Labour Day is typically meant to highlight the protection of worker rights. This year, it came at a time when labourers are struggling to survive and their rights need protection more than ever. The heart-rending death of 16 workers who were sleeping on rail tracks, exhausted during their 700 km walk to home highlights the plight of workers today. In the US, more than 33 million people have lost their jobs in the past 7 weeks. This is already more than the loss in employment seen in the two years of the global financial crisis.
Back home, where workers have little social security, CMIE data suggests that more than a hundred million workers have lost employment, a vast majority from the unorganised sector. The figure is likely to be even larger given that it would be difficult to capture the employment status of the migrating workers. Workers are desperate. Not only have they lost their meagre income, but now their only options are to risk contracting COVID-19 or facing starvation. So, many of them set out to walk hundreds if not thousands of kilometres to return to their villages, carrying their few belongings, children on their shoulders and no food in their bellies. Some have already perished on the way. In Karnataka, they were not even being allowed to go back home, in a controversy that sparked allegations of bonded labour, forcing the government to quickly take a U-turn.
The pandemic has highlighted the real working and living conditions of most workers. The unfolding crisis does make one stop and wonder – how can this be the situation of most Indian workers, 70 years after independence? True, conditions are not what they were in 1947. There is more education and better health facilities. Child mortality has dropped and longevity has increased. Many of the poor own mobile phones and wear chappals. Electricity and tapped water have reached many villages. But this is expected in an economy where GDP has grown by 32.2 times and per capita income by 8.2 times since 1950, as some fruits of development trickle down to some of the marginalised.
Workers Suffer Indignity
What is missing though is a dignified life which should be the right of every citizen in a democratic country. The ruling class often ignores this and argues that the marginal improvement in the material conditions of many workers is enough. They even imply that the workers ought to be grateful for this slight betterment and portray it as the success of the prevailing unequal economic system. In the present ruling economic ideology, equity is not high on the agenda. The ruling elites thrive on the poor working and living condition of labour for their lifestyle and profits. Consequently, neither the state nor the businesses grant the workers their rights. For instance, large numbers do not get a minimum wage or social security or protective gear at worksites. They do not have security of employment, often wages are not paid in time, muster rolls are fudged, there is no
entitlement to leave, etc. Given their low wages, they are forced to live in squalid conditions with many sharing a small room in a slum. Water is scarce and drinking water more so. Access to clean toilets is limited and disease spreads. There is lack of civic amenities like sewage. Their children are often deprived of schools and playgrounds.
With COVID-19 as an excuse, state after state is reducing what little security was available to workers by eliminating or diluting various laws so as to favour businesses. In Uttar Pradesh, at least 14 labour laws like the Minimum Wages Act and Industrial Disputes Act are being suspended for three years in an effort to attract capital. Similar is the case with MP and Gujarat. The plea is that this is needed to revive economic activity. The chief minister of MP has said that this would lead to new investment in the state. Whether or not new investment will come at this time when businesses are unable to start or they face a situation of low capacity utilisation, what this would ensure is competition among states to relax and eliminate labour laws. Thus, the poor working conditions of labour will deteriorate further.
In India, workers are characterised as either organised or unorganised. Those in the former category work in larger businesses and have some formal rights (which are being diluted further) but often they find it difficult to enforce them. Increasingly the big and medium businesses are employing contract labour provided by contractors from the unorganised sector, rather than permanent workers. Businesses pay the contractors who then pay workers a part of the payment they receive. So, businesses claim that they are paying the minimum wage but the workers don’t get it. When even the minimum wage is inadequate for a dignified life, what the workers receive cannot ensure a civilised existence.
Most workers in the cities, where land prices and rents are high, are forced to live in slums mushrooming on vacant land or in urbanised villages with rudimentary facilities and massive overcrowding. Dharavi is an example of this. The organised sector workers have greater social security and receive a higher wage but even that is inadequate for a civilised life. The unorganised sector acts as a reserve army of labour keeping wages low in the organised sector also. Consequently, large numbers of the organised sector workers also live in slums like their comrades from the unorganised sector.
Pandemic Highlights the Workers’ Conditions
SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, spreads rapidly. Since neither a medicine nor a vaccine against it is available, a lockdown of the population is essential to slow its spread. But lockdown requires isolation and sanitation, which are not possible in congested areas in slums. Frequent washing of hands is required but how is that possible without clean water or soap? So, the miserable living conditions of a large number of workers have been sharply highlighted. If 5-10 people live in a room, how is isolation 24×7 feasible? Without physical isolation, the disease is bound to spread, as is the case in Dharavi. Further, they do not have the money to get tested or go to a hospital for treatment, so it festers. They are also poorly nourished so their resistance to the disease is less. They often have co-morbidities which makes them more susceptible to the disease.
A lockdown requires businesses to close and lay off workers or not pay them wages. This again highlights the insecure working conditions of workers. The workers have small incomes and little savings so they cannot stock up on essentials of life to survive weeks of lockdown. They, and if their family is with them, start to starve unless someone provides them with food. So, while a lockdown works for the middle classes and the well-off sections, it is next to impossible for the poor unless the state steps in and makes arrangements. There has to be free testing and hospitalisation, provision of essentials of life and clean water wherever the workers are. Furthermore, slums need to be decongested and made suitable for living with at least minimum facilities.
Not Just the Aurangabad Accident, 383 People Have Died Due to the Punitive Lockdown
From road and rail accidents to starvation, denial of medical care, police brutality, exhaustion and suicides, there have been hundreds of reported non-corona virus deaths. On 8th May, 16 migrant workers were crushed to death by a goods train when they were attempting to make their way to Aurangabad railway station with the hope of catching a train to their homes in Madhya Pradesh. They were walking along the railway track to avoid being thrashed by the police on the roads and with the knowledge that trains aren’t running. After walking for several hours, the workers were exhausted. They sat down to rest and fell asleep. An oncoming goods train ran over them at around 5.20 am. The migrants worked at a private steel company in Jalna in Maharashtra and had not been paid since the first lockdown began on March 24. Given the desperate situation and not knowing when they could work again, they wanted to get back home to be with their families and decided to walk in the hope of finding a train
In another incident on Saturday night, at least five migrant labourers were killed and 13 others injured
when a truck in which they were travelling overturned in Madhya Pradesh’s Narsinghpur district. The incident took place in Patha village in Narsinghpur. Around 18 labourers were travelling in a truck carrying mangoes from Telangana’s Hyderabad city to Agra in Uttar Pradesh. The workers killed in these two accidents are not the only people to have lost their lives during the lockdown due to reasons other than COVID-19.
In fact, according to researchers Thejesh G.N., Kanika Sharma and Aman, till Saturday, 378 people had died since the lockdown was imposed due to reasons other than the disease. Of them, 69 people died in rail or road accidents while walking to their homes – the only mode of travel available as public transport had been suspended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, which gave notice of only four hours before the first lockdown came into effect. Compiling information from news reports, the database put together by the group, which describes itself as “freelance scholars and student volunteers interested in action-oriented research, socio-economic rights and related issues”, shows that a large number of people have died due to reasons such as road accidents while walking back to their homes, starvation, denial of medical care, police brutality, exhaustion, suicides – all consequences of the lockdown. The database is updated every day and is available here.
The compilation began as a Twitter thread by Sharma on March 29. “Immediately after the lockdown, we began seeing a lot of reports of deaths. People dying while walking back home, women dying due to denial of health care. These deaths were very distressing,” Sharma, who is studying for a PhD in Sociology at Emory University
in Atlanta in the United States of America, told The Wire According to their compilation, the death of the 16 migrant workers in Aurangabad was the largest number of people killed in a single incident. On March 28, a few days after the lockdown, eight migrants returning home were killed in a road accident in Karnataka’s Raichur.
The largest number of reported non-coronavirus deaths (83) so far have been due to suicides for reasons such as fear of infection, alcohol withdrawal symptoms and due to loss of job. A large number of people have also died due to starvation, denial of medical care and exhaustion while walking home or queuing for ration or money. To put the information together, the researchers have set up Google alerts in different languages, including Kannada, Marathi, Odia, Telugu, Bengali, Hindi and English. “We do Google searches and people have also been sending reports to us. We verify them and volunteers help us translate them,” Sharma said.
The researchers only take into account those deaths which have been reported by ‘credible’ sources of news. “There are limitations. We can’t do ground verification. We would also be missing a lot of deaths. Local media reports may not be reaching us. Also, a lot doesn’t get reported,” she said. An 80-year-old man who lived near a bus stop in Tamil Nadu and was dependent on travellers for food died after the lockdown was imposed and there were no travellers. A 12-year-old girl died due to exhaustion after walking 100 kilometres with her parents who had left for home after the lockdown was extended for the first time.