By Renu Yadav
COVID-19 pandemic is a global health crisis that has put the entire world economy at a halt. How this pandemic is affecting the migrant economy cannot be ignored or side-lined. In India too, the COVID-19 impact has gone beyond public health to social and economic issues, especially for migrant workers.
The spread of the virus from Wuhan, China started in January, and from that time onwards, most countries have taken strict measures to contain it. To tackle a virus that is of new origin and that can mutate, it is understandable that the Indian government decided to implement lockdown measures, social distancing, and border closures. However, did the leader-centric approach keep in mind the lockdown implications on the lives of migrant, underprivileged, or marginalised groups of the country?
Impact on migrant workers abroad
As mentioned by the lead economist of the World Bank, millions of Indian migrant workers in Gulf countries are facing a crisis due to COVID-19 and the fall of oil price(1). The COVID-19 pandemic will produce unprecedented effects on the migrant economy. Many workers are living under unhygienic conditions and they are not able to return home due to travel restrictions imposed by the Gulf countries. Amnesty International along with some other organisations have raised a concern about the public health risk of migrant workers by mentioning very common issues such as overcrowded accommodation that compromises social distancing norms. Not only this, considering most of the businesses are shut down because of social distancing and countrywide lockdowns, most of the migrant workers are jobless or looking for a job or stranded in places. They lack income to support food and basic amenities. Some companies have even stopped paying salaries to the foreign workers raising concerns over their basic survival in a foreign land. Most of the companies working in the oil and gas sector have defied the strict government guidelines of staying at home and following the quarantine protocols by running the production at the normal race which has put many migrant workers’ lives at risk amidst this pandemic(2). While these countries have announced a financial package to protect their economies, the activists have brought the fact in limelight that least has been done for migrant workers in terms of financial help. This can be due to the corrupt system which is driven by the discrimination against foreign workers.
Considering the above facts, it is very evident that the future of abroad migrant workers is very uncertain. Also, due to the financial constraint caused by the situation, the Indian government has limited ability to provide support to these workers.
Impact on migrant workers within India
In India, most of the lowest paying jobs are in sectors like construction, hospitality, textiles, and domestic workers. 90% of the workforce comprises the informal or ‘unorganised’ sector of the economy, and migrant workers are a big part of it. According to the World Bank, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, India’s 40 million migrant workers are facing the major brunt of the situation(3). This pandemic has created major issues like starvation, being stranded away from the family, and loss of jobs which in turn will increase the risk of modern slavery a thousand- fold. First, there will be an increased risk of enslavement due to the increased supply of workers who are at risk of exploitation. Second, not to forget the disruption of education due to COVID-19, most of the children will be forced out of school to make a living to sustain their families. A huge number of children will be trafficked across borders where they will get paid a meagre salary and might also suffer physical, emotional, and sexual violence. Not only are the migrants at high risk of the above issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic but also are victims of social discrimination.
These populations are considered vulnerable for a reason. They live in slums where social distancing is compromised, and access to masks and sanitiser is a luxury, which in turn puts them at more risk of COVID-19. The unfortunate reality is that their situation does not only put this group at COVID-19 risk but also at the next big ‘hunger pandemic’. The International Labour Organization has predicted that around 400 million workers will fall into poverty as a result of the loss of job.
One month into lockdown and miseries of the migrant workers were unending. Reports have shown that thousands of workers had to travel long distances by foot to escape the suffering of being stranded in cities without food and water. Immediate matters of concern for this population are food, shelter, healthcare, loss of job, survival of family, anxiety, and fear etc. Many of the workers faced police brutality and at least 22 died on the way back home(4). The announcement of lockdown by Indian government did not consider any transport, financial or safety measures for this vulnerable group of population.
To tackle the issue of stranded workers in different states, the government took an initiative to send them home by running over 4000 ‘Shramik Special Trains’. Over 40 Lakh (45,00,000) migrant workers were ferried to their hometowns(5). However, the concepts of ‘social distancing’ were compromised during the process, and poor management of the government resulted in delays of the special trains, shortage of food and water. The first special train to transfer migrant workers to their homes started on 9th May 2020. The ‘total lockdown’ was implemented across the country on 23rd March 2020. The government took into consideration the plight of migrant workers after a delay of a month and a half. It clearly shows that the government failed to incorporate strategies to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 lockdown on the migrant population at the very beginning of the lockdown. Not only the late response has created havoc amongst the migrants, but also a surge in COVID-19 cases has been seen just after the initiative was implemented.
What is expected from the governance?
As India has started to relax the lockdown restrictions, some of the migrant population has started going back to the places they work. In the last few days, more than 8000 labourers have returned to Pune after the post-COVID lockdown has been eased(6). Proper monitoring over the migration status is needed. Going forward, the government should keep a few points in mind while tackling migrant or vulnerable populations while facing such pandemic. The first thing to consider is not to have the bureaucratic approach but to use the humanitarian approach which is based on the view that all human beings deserve respect and dignity and should be treated as such. The government failed miserably in implementing this when the news of disinfectant spraying on migrant workers was making headlines across the media channels. It was an inhumane act that compromised the notion of equality in the social realm.
Secondly, state and central authorities should ensure that returnees do not face the stigma and discrimination because of their migration status and prevent labelling them as ‘carriers’ of the disease. This should be considered as an important step to avoid the feeling of ‘not belonging’.
This pandemic has unearthed mistakes which should not be repeated in the future. Building a fair and effective labour governance system for the workers is an urgent need of the hour. The government should also provide them with proper communication and counselling for their job search in their respective areas and skill set after their return to home or workplace. Not to forget continuous health care facilities with affordable cost and quality of care to be provided to the migrant workers and their families.
To bring back the economy on track using Atma Nirbhar Bharat Approach of Hon’ble Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it is also mandatory to take measures to address the inequality issue and to ensure the dignity of migrant workers. This can be achieved with a set of changes in the policy reforms and legal frameworks that can be drawn from the global standards.
The twisting and churning of Indian migrant economy by COVID-19 pandemic due to lockdown measures has exposed the major gaps in the economy and development of the country. Hence, I think strategic and planned policy changes in the healthcare system, labour law, and upholding the social factors amidst this pandemic can help us win this COVID-19 battle on all fronts.
Cover photograph: The Indian Lockdown Migration – IV (PB1_4728). ©️ All rights reserved. By Paramvir Singh Bhogal.
Illustrations by Dhrupadi Ghosh
1. Covid-19 will have unprecedented effect on migrant economy: Dilip Ratha, World Bank
2. COVID-19 Impact: Migrant Indian Workers Struggle In Gulf Countries
3. Lockdown in India has impacted 40 million internal migrants: World Bank
4. What a lockdown means when home is hundreds of miles away
5. 3,060 Special Trains Ferried Around 40 Lakh Migrants Since May 1: Railways
6. Pune: Migrant workers return with business reopening post-COVID lockdown
About the Author:
Renu Yadav is a former Research Officer at Ayushman Bharat Scheme, National Health Authority, New Delhi. She has a degree in Master of Public Health (MPH) from the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom. She is a BITS Pilani, India alumnus with Masters’ in pharmaceutical sciences. She has five years of work experience in the Healthcare industry with a focus on Digital Health, Public health, and Policy implementation. She has worked with a multi-national company as Business Analyst on providing technology-oriented healthcare solutions to big pharma and hospitals. She has varied research interests related to mother and child health, economic aspects of modern healthcare, and global health policy.