By Shivaji Sarkar
More job losses are predicted as migrant labourers in India and abroad, particularly in the Gulf, face relentless abuses, low pay and severe depression or home sickness. The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, survey notes that as of April 19, the unemployment rate has shot up to 26.7 per cent in rural India and 25.1 per cent in urban India. A month ago, before the lockdown began, the survey recorded unemployment rate between 6-8 per cent.
Workers in the Gulf are normally an envy of many. But that necessarily shouldn’t be the case. Between 2016 and 2019, as per Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar’s statement in Parliament, 77,155 complaints were made to embassies in six countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, UAE and Bahrain. The highest came from S Arabia – 36 per cent. In 2019 alone, 9771 complaints were received by South Block.
The political brouhaha over many leaving their temporary homes and trudging thousands of kilometers, defying lockdown norms, has not been understood by the people or the rulers. The unsettled workers in supposedly affluent Gulf or ramshackle National Capital Region – Gurgaon, Faridabad, Noida; or Mumbai have common problems. They are low paid, live in abysmal conditions, starve, malnourished and are at the receiving end of inhuman treatment.
The reasons they migrate turn out to be same reasons they take to reverse migration to their villages. Unsatisfied and impoverished at home, they go away and return only to have a few morsels of food. The recent politics over buses (Congress-BJP spat in UP) is beyond their comprehension. The buses have been purchased with their money and for them. If one party is providing these, why cannot the other be sympathetic and allow them the ride home? Ironically, for vote they end up denying a facility to the voter! It does pain all.
The plight of workers in the Gulf and Indian metros is no different. The Gulf workers complain of delayed wages, denial of labour rights and benefits. They are not paid overtime, denied holidays, refused renewal of work permits or have issues of exit visas to India and there is a lack of healthcare. Many even complain of poor living conditions. It is no surprise, that casual workers in India, mostly migrants from a few poor States, have similar complaints.
The overseas workers, including white collar, often are made to cough up money for getting their exit visas, which allows them to return to India. Devious methods are adopted. They are not allowed to change jobs and have to accept exploitative behaviours.
At various constructions sites in the NCR or elsewhere the labourers are kept under strict observation and are mostly not allowed to leave. At home or abroad, they are promised some wages and paid less, made to work in extreme weather conditions, labour laws are defied with impunity, 15 to 20 made to share a room and the women face the worst. It’s a life of, what the UN recently said, modern neo-slavery. The numbers, as per the latest Union Cabinet meet, is eight crore of such migrant workers in India, who are rushing home for past two months.
The General Secretary, Mankind in Action for Rural Growth, NJ Chhetri, cites examples of thousands of people from Darjeeling migrating to Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru, Goa and Middle East and that while working away from home they face severe problems of loneliness, depression, this despite some being paid just wages.
Sadly, many of the urban middle class are critical of these workers and their families walking down the highways. They are oblivious to how difficult working or living conditions are for them. Worse, governments proposed free food grain or pulses often are not given to them or even to local casual workers. In some of western Uttar Pradesh’s villages, a common complaint heard is that the ration shops, owned mostly by village musclemen, neither give the full quota nor pulses nor the better stuff. Leaving their work place with no wages and starvation is thus a compulsion. They are only trying to survive by even having to compromise with their self-respect, which they would enjoy at their homes.
According to the Fifth Annual Employment & Unemployment Report (2015-16), casual labourers represent one-third (33%) of those employed in India. It’s the most prevalent form of employment, second only to self-employment. An NSSO report in 2011 stated that during 1999-2010 the share of contract & casual workers in organised employment rose from 10.5 per cent to 25.6 and the percentage of regular employees in organised sector fell from 68.3 per cent to 52.4 percent in the same period.
The so-called labour reforms have only empowered the employers. For raking in higher profits, working conditions of the labour have deteriorated. That is why the recent changes announced, including 12-hour inhuman shift, by six States have drawn flak from trade unions, including the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, created by RSS ideologue Dattopant Thengadi.
The country is going through a critical phase in these unprecedented times. Post-1991 liberalisation, jobs started shrinking, captured by the 2011 employment report. Policy slippages have added to problems of not only low-skilled labourers but even those educated. Casualisation and denial of benefits have become routine. Legal process is procrastinated. Somehow, the Centre’s move to help, oft-heard for the past over two decades, is simply not to be seen.
Every reform has meant more denial of their rights. The pandemic lockdown has added to their woes. Over 3 lakh have registered to be repatriated from the Gulf as most have lost jobs. This would add a new dimension and social problems in many areas.
Indian policy planners have based their economics on the strength of low-cost casual workers. This has played havoc with not only the job scene but also poverty alleviation issues. Absolute numbers of poor have bothered economists such as Raja Chelliah to AM Khusro. Despite three decades of liberalisation those numbers have gone up and are estimated at 81 per cent of the population. The rise of the informal sector is now being realised as a process of hiring through contracts, which has further deteriorated conditions for the poor. Add to this, the prolonged lockdown which makes the situation grave. In addition, household savings ratio too has been steadily on the decline since 2008 global financial crisis.
Undeniably, post-corona lockdown, the state of affairs is getting critical as a number of organisations are tottering. However, it can also be seen as an opportunity — to revive the villages with fresh economic planning. Carefully carved out, it could lead to the ultimate goal of India having an inclusive and faster growth. —INFA