asked about relief expectations, Savita Dube, who works in a stitching unit said: “We heard in the news that in Delhi there is going to be door-to-door distribution of ration. Nothing of the sort has ever happened here [in Gujarat].”
Some states such as Karnataka and Delhi, recognising the impact of the second wave on migrant workers, reached out with cash transfers, food and medicines. However, this year too relief measures are repeating the exclusions that delayed migrants’ recovery last year. The government of Karnataka, for example, announced a cash transfer of Rs 3,000 to only registered construction workers and Rs 2,000 to unorganised workers in the state.
On April 23, the central government announced the allocation of additional free food grains to the National Food Security Act beneficiaries under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana for May and June. However, no relief has been announced for non-ration card holders or those without any form of identification as was done under the Atma Nirbhar Bharat scheme last year.
In spite of the Centre’s acknowledgement of the problems with the beneficiary identification process, the flagship One Nation-One Ration Card scheme for nationwide portability of ration cards has been missing from the current discourse on relief. During the first lockdown, Gujarat’s Anna Brahma scheme attempted to reach out to non-ration card holders distributing solely on the basis of the Aadhaar card. However, it was not extended beyond June 2020. Delhi released the guidelines for ration distribution to non-PDS beneficiaries but this is only a one-time measure limited to 200,000 beneficiaries, unlike last year’s outreach to three million.
On June 11, LiveLaw reported that the Supreme Court has directed all states to implement the One Nation-One Ration Card scheme. It also emphasised that unregistered or migrant workers be registered and directed states to complete the registration process as early as possible. Several experts, such as Jean Drèze, Yamini Aiyar and Himanshu, have proposed the universalisation of PDS as a prompt solution. Amartya Sen, Abhijit Banerjee and Raghuram Rajan suggested in The Indian Express that temporary ration cards be issued for six months with minimal checks to anyone willing to queue up for monthly allocations.
What workers want
The survey reveals workers’ expectations and needs for a broad range of support initiatives. For instance, workers said they needed support to pay rent (38%), school fees (34%) and medical bills (39%). They also sought a waiver of electricity bills (34%), as we noted earlier.
“Recently the CM has exempted tax for restaurants, malls, hotels and 4-5 others for one year. Why not for us? Workers are facing more problems,” said Anil Kumar, referring to the recently announced one-year property tax exemption for hotels, restaurants, malls and water parks in Gujarat.
Up to 51% of respondents also demanded that work be provided in the city. Urban employment guarantee on the lines offered by MGNREGA in rural areas has time and again been demanded by civil society. Drèze advocates for an urban employment guarantee scheme that can address poverty, especially during distress periods such as the pandemic, as well as social inequality. Ayyankali Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme of Kerala, dubbed as the urban counterpart of MGNREGA, has been running since 2010.
Last year, the Odisha government introduced an Urban Wage Employment Initiative for the urban poor within a month from the imposition of the national lockdown, closely followed by Jharkhand’s Mukhyamantri Shramik Yojana. In spite of widespread expectations, urban employment schemes were absent from this year’s budget.
*Names changed to protect identities.
The authors are grateful to Dipti Makwana, Durgaram, Geeta Parmar, Mukesh Parmar, Pannalal Meghwal, Rajendra Kumar Balai, Ranjeet Kori and Swati Saktavat of Aajeevika Bureau’s Ahmedabad Centre for their insights and assistance with the interviews and survey.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.