Lost jobs, little support: How security personnel in Chennai are coping with the COVID lockdown

Some have lost their jobs; some don't even know whether they still have theirs or whether they will be paid salaries. There is no end in sight to the uncertainty and state support is negligible.

We have lived through a lockdown for over 15 days now. While a lot of us are concerned about not being able to order food online, R Nambiyar* (57) is worried about the fast emptying containers on his shelf of supplies. Another week, and the shelf is likely to be wiped clean and he has no money even to buy rice and dal.

Nambiyar is one of the economic victims of COVID-19, as the pandemic has left him jobless. Uncertainty over food and income in the city led him to quit and go back to his hometown Edamelaiyur, a village in Thiruvarur.

As a security guard, until a few days ago, Nambiyar was shuttling between apartments at Mylapore and Vadapalani on a rotational basis. The only blessing was that his employer dropped him at his workplace every week.

“But the caterers stopped providing food and most eateries were shut when the one-day janata curfew was announced. After that, I stayed in the apartment premises and ate out all the time, till the lockdown was announced. I couldn’t possibly starve, and my boss did not help. So I borrowed the bus fare and came back to my native on March 25th,” said a frail Nambiyar. He did not mind waiting for six hours to catch the bus or even travelling with 100 odd strangers.

Although several communities and agencies have retained the jobs of security personnel, the men away from home are a distressed lot. Benevolent communities continue to engage their services and help them stay safe from COVID-19; some have even promised a bonus. However, for most, uncertainty continues to stare them in the face, pending salaries being the key issue.

Nambiyar, for example, did not want to quit his job. However, the lack of any assurance or support from his employer forced him to go back home. “Forget advance payment, I had to leave immediately if I wanted to get back home, and I have not even received my salary for March yet,” he said.

In general, security personnel at companies and apartments are hired through an agency. People who own relatively smaller properties hire staff on their own, through word of mouth. Conversations with several people from the community indicated that the monthly salary paid to them starts at Rs 10,000 and varies according to the workplace.

Although Nambiyar’s salary gets credited to his bank account on the 10th of every month, his employer has not promised to credit his salary this time. “I asked him if he could transfer at least Rs 2,000 as an advance of my March salary to help me buy essentials, but he denied,” he said. He is now relying on his local ration shop and hopes to be able to stock some essentials by taking loans. He is unsure if he will get a job again after the city bounces back to normalcy.

G Sundar* is also in a similar situation. He works as a security guard at a company in Kodambakkam, but has not been able to report to work since the lockdown was clamped. “Public transportation was stopped out of the blue. How would I travel from Arakkonam to my workplace every day? ” he rued. Now, he does not even know whether he  is still on the company’s rolls or not. He is afraid to go out and search for a new job in his locality while the lockdown is on. His family of four members is surviving on one meal a day. “I hope to be back at work before the stock runs out,” Sundar said.

But if one looks at the signs all around, this phase of uncertainty looks likely to continue for a few months at least. Till then, would the Rs 1,000 provided by the government suffice?  ‘No’ is the unanimous response. How do they plan to survive then? By cutting down on the number of meals, so that the supplies they have last a little longer. Alternative livelihoods are ruled out too, as most of them do not know how to upskill and move to a new trade altogether.

Help available, but not enough

R Iyyasamy* (50), a resident of Perambur, starts his day helping workers like him at the Unorganised Workers’ Federation, before he dons the cap of the security staff. “Since many of the workers are out of jobs now or working with no pay, the federation is helping us have at least one meal a day. I eat my breakfast there, serve others and walk down four kilometres to the bank in Ayanavaram where I work,” he shared. The bank has provided Iyyasamy with gloves, masks and hand-washing solution for his safety.

But that doesn’t ease his more pressing worries. “I have not received my salary for March. The agency said I will not be paid anytime soon due to the COVID-19 spread,” Iyyasamy said.  He does not know how he will pay for the education of his daughter, who is to enter collegiate education from the next academic year. The sudden wage cut over the past two months has left him struggling to find ways to pay the house rent. Although borrowing from a moneylender or mortgage may be a quick-fix, the long-term impact worries him.

He is also worried about his health as COVID-19 cases have been on the rise in Chennai. Although Iyyasamy’s employer deducts health insurance, he cannot avail  the benefits yet. “The employer has been deducting Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) charges for about two years now. However, I have not got the health insurance card yet,” he said. Many like him are in the same situation.

NGOs too have been playing an important role in providing relief and helping these people tide over the crisis.

“Many people in informal sectors would not have received their salaries and there is a dire need for reaching help to them. They may not find a job anytime soon as the economy is crumbling apart. Only the government can support them on a larger scale and NGOs like us can help in our capacities,” said AID India chief executive officer Dr Balaji Sampath. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, AID India has so far supported 2,585 families (including inter-state migrants) covering about 350 villages and slums in Tamil Nadu.

AID India has arranged for food provisions for 10 days for each carefully selected family. The team is also monitoring the situation in villages to meet the needs immediately.

To support through donations, visit https://aidindia.in/donate.php

Although the lives of unorganised workers are hanging in the balance, some have been more fortunate than others, receiving help through organisations and groups.

Migrant workers’ woes

The problem is compounded for inter-state migrants like Nambiyar and Sundar. On paper, they are eligible to various benefits listed under the Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979. According to the rules, the employer should provide and maintain suitable residential accommodation for such workmen during the period of their employment. While Nambiyar stayed in the apartment premises, Sundar had to travel three hours to and from his workplace. According to the Act, the agency must also provide prescribed medical facilities to the workmen, free of cost.

It is evident that the mandates are breached in most cases and unorganised workers are left to fend for themselves. “Employers should register inter-state migrants with the Tamil Nadu Labour Department. However, the corporate giants hire labourers on contract basis from small-time local agencies who do not follow the registration norms. Such migrants are entitled to various benefits, unfortunately, it does not reach them,” Balaji added.

As security personnel narrated their trials and tribulations, what was most evident was the complete lack of an organised social safety net that could enable them to get on with their daily lives temporarily in an emergency like this, which leaves them without a regular income. That is something the city needs to think of long and deep, even after the shadow of coronavirus has passed.

* Names changed to protect identity

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