The Coronavirus has turned the world upside-down. While the deadly virus has managed to bring rampant changes in the lives of people, it has still not been able to disrupt the status quo that exists in the society and has further widened the gap between the rich and the poor. In India, the poor and the marginalized migrant labourers have been severely affected by this pandemic. According to the World Bank, the nationwide lockdown in India which started about a month ago has impacted nearly 40 million internal migrants[1] and put their lives at stake. These migrant labourers are more likely to die from poverty and starvation than by the virus itself. Therefore, it is important that we address the problems that are being faced by the migrants at the moment.

Loss of employment and wages

In a survey conducted by Azim Premji University, it was found that 67 per cent of workers lost employment during the ongoing lockdown to counter the COVID-19pandemic[2]. The migrant workers who are already living hand to mouth and rely on their daily wages to sustain themselves and their family are now left with no choice but to head home because they have either been let go from their jobs such as those who work in factories, small businesses and under labour contractors or those who are self-employed such as hawkers and vendors have not been able to carry on with their business due to the strict lockdown that has been imposed by the government to curb the spread of the virus. The survey of the Centre For Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) showed that the overall rate of unemployment had increased from 8.4 percent to 23.8 percent in the week ending 29 March[3].

On March 29, the Government of India under Section 10(2)(1) of the National Disaster Management Act (NDMA), had issued orders to the State governments and Union Territories for compulsorily requiring all the employers in the industrial sector and shops and commercial establishments to pay wages to their workers at their workplaces on the due date without any deduction[4]. On the contrary, the migrants in many instances were denied from being payed the wages they were entitled to. For example, in Tamil Nadu, a survey revealed that 63 per cent labourers hadn’t been paid wages they were owed from before the lockdown and in Gujarat, the diamond industry hasn’t been paying workers despite repeated government orders[5].

In a survey of 11,159 migrant workers (who were stranded in various states) which was conducted by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), an NGO it was observed that ninety percent of those migrants did not receive wages during the lockdown[6]. The migrant workers have been living precariously and have been facing a lot of financial, physical and mental agony as they are forcefully being ousted from their jobs and they are not being paid their dues as well.

Mass exodus of stranded migrant workers

Ever since the first lockdown was announced in India on March 25, the migrant workers who were making ends meet by taking up menial jobs in cities were left stranded in the host states with no access to basic amenities such as food, water, money, healthcare or employment. In order to survive, they have no choice but to head back home. The migrant workers were initially putting up in shelter homes, under flyovers and even the footpaths at the beginning of the lockdown but they are now planning to leave because although the state governments and the Central government have arranged for food, shelter and financial assistance for them, it is evident from the data that has been collected in the past few weeks that the migrant labourers have not been able to reap the benefits of the assistance that has been provided to them.

In a report prepared by Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), an NGO titled “21 Days and Counting: Covid-19 Lockdown, Migrant Workers, And The Inadequacy of Welfare Measures in India” which is based on a survey of 11,159 migrant workers, it was observed that ninety – six per cent of workers had not received rations from the government, seventy per cent of workers had not received any cooked food and seventy – eight per cent of workers have less than Rs 300 left with them[7]. In another report titled “32 Days and Counting: COVID-19 Lockdown, Migrant Workers, and the Inadequacy of Welfare Measures in India” it was found that during the second phase of the lockdown, sixty – four per cent had less than hundred rupees left and seventy – four per cent continue to have less than half their daily wages remaining to survive for the rest of the lockdown period[8].

These migrants are moving from pillar to post as they desperate to go back to their villages, but it seems that their pleas are falling on deaf ears because of the lack of coordination between the Centre and the state governments. For instance, the Centre had given instructions to all the states to develop nodal authorities and designate protocols for sending and receiving stranded migrants while following strict health protocols[9]. The process of registration for the same which was provided by various state portals for the stranded workers is very complicated. The forms that were being circulated were in either English or the local language of the state where the migrants are stranded but majority of the workers belonged to Hindi speaking states such as Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh[10]. There were also some portals that only provided forms for individuals and not for families. In addition to this, a lot of distressed migrant workers were complaining that they called the helpline numbers that were being circulated by the government but their calls were not being picked up most of the times.

“Shramik” trains have been introduced by the Railway ministry to ferry migrant workers across the states during the lockdown. There has been a lot of confusion regarding the payment of the ticket prices and the Central government was heavily criticized for taking ticket fairs from the poor migrant labourers. It had then been decided by the Railway ministry that eighty – five per cent of the ticket fare will be paid by the Centre and the rest of the fifteen per cent will be paid by the State governments for their respective state. On the contrary, there were a lot of instances were migrants were charged for their ticket fare by the authorities. For example, migrant workers travelling from Rajasthan’s Barmer to BapudhamMotihari in Bihar were charged six hundred and seventy-five rupees per worker by their contractor[11]. In some cases, the migrant labourers were also overcharged for their ticket fare. In Uttar Pradesh, those coming from Surat in Gujarat alleged that they were charged eight hundred rupees against a ticket with a printed cost of Rs six hundred and thirty rupees[12].

Discrimination against the migrant labourers

The Coronavirus has not only caused a disruption in the Indian public healthcare system, it has also brought attention to the glaring social inequality that has brought the poor to their knees. It is not a surprise that the lower strata of the society are bearing the brunt of the deadly epidemic but the apathy and lack of welfare schemes for the poor has caused the migrant workers a lot more than what they had expected. They were deserted by their employers during the lockdown and they had no choice but to take to the streets because they do not have a place to call their own. The destitute workers have a lot of mouths to feed but not a penny to pay for the food. The arduous journey that they had to undertake to return home, dealing with the loss of their loved ones who could not make it through the journey and their direct susceptibility to the virus itself has inflicted unbearable psychological trauma upon them. As a matter of fact, in a lot of places police brutality was unleashed upon them as well.

Several Indian laws including the National Disaster Management Act, the Interstate Migrant Worker Act and the Street Vendors Act as well as the existing wage laws which prove that workers are entitled to the payment of full and timely wages are being breached[13]. The migrant workers make up majority of the workforce in the informal sector because there is no portal for registration of informal workers which makes it difficult to estimate the total number of internal migrants in India[14].

According to the survey conducted by Jan Sahas, an NGO sixty – six per cent of the respondents were apprehensive of sustaining themselves for more than a week, given the lockdown[15] due to hunger. Infact, this report also showed that the financial assistance that was to be provided under the Building and Construction Workers Act was not available to ninety – four per cent of the workers who participated in this survey due to lack of documentation which was required for the same[16].

It has been time and again pointed out that there is no social security for migrant workers with respect to the healthcare, wages and working hours. The existing labour laws are inflexible and do not protect vulnerable workers from exploitation by the contractors due to lack of implementation. This has reflected in the acute impoverishment of the migrant workers. Infact, the recent relaxation in labour laws that have been approved by various states such as Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh and put a blanket exemption on corporates and employers from various obligations under the labour laws. Instead of using the lockdown as an opportunity to empower labourers by amending the labour laws, draconian measures are being taken to change the law in favour of the employers and the corporates which would deteriorate the conditions of the migrant workers even more if not less.

Therefore, in light of all the above-mentioned problems that are being faced by the migrant labourers, there is a dire need for introducing policies and welfare schemes that protect the migrant workers from exploitation by their employers and from the society as well so that they do not have to depend on others to sustain themselves.