Jobless and forced to return home, unorganised workers ask: Who will compensate for loss of income?

A deserted road near Chennai's Egmore Railway Station.

Mehboob Alam, 45, a daily wager, who loads and unloads containers at a dry port in Ludhiana, is without a job for the last 10 days. Containers have stopped moving in and out of the city since the Covid-19 disease slowly spread across the country over the last two months. Shanker Mandal, 30, and Harmeshwar Rai, in his 30s, are among the dozen others working in Alam’s group, who no longer get paid Rs 500 a day.

“We had some savings, but we don’t know how we will survive in April. No job means no income for daily wagers. Will the government support us?” ask Mandal and Rai. Punjab on Sunday finally announced it would pay construction workers Rs 3,000 a month. The dry port workers may have to wait since the assistance is only for construction workers registered with the state.

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But for unorganised workers across many states, the situation isn’t getting any better. In fact, contractors and employers in states with large migrant worker population, the worries are bigger. Desh Rattan, 59, who owns and runs a restaurant for three decades at Parade Ground in Jammu, downed the shutters last Tuesday, and asked his 10 workers to return home. “When authorities ask me to shut down, what option do I have,” he said.

Migrant workers stranded outside a railway station in Chennai. (Express photo)

Rattan is more worried that the workers, including cooks, may not return from their native places in Bihar and Nepal when normalcy is restored. “I have given them a salary advance of a month or two. But I am not sure if they will return at all,” he said.

India’s unorganised workers make up 82.7 per cent or 39.14 crores of the total 47.41 crore estimated employed persons, according to last NSSO Employment and Unemployment Survey, 2011-12. The contribution of the unorganised or informal sector to the economy, according to a National Statistical Commission report of 2012, varies between 48 per cent and 56.4 per cent.

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“Timely financial support will ensure they do not return home in large numbers, and this will play a key role in arresting the spread of the virus and the disease,” said Pronab Sen, former Chief Statistician of India.

While the Central government has not yet announced any financial package for unorganised sector workers, Kerala took the lead, followed by Uttar Pradesh last week, and Punjab and Uttarakhand, on Sunday.

Migrant workers in Kolkata attempt to go to Guwahati. (Express photo by Shashi Ghosh)

In Maharashtra, two of the state’s and India’s most industrialised cities, Mumbai and Pune, were witness to an exodus of thousands of workers, including autorickshaw and taxi drivers, to their homes in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar last week. “Taxi drivers are struggling to earn enough to fetch food for the day,” said AL Quadros, union leader of Mumbai Taximen Association, pointing out that less than 8,000 of the 20,000 taxies plied in the city last week, with many drivers returning to their hometowns.

It is not just the kaali-peelis (black and yellow taxis), but also app-based cab aggregations whose business has been hit. For Sanjay Kumar Mishra, 45, who is associated with Ola, the biggest worry is to pay the expenses of his son, who is preparing for the civil services in Delhi. “The trips are down 50 per cent,” he said. For Uber driver, Pradeep Das, the number of trips a day are down to three or less from an average 10.

Similarly, of the 2.5 lakh auto drivers with badges, many have left for their hometowns. “Drivers who have to pay monthly instalment to pay to banks have stayed on,” said Shashank Rao, Union leader of the auto-rickshaw association.

Labour department officials in Maharashtra said the lockdown and closure of private establishments impacted the daily wagers, especially in the construction sector, adversely. “There are 21 lakh registered construction workers in the state, with over 25 per cent in Mumbai. Many have preferred to return to their homes. We do not know the numbers though,” the official said.

The sharp and sudden demand destruction is not restricted to transport and construction, but is quite pervasive, in the services sector. Not just construction workers, those employed as security guards, and for cleaning and maintenance services in malls and commercial establishments, hotels and restaurants, are staring not just at income loss, but also uncertainty over how long this will last.

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Kolkata is also under lockdown in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. (Express photo/Shashi Ghosh)

In Mumbai alone, there are about 25,000 security guards who secure construction sites, malls and corporate offices among other sites. “Currently, there is work for only half of them. We have asked security agencies to keep rotating their staff so that everyone is employed for at least few days a week,” said Vithal Satpute, owner of Force Security. But another owner of a security agency, who did not wish to be named, said at least 50-60 per cent have been deprived of their incomes.

In Chennai, the ubiquitous tea shop has been reporting a decline in sales for the past week or so. T T Sukumaran, who owns a tea shop with 14 workers, and also represents a tea shop owners’ association, said the real crisis may be starting this week. While an average tea shop employs 3-5 workers including a tea master, they are paid wages of Rs 400-800 a day. “They are all daily wage labourers. We do not send them back but if owners struggle to pay them regularly, they find another place to work or return to native villages in Tamil Nadu or northern states to come back later,” Sukumaran said.

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In Bengaluru, catering and food services including restaurants along with transport services like airport taxis and Ola, Uber services have been among the worst hit due to measures of social distancing and isolation over the past 10 days. “Many of my staff have returned to their villages. The demand for food is down 85 percent. We are making only basic stuff now,'” says Shivaramaiah, who runs a small, low-cost kitchen that caters to employees in the IT sector and other services in central Bengaluru.

Many returned to their homes from other states too. Ayub Ali, 25, who earned Rs 800 a day as a construction worker in Malapuram district in Kerala, got back to his home in Chirang district, Assam, last week. “We are a group of 4-5 who do not work for any contractor or company. We get jobs on our own. I do not know how long I will have to sit at home,” he said.

Another large segment of unorganised workers are those who are vendors on the street. Renu Devi, 70, who has lost her husband and son, and earns her living by selling mosambi juice near Morabadi Maidan, said her sales were down 80 per cent. “Schools, colleges and universities are shut. I used to earn Rs 500 a day, now I earn only Rs 50-100. I cannot afford to stay in the business,” she said.

When businesses such as these are shut, small vendors like Renu Devi, can potentially get out of business forever, since they can get into a debt trap. “I have to pay the fruit vendor, but I don’t have money. It is up to god now…,” she said, wondering, who will survive the coming days.