India’s workers devastated by deadly second wave of Covid-19

P.K. Anand reports on how India’s government has learned little from last year’s pandemic and lockdown measures and reveals how workers are suffering as a result. 

P.K. Anand reports on how India’s government has learned little from last year’s pandemic and lockdown measures and reveals how workers are suffering as a result. 

As the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic spreads across India, many garment factories in the southern state of Karnataka remain open through lockdown.

The government has allowed them to keep half of their employees at work, under worse conditions than before. There are no personal protection kits and workers still congregate in crowded canteens and restrooms. Even if workers show visible symptoms of Covid-19, they still turn up at the factories. With limited alternative income support, they fear being laid off.

Sebastian Devaraj, Honorary President of Karnataka Garment Workers Union pointed out that “Orders and production targets have increased and workers do overtime.”

It was only after four workers reportedly died and numerous others were infected that the vast Shahi 8 garment factory in the suburbs of the state capital Bengaluru was closed down temporarily in May.

Like last year, many factories in Karnataka have curtailed transport services for workers, who often live far from their places of work. They’ve also closed creche facilities and turned away pregnant workers, placing an even greater burden on the workers who can get to the factory.

There is no national lockdown in place and inter-state borders remain open. State governments have increasingly resorted to imposing lockdowns with varied definitions to contain the spread. In the western industrialised state of Gujarat, for example, factories and construction sites remain open.

Migrant workers, anxious about their economic security, have planned their exits, but finding tickets for trains and buses from big cities is difficult. With the coronavirus reaching rural areas, too, workers face inadequate health facilities and infrastructure if they return

It is estimated that 230 million people are now living below the national minimum wage threshold of 375 rupees per day (US$5.1). Monthly earnings fell by 17 percent in Bengaluru, according to one report. Self-employed and informal salaried workers have borne the brunt of wage decreases with women and young workers hit hardest. Households have sold assets, cut back on food purchases, and borrowed from friends, relatives and moneylenders. 

Different state governments and local administrations have rolled out relief measures with varied results. There have, for example, been cash handouts, one-off initiatives, too often accompanied by constraining clauses. The food subsidy scheme for migrant workers, ‘One Nation One Ration Card’, has come up against logistical and administrative barriers, and operational challenges

Maansi Parpiani, Research Lead for the non-profit Aajeevika Bureau, explained that government responses don’t address India’s labour migration complexities, She cited as an example the draft national migrant labour policy, which proposes to set up dedicated departments and mobile health and social protection programs, but did not extend workers protection against wage fraud, occupational safety mechanisms and income insecurity. 

Vaccinating migrant workers should be a priority, but pricing and procurement policies have hindered distribution and take-up rates. The government has ordered that real estate developers bear the cost of vaccinating construction workers, where there is a high concentration of migrants, but other sectors have not seen the same attention. Shortages of supply, differential pricing structure deficits, and the digital divide all hinder access to vaccines for migrant workers. 

Workers, particularly those in the informal sector, need robust government measures to ensure their health and livelihoods, not just in the short-term but long-term as well. One year on, as the pandemic worsens, government measures still do not do enough to address labour dislocation and truly protect workers. There is some change, but too much remains the same. 

P.K.Anand is a Visiting Associate Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi, and a Fellow under the China India Scholar Leaders Initiative of the India China Institute, New School, New York City.