Post-COVID working conditions could be more exploitative for informal workers

Predicting that informal workers in urban centres could take longer to bounce back from the effects of the lockdown, experts suggest a slew of measures that can mitigate their difficulties.

Commodification of labour largely ignores the social and domestic life of labourers, treating them as mere cogs in the machine. This oft-repeated saying never came across as starkly as during the country-wide lockdown that was imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

While economic activity and its prime drivers – workers – are yet to recover from its effects, several States and cities across the nation, owing to the resurgence of the virus, are continuing to reimpose lockdowns for varying periods. Needless to add that for daily wage workers, the nightmare is unending.

The lockdown ordeal left Kotresh Hargondnali, a 24-year-old daily wager in Bellary’s Hospet, on the brink. Kotresh used to earn Rs 275 a day under the National Rural Employment Guarantee (Act) scheme, which allowed little or no savings. Not working even for a single day meant his family would go hungry. “We barely have money to feed our families, causing us to borrow money,” he says.

Kotresh, and the other labourers in the Rural Daily Wage Workers’ Union (Grameena Coolie Karmikara Sanghatane) are yet to reap the benefits of the Prime Minister’s Rs 20 lakh crore economic relief package, announced on May 12. “The package does not mention any benefits for daily wage workers, it only considers permanent workers” he complained.

What relief?

Kotresh said it is difficult for workers in the rural sector to register themselves online. “Several of us workers are unregistered, we didn’t even know we needed to formally register ourselves” he said. There are 1,500-1,600 daily wagers in his ward in Bellary, out of whom only 100 have received the coronavirus compensation sum of Rs 5,000. He says the recipients are all “higher” ups, whereas poor workers like him have not seen a penny.  Almost 90% of workers in the Union have bank accounts, whom a direct cash transfer would benefit greatly, he states. 

Informal workers in the urban setting are worse-off as, unlike in the rural sector where there is agriculture to fall back on, there are no safety nets in cities.

A taxi driver for 30 years, B P Shivamurthy is one amongst those who had applied for the Karnataka government’s coronavirus relief package that provides Rs 5,000 to all autorickshaw and taxi drivers. He is yet to receive the amount.

According to M Manjunath, president of Adarsha Auto and Taxi Drivers’ Union, out of 2.35 lakh drivers in the city, only 1,40,000 drivers have received the money as on July 18. Several appeals have been rejected due to non-renewal of licenses and bank-based irregularities, he says. 

Prathiba R from the Garment and Textile Workers Union, says that garment workers, most of who are women, have not received any help from the state government. The government, she says, assumes regular payment of wages in the case of industrial workers, whereas there have been several issues relating to salaries since the lockdown. “Auto drivers are self-employed, which is why they received benefit from the government. But factory workers are expected to get their salaries amid lockdown” she says. Prathiba is expecting more lay-offs in the coming months. 

No safety net

The informal sector, also known as the unorganised sector, brims with such stories.

Dr Rosa Abraham, senior research fellow at the Centre for Sustainable Employment, says “the pandemic accentuated the existing fault lines in Indian economy, and highlighted the absent social security, secure employment and, sometimes, even an identifiable employer.”

With more lay-off expected in the coming months, the size of the informal sector is only expected to burgeon.  Maithreyi Krishnan, lawyer and state committee member of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions, Karnataka, predicts a sharp influx of workers into the unorganised sector in the post-COVID economy.

Making a distinction between a fair wage and minimum wage, she said if workers had fair wages, they would have had savings for a rainy day. “Minimum wage is not a fair wage. It is the bare minimum spared by the employer to ensure continuity of labour. Fair wage will increase the purchasing power of the workers, leading to a healthier economy,” she points out.

Maithreyi believes that the large concentration of labourers in the unorganised sector is a conscious result of state policies, and not an overnight development.

“The states have been pushing for contractualization of labourers, especially those engaged in ‘menial’ labour; they are predominantly women and people from Dalit communities” Maithreyi says.

Dr Rosa says exploitation of labour will continue in the post-COVID economy as well. Many salaried workers have lost their jobs in the last month and they will be looking to re-enter the workforce. She believes that there will be segregation of work based on caste. There is anecdotal evidence that workers from dominant castes are at the helm of economic activities, she says.

Must dos…

Fair wages aside, even governmental relief and relaxation of certain norms would bring much relief in the present context, researchers point out.

Neethi. P, faculty member at the Indian Institute of Human Settlements, believes that instead of formalising the informal sector, authorities must work on improving their working conditions within these sectors. She lays emphasis on the need for an Inter-state migrant workers Act, that would compel employers to provide transport, accommodation and social benefits. This could ensure quality of employment, she says. 

Echoing this, Dr Rosa said the wide availability of bank-accounts should be used for immediate cash transfers. “Households do not have cash availability and the (present) PDS and cash transfers are inadequate.”  She also proposes a long-term strategy of investing in basic infrastructure like health and education. 

Neethi advocates an easier system.

“It is important to enforce a self-registration system so that labourers are no more invisible; it is easy, accessible and should be compulsory,” Neethi says.

The current complexities surrounding registration, such as language barrier, proper authorities and online formats, have kept several workers from benefiting from government schemes, she points out.

As the cases are increasing, predict bleak business in the months ahead even as they fear for their safety. Drivers of autorickshaws and cabs voiced their fear of contracting infections while driving.

The Adarsha union has sought sanitizers, protective sheets between the customers and passengers and weekly ration kits from the government to tide over the next few months. If the current conditions continue, Appanna, an AICCTU functionary, states that several workers will die by suicide due to harassment from money lenders and banks. Dr Rosa points out that loss of income during the lockdown had led many families to withdraw their children, especially the girl child, from school.

Making a case for an urban employment guarantee scheme, an urban counterpart of the NREGA, Dr Rosa says: “Our surveys have highlighted that the pandemic’s impact is far more severe in urban areas and it is not a temporary slump that the urban centers will bounce back from.” She attributes this to easier availability of farm employment and concentration of relief measures in rural areas.

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