COVID19 broke the backs of Mumbai’s informal sector workers. What does 2021 hold in store?

If the markets stabilise and the economy grows, we would need to understand if the benefit will extend to the labourers, says a city-based NGO which researched on Mumbai's informal sector.

During the scorching summer months of 2020, Indian TV media and websites broadcast visuals of migrant workers walking back to their villages. Commentators lamented how workers who shoulder the economic burden of the city remain tenuously compensated.

Now – nine months after the lockdown was first announced – workers have returned to the city but the media spotlight has shifted. Details about available work, working conditions, and wages remain shrouded in mystery. 

A city-based workers collective, Aajeevika Bureau, has mapped the informal workforce in Mumbai’s Khairani road and nearby areas. Their research throws four broad findings: some returning migrants have had to change professions. Others have expanded their work by multitasking on the shopfloor. Workers’ wages are lower than before and working hours have swelled without overtime compensations. And along with workers, it’s also their employers, often marginal and small-scale, who are struck by the COVID-19 led economic downturn.  

We spoke to Deepak Paradkar, from Aajeevika Bureau, who has been working with informal sector workers for the past decade, to understand the everyday realities of those employed in the informal sector in 2020.

When did migrants workers start returning to the city? 

August/September. Around 50-60% workers have returned, not all because there’s not as much employment. If there were 20 workers in a factory before, now it’s only 10. Overall, factories have shut down, people have lost jobs and moved professions.  

Can you tell us about sectoral changes? 

In the garment sector, for example, the local market and export was shut during the lockdown. As they didn’t have business, the factory wasn’t working. There are two types of works in the garment sector – piece-based work and salaried work. When factories shut, some workers lost their jobs, others have now been retained at a lower wage. If they had a salary of Rs 20,000, it has become Rs 15,000. Fifteen thousand has become Rs 12,000. Piece rates have also fallen. From Rs 15 for a piece, it’s now fallen till Rs 10. Rs 40 for a shirt is now Rs 25-Rs 30. 

What about manufacturing, which Khairani Road is a major hub of?

Metal manufacturing and fabrication work began after July. But workers have been working at half their former wages. From Rs 15000, it had fallen to Rs 8000. But we are now also seeing payments return to normal. But this improvement is specific to this sector. 

What about construction workers? 

We saw an interesting trend with construction workers. When only a few workers were left in the city, their wages increased. But they faced other challenges of having to procure documents to prove that they were not COVID-19 positive. But now that the workers have returned, there is a shortage of work. People are only getting 10-15 days of work. I haven’t heard from anyone who got more than 15 days of work. 

How have working conditions or working hours changed for workers? 

Employers are hiring fewer workers but have increased their working hours. From 8 hours, they are working for 12 hours. The concept of overtime is over. Increased working are impacting their mental and physical health. 

Are people choosing to stay back in their villages or go to other cities? 

We have heard of some people going to Secunderabad and Bengaluru. But very few people have got MGNREGA work in villages. They tell us that the sarpanch often gives work to people in his network. Many have just come to Mumbai with the hope that they would find work. 

What kind of complaints do workers come to you with?

We have received a lot of wage fraud cases from across sectors: garment, manufacturing, construction, housekeeping. Even workers in shops. If previously, we had 10-12 cases on average, now it’s 19-22 cases. 

How do you help solve these cases?

If a worker comes to us, we counsel them, ask for details, any kind of available documentation, and then register the case. If it’s a wage fraud case, for example, we try to talk to the employer. This is a unique situation because many marginal employers have also been affected. If employers are not interested in talking, then we take legal action. But most cases don’t require legal action.

Have you succeeded in solving cases? 

In the past 2 months, we have helped workers receive wages amounting to Rs 1.5-2 lakhs in about 10 cases. 

What are the chances of remedy if you don’t intervene?

Next to impossible. If we don’t intervene, there is hardly any chance a worker will get his money back. They think of themselves as the weaker party and quit the job. 

What kind of channels are available to workers for help?  

In many cases such as wage fraud, workers might go to the police station and the police will ask them to go to the labour officer. Few may go to the police, and fewer may go to the labour officer. There’s no awareness about their rights.  There is a communication gap between the police and the labour department. When multiple cases come to the police – from accidents to wage fraud – there should be better collaboration between them to smoothen the process. 

Is the labour department proactive? 

In wage related cases, especially in the unorganised sector, their response is quite slow. On Khairani Road, a lot of industries are illegal  and without licenses. When cases are related to them, the labour department says it doesn’t come under our jurisdiction. 

What kind of challenges are the marginal employees facing?

Many marginal employers work on existing cash flows. Their every day expenses are rent and the electricity bill. While they had to somehow pay rent, many complained that despite not using electricity, their bills were high. Payments from their vendors were stuck. Marginal employers need loans to clear their ongoing dues and keep the business running. From the owner to employee, everyone has faced losses in the past year.

What is your hope from the coming year? 

If the markets stabilise and the economy grows, we would need to understand if the benefit will extend to the labourers. 

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