Migrant workers paid a huge price for COVID-19
The mass movement of migrant workers during the pandemic allowed India's authorities to weaken labour rights.
The mass movement of migrant workers during the pandemic allowed India’s authorities to weaken labour rights.
When COVID-19 took hold in India millions of migrant workers fled the cities back to their villages to wait out the lockdown.
As they waited at home — sometimes for months — there was a seismic shift in their relationship with the government and their employers.
On the pretext of responding to the emergency, central and state governments introduced several labour policies that impacted workers adversely.
At every stage — migration, lockdown and return — labour control was consolidated through exceptional rules and guidelines without any debate or scrutiny.
When the government had to respond to the migrants’ desperate exit from the cities, its response came in the form of an advisory to employers not to terminate their workers’ contracts and ensure the payment of full wages.
The advisory was non-binding and therefore destined to fail. Instead, there were large-scale job losses, layoffs and non-payment of wages or wage cuts.
However, after realising the extent of economic damage that labour shortages could entail, employers and the government tried to prevent the migrant workers from leaving.
Huge numbers of informal sector workers (construction, domestic work, home-based work, handloom and power loom sector, beedi making and brick kilns) were pushed into an even more insecure, unsafe, and unprotected sector, subject to non-formal and non-standard employment practices.
The Indian government seized the opportunity provided by the pandemic and proposed drastic changes in labour laws by combining 44 central labour laws and around 200 state-level laws into four labour codes.
Although the Indian Parliament had already passed the Code on Wages before the pandemic; the remaining three — the Industrial Relations Code, 2020; the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020; and the Code on Social Security, 2020 — were hurriedly passed by parliament during the lockdown.
Although these codes compromised workers’ rights and increased the uncertainty of employment conditions, they were justified on the ground that the previous labour laws were tedious, costly to implement and resulted in employers adopting strategies to circumvent them.
State governments seized the opportunity as well and changed their labour laws either by amending their provisions or suspending some others. They in effect transferred risks from the employers to the workers.
This allowed industries in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh to increase the working day from eight hours to 12 hours for six days a week, in violation of International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention on the hours of work, to which India is a signatory.
In Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, the industries were not even required to pay overtime to workers.
These states scrapped the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946 which requires employing firms to define and submit to the certifying officer the terms and conditions of employment. Except for Haryana, all the other states announced that these changes would be in force temporarily.
Gujarat announced that except for laws about the payment of minimum wages, safety norms and compensation for workers for industrial accidents, no other provisions of the labour law would apply to new companies that wished to operate in the state for at least 1,200 days, as well as for those that had already been operational for that period.
This regime of labour control was deeply embedded in official policies during the pandemic. The term “labour-control regime” refers to the social need of the market economy to integrate labour into the production system and structure the labour process.
Exercising control is easier when the labour market has migrants and casual workers, production takes place outside the organised sector, trade unions are weak or absent, work schedules are flexible and subcontracting is prevalent.
Shock mobility ensures a ready supply of labour which is both insecure and vulnerable, willing to accept lower wages, work harder and longer, and with little or no claim on social security, labour rights and entitlements.
The opportunity provided by the pandemic-induced shock mobility was used to push through a neoliberal economic agenda, which sees the government’s specific function as producing a conducive environment for the operation of the free market and then retreat.
During the pandemic, ‘ease of doing business’ was presented as the rationale for contracting out work and increasing labour market flexibility by changing labour laws and mandatory government oversight. Such policies tend to exacerbate inequality during disasters or crises.
The fact the shock situation was deployed for maximising the interests of business and compromising the work and social security of migrant labour has been a telling reality of the neoliberal political economy in operation.
The pandemic was also used for the expansion of the platform and gig economy, which swiftly made inroads into everyday life. This sector works on replacing one set of migrant workers with another to keep the wages low, making the worker easily replaceable and providing minimal labour protection.
The pandemic put vulnerable migrants at greater risk of life and livelihood while India’s various governments responded with impunity, compromising the dignity of the workers and controlling their mobility.
Government defended the demands of corporations leading to the expulsion of marginal workers and their subsequent incorporation into an emerging political economy under more severe conditions of precarity.
As the pandemic showed, an infusion of shock in society only made worse the vulnerabilities of migrant workers.
Manish K Jha is a Professor at the School of Social Work at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, India. His research interests include social policy, structural social work, poverty, and social justice, migration, and middle classes in Indian cities.
This article is part of a Special Report on ‘Shock mobility’, produced in collaboration with the Calcutta Research Group.
Editors Note: In the story “Shock mobility” sent at: 14/06/2023 16:53.
This is a corrected repeat.