CHANDIGARH — For almost three months, since the first phase of India’s lockdown to tackle coronavirus began, 35-year-old Masoom Ansari and eight others were stuck inside a budget hotel situated on Relief road in Ahmedabad where they work.
While the hotel owner gave them some ration, they have not been paid their salaries since March. Seven of them left for their villages in Uttar Pradesh last week, worn out by the sheer effort of getting through each day as provisions ran out.
With no cooking gas left, Ansari and a colleague have been surviving by eating partially cooked rice heated in sunlight.
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He is desperate to go home, Ansari told HuffPost India over the phone but is waiting for his employer to release his pending salary for three months.
“I can earn a living by making samosas and kachoris in the village but I do not have money to return home. The private buses are asking Rs 6,000 per head to drop us till Koderma district in Jharkhand, which is around 200 km from my village. I have asked my uncle to lend me some money to reach home,” said Ansari, who has been working at the hotel for the last 21 years. His current salary is Rs 12,000 a month.
Raju Kumar, a construction worker in Phagwara city in Punjab, was among the lucky ones who got a seat on a Shramik Special train to Bihar. But at the last minute, he decided against travelling back to his hometown of Araria, worried about what the future holds if he can’t find work.
“I would have travelled for two days and then been put in quarantine for the next 14 days. I thought it’s better to stay here for some more days as the construction work of residential houses has started in my area,” said Kumar. Last week, he landed a job at a private construction site, where he will earn Rs 450 daily due to a shortage of labourers.
Ansari and Kumar are among the thousands of migrant workers who are still staying in the cities they work in, while their companions set off on arduous journeys back home. While the exodus of millions of workers back to their villages has deservedly made headlines, those who stayed back are fighting for unpaid wages as a net of hunger and government apathy closes in around them.
As India slowly begins exiting from an ill-planned, brutal lockdown, it has recorded more than 267,000 cases of the highly infectious disease. It’s currently fifth in the world in case tally and is set to soon overtake the UK.
While industries have slowly restarted operations, dozens of workers whose wages have not been paid since March told HuffPost India that they are being forced to put in extra hours and do more tasks for no extra pay to make up for the shortage of labour.
The situation looks set to worsen as state governments take the opportunity to dilute critical labour laws. While the central government has announced an economic stimulus package that it claims adds up to Rs20 trillion, struggling workers say they have barely received any help.
Where’s the relief?
“A daily wager does not have money to buy his meals, how can you expect him to put money in banks? I opened a Jan Dhan account as I was told the government would transfer us some money in times of need,” said Ansari, who opened an account in a Gramin Bank branch near his village in Jharkhand in 2014.
Gurcharan Das, a writer who was earlier CEO of Procter & Gamble India, said that labour laws in India fail to protect workers, and the government should have provided unemployment benefits to urban workers.
“Labour laws are applicable only to 10% of the total workforce in India. The pandemic has failed to sensitize the bureaucracy, who should have acted in a more humane way. This has caused a huge dharma-sankat for the workers, as losing their job leads to starvation. While the government has MGNREGA for rural people, there should be unemployment insurance for urban workers also. The funds for this should have been arranged by weeding out unmerited subsidies from various sectors including PDS and electricity,” he said.
In a proposal sent recently to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on short-term relief measures for vulnerable workers, the Indian Society of Labour Economics, which includes prominent academics, suggested providing immediate financial assistance through cash transfers to households who do not have a taxpayer or a formal worker.
Speaking to HuffPost India over the phone, Alakh Sharma, director, Institute for Human Development, Delhi, said that the centre’s announcement of transferring Rs 500 per month to each woman Jan Dhan account holder was not sufficient.
“The centre and states together should try and ensure a minimum transfer over the next three months of at least Rs 6,000 per month with a major part borne by the central government. Assuming that about 20 crore households will require such assistance, the total quantum of assistance will be about Rs 3.6 trillion over three months,” said Sharma.
He also added that instead of pushing migrants to board Shramik trains and creating a huge void in the supply chain of allied services, migrants should be encouraged to stay back.
“Instead of asking for Shramik trains, all state governments should set up committees at the village panchayat, block, district and state levels. They should start online portals, and organizations and individual volunteers could indicate the nature of the resources that they could muster, areas of work, support required etc,” said Sharma, adding that panchayat leaders, officials, and sub-district health staff, who will be key in the local management of resources and control of the pandemic, should be educated and trained at the earliest.
States holding on to workers
After the partial resumption of industrial activities in many regions from May 18, state governments and companies have been trying hard to hold on to workers by offering them the bare minimum and then some—higher wages, advance salaries, temporary accommodation and even return tickets from their homes for skilled workers.
Punjab is coordinating with its industrial bodies and has begun to promote self -employment schemes. It has also announced a Rs 96 crore package under which it said immediate relief of Rs 3,000 would be granted to each of the registered construction workers in the state. However, soon after the announcement, the scheme was hit with allegations of fake registrations.
The Times of India reported that Rajasthan has announced skill development courses for inbound migrant workers. Pune Mirror reported that some companies and real estate developers are convincing workers to stay back by offering salary hikes, food and other benefits.
India’s biggest salt industry in Kutch has also offered double the salary to its workers who would report back on duty. In Karnataka, the state government has announced additional financial assistance to construction workers along with ration kits.