When the pandemic struck in 2020, it triggered a national lockdown that brought all economic activity across the country to a halt. Radha (name changed), a garment worker in Bengaluru, was at an absolute loss when her factory shut down from March to June. For her, the current lockdown is a chilling reminder of 2020.
“Last year, I pledged whatever gold I had, to pay the rent. What will I do this year?” she wonders. Her landlord has not increased the rent, but even the water and electric bills are worrisome. Her husband, also an informal worker, has had no job since April this year. Last year, he at least had a contract for a security job at a bank. Even the government’s proposed relief package won’t apply to them.
Tale of two lockdowns
In the 68-day lockdown starting 24, March 2020, the extent of misery faced by migrant workers went unquantified, thanks to the Centre’s “it is not feasible to keep record/data of migrant labour workforce”. According to Indiaspend, 11.4 million migrants were displaced, and 971 of them died on their journey back to their home states, of non-COVID causes.
A report by Azim Premji University’s Centre for Sustainable Employment, prepared after interviewing 5000 workers across India, found that 66% of the interviewees had lost their jobs. 47% households had no money left to afford even a week’s worth of essentials, which translated to 77% of them cutting down their daily food portions. As for government relief only 77% and 49% of the households received free rations and cash transfers, respectively. That was in the first lockdown.
Exactly one year and one month later, Karnataka imposed a State-wide lockdown on April 27, which is expected to go on till June 7. This time around, the government has permitted push-cash vending through the day, as opposed to the stricter lockdown in 2020. Inter-state travel is also allowed. But there is little confidence among the working class.
“I am not well read, I do not know to how register myself for the schemes” says Radha, who get no benefit from government except for rations earmarked for families below the poverty line. She was able to feed her family of four solely from the ration provided by the government in 2020, she admits. Two more workers including Radha pointed out that last month, they received only 2 kgs of rice in the place of the usual 4 kgs. When she complained, the PDS shop owner convinced her that everyone was receiving the same quantity.
Radha says she has half a mind to return to her village in Maddur, but she does not want to uproot her kids and their schooling. “I keep telling myself to give it a few months and it will get better, but to no avail” she said.
The government‘s Rs.1,600 crore relief package announced last year providing relief for dhobis (washermen), taxi and cab drivers, among others was riddled with logistical loopholes. While some waited months before they received aid, several others went without it. Venkatesh, who has been a dhobi for the last 25 years said he received no benefit as he had failed to produce a caste and income certificate.
B P Shivamurthy, who I had spoken to last year, only received the relief in January, 2021, nearly seven months after it was announced. He says his business is worse off this year, which has him worried about the impending rent. Shivamurthy admits that for over a year now, they have lived with fewer wages and with constant anticipation of job loss.
This time around, the State government has announced Rs.3,000 to auto/taxi drivers, artists and construction labourers. Workers in the unorganised sector are to receive Rs.2,000. Flower and fruit growers also stand to get financial assistance up to Rs. 10,000 per hectare, while their loan repayments have been deferred until July 31.
Pushpa S, a single mother and a domestic worker of 20 years, has been struggling to get her aadhar and ration cards linked, in order to receive the rations. Thankfully for her, the current package acknowledges these hurdles and has assured free rations for all BPL households with or without ration cards.
Appanna from the All India Central Council of Trade Unions, Karnataka, pointed out that the breadwinners in several households are succumbing to COVID-19, and that their families are without any financial support. Relief should reach these families without bureaucratic and procedural delays, he said. Appanna recommended that the government prioritise vaccination for workers and prevent disadvantage of the digital divide.
Different year, same story?
A June 2020 report by the Domestic Workers Rights Union (DWRU), Bruhat Bangalore Gruhakarmikara Sangha and Mangelasa Kaarmikara Union presented a list of demands for the government and municipal corporation advisories. This included registration of domestic workers under the Department of Labour and social security. It also recommended pension support for women aged over 50 years and according the workers the right to bargain collectively.
DWRU’s Geeta Menon says none of the demands have been met. According to her, last year there was an urgency among domestic workers to get registered in the Labour Department because they saw construction workers registering with the Karnataka’s Building and Construction Workers’ Welfare Fund, to receive ration kits. “If they had at least implemented a full-scale registration, domestic workers could have got benefits this year” says Geeta. They are hopeful that the recent blanket aid promised to workers in the unorganised sector might help the unregistered domestic workers as well.
Appanna and Geeta criticised the absorption of Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (a vital part of the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008) by the flagship Ayushman Bharat’s PM Jan Aarogya Yojana. The former granted a coverage of Rs.30,000 against primary hospitalisation, while Ayushman Bharat only covers secondary and tertiary hospitalisation.
This would mean that the workers have to bear the expenses of tests, etc. leading up to the surgery. Voicing concerns of the Union’s women, Geeta says they will benefit more from cashless Outpatient Department (OPD) services than from insurance policies.
Fearing a lockdown situation akin to last year’s, Appanna says several labourers had left for their hometowns. Yeswanthpur and Majestic railway stations were flocked by labourers who were leaving for their native towns during the beginning of this lockdown. Whereas most of them were not affected directly by the disease last year, the same cannot be said now.
Troubles came in battalions
Geeta believes that the struggles have only intensified this year, with loss of additional or alternative jobs for domestic workers. Unlike last year, there is also no support from employers in terms of ration or a months’ salary, as they too claim to be affected by the crisis. In fact, there is more hostility and discrimination as the rates of infection rise, she says.
She says for the workers, their rent worries have taken a backseat; as they scramble to remain uninfected. “None of the demands made are obsolete, if anything, they have become more pertinent this year” Geeta adds. The absence of fee waivers for educational support has also caused workers to withdraw their children from education. This means that children, especially girls, will start working early. Geeta claims this was not as extensive in 2020 as it is now.
The implementation of labour reforms could make life more difficult for the workers, say labour lawyers. Maitreyi Krishnan, advocate and state committee member of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions, describes the reforms as exploitative and an active effort to deprive workers of their rights. They threaten unionisation, permit easier retrenchment, termination and extensive contractualisation of labour.
Workers’ demand for recognition of unions, assurance of living wages and social security has fallen on the deaf ears, says Maitreyi. The Karnataka government is yet to formulate the rules, but nobody is optimistic that there will be a change of heart on its part.
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