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Testing Times For Labourers

Testing Times For Labourers

As a day to celebrate workers’ rights, May Day this year was expected to be a very subdued affair across the globe. The COVID pandemic has ensured that. May Day has shared a date with International Workers’ Day since 1880 and because of its more recent history, it is often a day of protests for labour unions around the world.

Traditionally, leaders from various labour unions would congregate on a common platform at various May Day rally events, affirming their commitment to advance the interest of workers. But in light of the Coronavirus outbreak, it is doubtful if the ‘traditions’ would be adhered to this once!

Even otherwise; rather than alleviating the plight of the workers, it has always been a quick run of formalities on  Shramik Diwas by various labour organizations. Treated as more of a holiday and less of a commemoration, the relevance of the historic day seems to lessen with each passing year.

Mazdoor Diwas  in this pandemic time purports to be day when reports of death and starvation eclipse the working classes. Considering that in India the working class continues to be the most exploited even today, how relevant has been the persistent call for the much-needed labour reforms!

Despite warnings from the International Labour Organization that about 400 million people working in the informal economy in India are at risk of falling deeper into poverty due to the coronavirus crisis which is having "catastrophic consequences", responses from the government have been rather lukewarm.

The fact however remains that for a country that has been quite vociferous about safeguarding the rights of the working class, it is this very social group consisting of people who are daily wage earners, especially in manual or industrial work, who have always been bearing the brunt of the economic upheavals witnessed. In an advisory, the Union Home Ministry had asked the state governments to prevent a mass exodus of migrant agriculture labourers, industrial workers and unorganised sector employees from their workplaces to hometowns in the wake of the national lockdown over Covid-19 outbreak.

The government was very proactive in assuring the migrant workers that they would be taken care of financially while the lockdown continues, or even if it gets extended. The states and union territories were also advised to make these vulnerable groups aware of measures taken by the government, including provision of free food grains and other essential items through PDS, and streamline the procedures.

Yet, despite the best of assurances by the government, the migrants have been denied provisions and other basic necessities that are so very essential for their sustenance. The departments concerned have been passing on the buck with no veritable solution coming of these exercises.

The migrant workers were thus in a very piquant situation – they could neither return home nor could they fend for themselves! Amidst these confusions, it was all the more appalling to have a few political leaders espousing their ‘regional’ leanings!

The CM of Uttar Pradesh, after having succeeded in bringing home stranded UP students from Kota, has set his eyes on bringing back tens of thousands of migrant workers from the state stranded in other places across the country, and has instructed officials to prepare a roadmap.

All of a sudden, towards the fag end of phase two of the lockdown, there has been a change of heart and the government feels that the stranded migrants need to be allowed to return to their home states.

The news that it has announced plans to allow their movement to help them reach their homes, including by crossing state borders, comes at a time when confronted by uncertainties arising out of the nationwide lockdown, groups of stranded migrant workers were seen clashing with the administration in different parts of the country demanding that arrangements be made to send them home.

Goa too has a large population of migrant workers and it is this segment which has been the focus of concern for the state government. However the manner in which it went about paying lip service to the migrant workers, it was quite evident that the state administration had never had to content with such issues ever in the past.

Goa is a state which has come to depend heavily on migrant workers for all sorts of jobs. From industrial establishments to constructions sites, and to petty household chores; they have become an integral part of the society.

The manner in which the locals have shunned traditional occupations to celebrate a more relaxed and luxurious lifestyle by opting for careers abroad and on cruise-liners has made it much easier for the so-called ‘ghantis’ to make themselves an inevitable part of the local work scenario.

Even in the private sector, it is the non-Goans who have capitalized on the fondness shown by the locals for a government job.

It is observed that the beach-belts in the north and south are home to a number of workers from outside the state.  Besides the tourism sector, Goan ‘entrepreneurs’ employ the maximum of these outsiders for deep-sea fishing and for works in beachside shacks. Finding themselves jobless after the lockdown, all of them are eager to head back home.

Hence the claim by the industry stakeholders that the central government’s order will not have any significant impact on the migrants in the state or any major reaction in the state’s business sector sounds rather hollow!

Having suddenly woken up to their plight in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic, the state administration is guilty of having overlooked any genuine complaints the labourers may have had about their working and living conditions in the state. Large labour colonies housing hundreds of labourers around most of the industrial estates could well be potential hotspots of COVID-19 in the state.

Of course Goa is listed a Green Zone by the Centre with no evidence of widespread community transmission. But wouldn’t it be prudent to have the government instructing the state health services to keep a close watch on these areas!

All these may be viewed as consequences of the series of lockdowns enforced in the wake of the COVID scare.  

As aptly said, ‘the world is almost certainly ensnared in a devastating recession delivered by the Coronavirus pandemic. Now fears are growing that the worldwide economic downturn could be especially deep and lengthy, with recovery limited by continued anxiety’. However, the state in fact was reeling under a severe financial crisis much prior to that. The Coronavirus scare has only camouflaged the harsh truth.

With challenges all the way, it is the working people as that vulnerable section of the society which time and again finds itself at the receiving end no sooner a disaster strikes. Wouldn’t it aid their cause if the government is to periodically decide on formulating plans to better their living and working conditions – and implementing them in toto as well!   

(Published on 11th May 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 20)