COVID-19 lockdown: Informal workers most affected, survey recommends Rs 21,000 cr relief

CUSHIONING INFORMAL WORKERS FROM LOCKDOWN

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Workers in the informal sector, particularly street vendors, construction workers, healthcare and gig economy workers are the most adversely impacted sections following the restrictions imposed to fight coronavirus. File Pic

Finding that measures taken to control the spread of coronavirus in Bengaluru had hit the informal workforce the hardest, a group of workers’ unions has recommended a slew of urgent measures to be taken by the state government, beginning with a Rs 21,000 crore plan to provide relief to such workers.

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The recommendation follows a survey they undertook among garment workers, street vendors, pourakarmikas, hospital workers, construction workers and gig economy workers.

The report recommends universal delivery of rations, serving cooked food on a daily basis, releasing Rs 14,000 for each household, prohibiting termination/retrenchment of employment, holding health camps and providing protective measures for frontline workers.

The report further recommends that a task force be formed to implement these measures.

The report, titledCOPING WITH COVID-19 PANDEMIC – An interim report into the health awareness, livelihood security and food security among workers in Bengaluru 23/03/2020’, can be accessed here.

It was prepared through a collaborative effort by the All India Central Council of Trade Unions, Karnataka (AICCTU), Karnataka Domestic Workers Rights Union, Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU), Savithri Bai Phule Mahila Sanghatane and concerned individuals.

The objective of the survey, conducted through 65 telephonic interviews on March 21 and 22, was to ensure that the adverse impact of the lockdown on marginalised communities in the city is mitigated.

The report works out models for delivery of food, rations and emergency relief (click here) to various sections of the poor, and estimates the cost of these measures at Rs 21,000 crore to cover 1.5 crore households across the state.

On the regulatory front, the report recommends that the government direct all companies to pay full salaries to its workers. Banks should be directed to postpone/waive loans and not charge interest. Schools, the report says, should be directed to not demand fees right now, and to also not hike the amount this year.

For domestic and garment workers, the report recommends protection of salaries, waiver of electricity and water bills for two months, rental assistance and direct financial assistance in the form of their existing basic salary.

Gig economy workers (Zomato, Urban Clap etc) should be recognised as employees and given a fixed salary, and healthcare and sanitation workers should be provided health insurance.

On the prevention front, the report recommends protective gear, free healthcare and increased wages for healthcare and sanitation workers. Besides calling for better public transport for these workers, the report recommends cleaning of slums and working class areas, and more information on helplines and hospitals.

To ensure food security, the report calls for universal allocation of food packets weekly at the doorstep, including rice/wheat/ragi, dals, oil, jaggery, garam masala and soap. For the poor not covered by the delivery scheme for whatever reason, the survey said, free/subsidised food should be provided thrice a day at mid-day meal kitchens, anganwadis, Indira canteens and shelter homes.

The government should reduce the price of fruit, eggs, meat and make them available through HOPCOMS, the report says. Ration cards should be distributed in a time-bound manner to those who are eligible but do not have them. 

The worst affected

The survey found that street vendors and gig economy workers are the most severely affected category after the BBMP banned street-vending (on March 9), and ordered closure of malls, schools, theatres and other public spaces (on March 13). Uncertainty loomed in the minds of monthly-wage workers as well, the survey found. Healthcare and sanitary workers were anxious about healthcare expenses and job loss in case they contract the virus.

As daily and weekly-wage earners had slightly different concerns when compared to workers who earned a regular monthly income, the report lists these separately:

Daily/weekly wage workers:

  • 87.5% of daily and weekly wage workers say their livelihoods have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. 
  • Rest expect their work to be hit sooner than later. 
  • All street vendors, food vendors, auto drivers and gig economy workers employed with companies such as Uber, Swiggy, Zomato and Urban Clap are severely affected. 
  • Incomes have fallen by 50-70 percent as compared to pre-coronavirus days. 
  • Workers are putting in longer hours, sometimes between 14 and 17 hours, not taking weekly offs, to make up for lost income. Still unable to reach earlier levels. 
  • Street vendors worst affected, with no income at all.

Monthly wage workers:

  • Only 13 percent of monthly wage workers said their livelihoods have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, but nearly 70 percent were anxious that they would soon be affected. 
  • None of the workers are permanent employees, whether they work in the private or government sector. Despite fears of getting infected, they believe they have no choice but to continue working.
  • Healthcare workers in the forefront of fighting the epidemic, anganwadi workers who ensure basic health and nutrition facilities among poor communities, and sanitation workers such as pourakarmikas, are most vulnerable. Their work involves high levels of contact with the general public, without personal protective equipment.
  • Monthly wage workers are most affected by the lack of public transport. Women in particular, who use the bus, are resorting to unsafe modes of transport.  
  • 91 percent of domestic workers interviewed said that most of their employers had not given them leave. In some cases, their workload had increased in this period.

Food insecurity

Food insecurity too was highest among the gig economy workers and street vendors. Although a section among the workers had access to the public distribution system through ration cards, most workers interviewed in the survey felt that accessibility to and affordability of food stuffs will get worse in the coming days.

  • Nearly 54% of respondents said prices of vegetables had increased; 48% said prices of essential groceries such as cereals had increased; 39% said prices of meat had increased. 
  • 71% had ration cards but they were not sure if they will continue to get their rations in the immediate future. 
  • 29% had no ration card, leaving them more vulnerable. 
  • As many as 40% had decreased their consumption; 44% faced an increase in expenditure. Most were concerned about a future increase in prices even as incomes remained stagnant, or worse, fell. 
  • Autorickshaw and cab drivers, who were dependent on road-side food stalls for their daily food needs, were affected. 
  • With fears of avian flu coupled with coronavirus, some families stopped consumption of meat, rendering their nutritional status more precarious.
  • In some localities, even stores selling essential commodities were shut; in some others, panic buying left many shops empty. For workers with limited incomes, buying supplies in large quantities has never been feasible. Stocking up is hardly an option.

Awareness and prevention

The survey found that there was insufficient dissemination of information regarding coronavirus among the interviewed workers, especially  about symptoms, prevention and measures to be taken to stem the disease; and that there were no outreach programmes by the state to disseminate information in low-income localities that lack sanitation facilities.

The caller tune on mobile phones, the report acknowledges, had helped people. But despite fear of contracting the disease, these informal sector workers were continuing to work for fear of losing their incomes and their jobs, the report notes.

  • 73% knew some of the symptoms of COVID-19. No respondent mentioned the possibility of being asymptomatic but transmitting it to others.
  • 87% mentioned some preventive methods, but no respondent mentioned self-quarantine or home isolation.
  • Masks were the most cited measure for prevention, but not the proper use, handling and disposal of masks. They also did not mention the difference between single and multi-use masks; some used handkerchiefs to protect themselves. Sanitisers and handwash were other popular measures.
  • 94% said that no personnel from the state had reached out to them to provide information on dos and don’ts in crowded, poorly-serviced residential localities.
  • While some garment factories had begun screening workers for any COVID-19 symptoms, and apartments were asking their workers to use hand sanitisers before entry, almost all private and government sector employers had not provided any protective equipment for their employees.
  • Most cited TV, Whatsapp and acquaintances as sources of information.
  • 63% expressed concern about getting infected while at work or travelling to work. Most said they had no choice but to go to work.
  • While 67% of the respondents said they knew what to do if they or their family members developed symptoms, there was no clear knowledge about which specific hospitals or healthcare officials to approach. Very few mentioned the helpline started by the Karnataka government as a first point of contact.
  • Healthcare and sanitation workers and contract employees whose work involves exposure to the virus, lamented that employers had not provided them with safety gear. And so, they are forced to buy on their own to protect themselves and their families. Further, they are all worried of what will become of their families if they were to fall ill due to their dangerous working conditions.
  • Those who travelled in public transport were unequivocal about the continued need for buses but said they were concerned about being infected during travel. Increased frequencies of buses and more buses on the roads is likely to help people maintain the necessary social distance.
  • Interviewees also raised concerns around too many people having to access limited sanitation facilities such as public toilets and baths, that can increase the risk of exposure and contraction.
  • Demands included providing free medical treatment in the eventuality of symptoms, health insurance to vulnerable workers, regular cleaning of public spaces and providing protective equipment such as masks.
  • Importantly, demands also included regulating prices and ensuring easy access to masks, hand sanitisers, hand wash and gloves. There was also a demand for ensuring fake products of such items don’t flood the market.
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About Bhanutej N 2 Articles
Bhanutej N is a Bengaluru-based journalist.

1 Comment

  1. Good Report. Should have highlighted the Small businesses and lakhs of petty shops owners plight of paying EMIs Rents livelihood. Lower Middle class are the worst affected without any relief from anyside.

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