No end of woes for unorganised sector labour as 3rd wave peaks; assurance in abundance but actions too little

Third wave of COVID has depressed labour market in India. Market remains weak in general and labour market in particular. Jobs for daily wagers are significantly reduced, and many have lost their jobs

Migrant workers struggle to shake off COVID-19 disruption (Representative Image)
Migrant workers struggle to shake off COVID-19 disruption (Representative Image)

Dr Gyan Pathak

The third wave of COVID-19 has depressed the labour market in India. The first two weeks of the new year witnessed more stringent containment measures in several states and metropolis in the country resulting in closures of many economic activities, and this trend is most likely to continue in the coming weeks as the third waves advances to its peak. Market remains weak in general and labour market in particular. Jobs for daily wagers are significantly reduced, and many have lost their jobs.

It is in this scenario, many of the migrant labours have actually left for their home states from the cities where they have been working. Some reports in media have termed it “mass exodus” which has been dismissed as “untrue” by the Union Ministry of Labour only two days ago.

The statement of the Union Ministry of Labour came a day after a review meeting of the prevailing situation due to pandemic held on January 12 which was chaired by Sunil Barthwal, Secretary of the Union Ministry of Labour in which states and UTs had also participated. The meeting also reviewed the governments’ preparedness in respect of workers in general and migrant workers in particular. Details of the preparedness are still awaited, while the rebuttal of the reports of “mass exodus of migrant workers” has been widely reported in the media.

The assurance given to the country that the Centre as well as state governments were keeping a close watch on the scenario of “exodus of workers” and were fully prepared to deal with any situation, has also been widely reported. It is another matter that only a selected or privileged few might be knowing what “fully prepared” means and how a worker losing job and livelihood may access this government’s “fully prepared” state. The poor suffering workers, particularly daily wagers, do not have any clue to and knowledge of taking benefit from it.

What was actually claimed and assured were in fact only play of words, they are rhetoric, not reality on the ground, or else it would have been known by all, especially the workers who have been losing jobs, or who have been getting benefits from the government’s schemes.

The review meeting was attended on virtual mode by Additional chief secretaries, principal secretaries, secretaries of state labour departments and labour commissioners of all the states/UTs, as well as officers of the Ministry of Railways and Department of Food and Public Distribution participated in the meeting, but the outcome was far short of expectation of the labour force.

The statement of the Union Ministry of Labour was merely of the technical nature. The statement is technically correct that the state governments informed that barring night curfews and weekend curfews at a few places where COVID cases are rising, there were no restrictions on construction activities, business activities, running of shops and industrial activities. They may be right that there were “no restriction”, however, it does not mean that business, constructions and industrial activities were also running normally. It is strange that the high level review meeting did not actually reviewed the “actual state of the labour market or labour engagement situation” on the ground.

How self-contradictory the statement of the Union Ministry of Labour was can be seen in this sentence itself “As on the day of review, the business situation is normal throughout the country except 50 per cent restrictions on workforce at some places.” If there is restriction, then how can situation be normal? Moreover, everybody knows that “business situation is not normal in the country”. Therefore claiming the business situation normal is just misleading the country only because government is not ready to admit the adverse impact on the labour market and workforce, or else they will have to take appropriate remedial actions.

As for the labour movement, the review meeting has taken it too superficially. Labour movement actually means labour force going into and out of jobs. However, for the migrant workers, it took the view that labour movement means a labour force leaving his workstation for his hometown. The statement thus said, “There is no report of unusual movement of migrant workers owing to the limited restrictions imposed by the governments.” This does not give the real picture of “labour movement” since it does not include workforce going out of jobs and remaining unemployed without leaving workstation, and for which there is almost no preparedness either on the part of the Centre or the states/UTs.

Workforce going out of jobs and losing livelihoods need either job or social security. On both counts, India and its states are ill prepared, a fact that is irrefutable. It is true that "some state governments have already made plans for distributing dry ration to the needy labourers, if required," as the statement has said, but it reads well only in paper and is ill implemented on the ground level because of lack of documents such as registration of the government portal which has reached only little over 21 crore, and lack of ration cards to hundreds of millions across states. We have a workforce of about 500 million, and millions of them have no jobs. Millions are yet to be registered for financial or other assistance or social security. Though 21 Monitoring Centres have been activated across the country and toll-free helplines have been opened by the states, we still need to strengthen our mechanism to help all needy workers as quick as possible, especially in view of the rising third wave of COVID-19.

(IPA Service)

(Views are personal)

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