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Migrant labourers hit by lockdown, government unpreparedness

May 4, 2020

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Migrant labourers hit by lockdown, government unpreparedness

Bengaluru: Owing to the introduction and extension of the nationwide lockdown to avoid the spread of novel Coronavirus, COVID-19, migrant workers are facing extreme distress as they fail to access government programmes and have almost no savings.

A survey carried out by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), a network of researchers, spoke to over 11,000 migrants from Maharashtra, Delhi, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, and Jharkhand, from March 27 after the lockdown came into place on March 25. The data, which is updated till April 13, revealed that close to 96% of migrant workers had not received rations from the government, while another 70% had not received any cooked food.

Despite directives on daily wages by the government, 89% had not been paid by their employers at all during the lockdown. Most of them have been paid only till March 22 and were asked to return only post the lockdown was lifted.

migrant exodus was visible across major cities in India, such as New Delhi and Mumbai, while also dealing with misinformation and little help from the administration as many set out to their native places on foot. Temporary shelter camps faced with social unrest and some have been set ablaze owing to the lack of basic facilities and shortage of food. The workers staying back in their homes are now running out of ration and money.

Can’t access rations, cooked meals

According to ‘21 days & Counting’ by SWAN, 50% of the workers had additional ration which would last for less than a day.

“I earn Rs 400 every day and I have a family of six to feed. We will run out of food and money in a few days. I know the risk of coronavirus, but I can’t see my children hungry,” said Ramesh Kumar, a daily wage labourer in Banda, Uttar Pradesh, to Graamvani.

Lack of cash and ration has forced these workers to eat scarcely. A group of 240 workers from Bengaluru told SWAN that they would eat only one meal a day, to save up on what’s left. A group of 1161 workers from Uttar Pradesh mentioned that none of them received any rations from the state government.

“I am sitting and not doing any work now. Local administration is not providing any provision of food and ration thus we are facing hard times,” said Amarnath, another labourer from Ghazipur, Uttar Pradesh, to Graamvani.

State governments, gurdwaras, temples, mosques and other organisations have been able to provide cooked meals to the workers. However, there are state-level variations with respect to access to cooked meals, stated the report.

While 80% of workers in Karnataka have not had access to cooked meals, the numbers in Punjab are lower at 32%. This is on account of a large number of gurdwaras in the state providing cooked meals to the needy.

Long lines, overcrowding and insufficient quantity of cooked food in government feeding centres have added to their distress.

Speaking to SWAN, Suresh (who gave only his first name), a construction worker from Bihar currently working in Delhi, said, “The lines are long and food runs out by the time it is our turn.”

Bhagyalakshmi (who goes only by her first name), also speaking to SWAN, said, “I am unable to access the Indira Canteen as it is extremely crowded.” She is a widow with three children from Tamil Nadu who is now stranded in Bengaluru.

As on April 8, a little more than 1% of workers had access to ration from the government and this number increased to a mere 4% by April 13. The percentage of workers who received cooked meals from either the government or other organisations, reduced from 80% in the second week of lockdown to around 70% in the third week of lockdown.

Lack of money

To prevent migration of the distressed due to the lockdown, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued an order on March 29 seeking that employers should pay the workers full wages and that homeowners shouldn’t charge rent from stranded workers. However, only a few people have been paid.

Among the surveyed, only 9% of the migrant workers had been paid, while some who have been given ration by the employers have been told that the money for the rations will be deducted. Some workers have also been threatened not to complain.

Speaking to SWAN, Rambali Ram, and another family (eight members in total) were working for HINDALCO plant in Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh. While they have been given five kilogrammes of wheat by a local organisation, they have no cash for grinding the wheat to make it into flour or to buy essentials like salt and oil.

Salim Sheikh, a small-time contractor in Solapur, Maharashtra, was only able to arrange for grains for 50 of his workers, he reached out to say that he had not been able to pay the labour wages. He said that due to the lockdown, his business has taken a severe hit and he is unable to pay the wages of 50 people.

Speaking to SWAN, Upendra Rushi, a daily wage labourer from Bihar stranded in Surat, Gujarat, with around 40 others, stated, “Our employer still compels us to work saying, if you don’t work you won’t get food. Food is offered only once.”