Acute labour crisis looming large, may reverse economic recovery

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By: Gyan Pathak

The fear of the lockdown has returned almost after a year to haunt the migrant labour again. The chaos like the last year is yet not surfaced this year, but it does not mean people are less fear stricken. It is because the relocking of the economy and the means of transportation are progressing slowly unlike the sudden lockdown last year that left little means of escape. This time, migrant labours are leaving their workplaces without great chaos but in large numbers for their homes. The crowds in the railway stations and trains, bus terminals and buses etc reveals this fact. There will soon be acute shortage of labour if the trend continues, and the economic recovery may be reversed.

The trick government is using would not work. Everybody in the governance is avoiding the word lockdown, but migrant labourers are seeing how all sectors of the economy are being shut down one by one, first during the night, then on week days, and then the fear descends, may be for several days in near future. It may be humiliating for the ruling leaders to know that migrant labours don’t believe in their words of assurances. That is why they are returning. There is a great trust deficit. Employers in general are also not in a position to help them stay where they are.

When the lockdown was announced on March 24 last year, Modi government had also assured all help to migrant labour. However, almost no help reached them while they were locked in their homes. It compelled them to return to their homes, even on foot, up to thousands of miles, with no food, no water, and little hope of getting some in the locked down towns in their way with deserted streets. Hundreds of them lost their lives, but when question of compensation came in the Parliament of India, Modi government said that they didn’t have data. When migrant special trains were started, the labour had to suffer a lot sometimes even without food or water. Heart rendering scenes were witnessed even on platforms, such as a mother died on platform and her small child calling her to wake up.

One can just imagine the level of mistrust that would have engraved in the mind of the sufferer migrant labour. When chief ministers and Prime Minister say the lockdowns are not necessary yet, migrant labours view such statements with suspicion. What if lockdown is suddenly announced as last year? PM Modi has a habit to give surprise, don’t believe him they say.

In this backdrop, the centre, the states, the employers, and the civil society has a great task in hand to win back the migrant labours. It cannot be done only by lip service. Some concrete work is needed to encourage them to stay at their work places. In almost all the states, migrant labours suffer from the bias of the locals. They also become victims of the local hegemony because the locals treat them as snatcher of their economic opportunity. In Maharashtra, the locals even blamed the migrants for the spread of the second wave of COVID-19. Such attitude disheartens the migrants.

Access to healthcare facilities for migrant labours has always been ridden with numerous hurdles. In the last few years, the health facilities in the countries have been increasingly linked to documents. However, the problem with majority of migrant workers is that they are rarely supplied documents. They work without documents and therefore it is too difficult for them to prove their resident status. That is why they prefer to be at home for accessing health facilities at affordable cost. We therefore need to provide them healthcare facilities at their work places.

There must be a system in place to take care of their daily needs in case the second wave of Covid-19 necessitates lockdowns for longer periods. Relocking at present level has also impacted their earnings, and therefore we need to financially support them to ultimately support economic recovery in the country. We cannot dream of bringing back on track the derailed manufacturing and services, the demand and supply, the construction and consumption, and so on.

Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Delhi have been indicating the large scale return of the migrant labours. Modi government must do something now exclusively for migrant labour to make them comfortable at their places of work to prevent another crisis which would be worse than the country suffered during the first wave of Covid-19 outbreak. The present wave is more serious and hence requires wiser decisions, including on labour rules. Workforce must have a feel that their government is with them and they will get help in times of need. (IPA Service)

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