As the country moves into the next phase of the lockdown, the stories of the misery faced by lakhs of migrant workers seem to be unending. These are the daily wage labourers who suddenly became jobless and homeless during this unprecedented crisis. Visuals of them and their families walking helplessly towards their villages, hundreds of kilometers away from urban centres, has pulled at the heartstrings of the public. Despite a mammoth effort by the Centre, states, NGOs, religious groups and individuals the food needs of this segment of society are not being fully met, judging by media reports. The fact is, the task is enormous and gearing up to meet requirements of either cooked food or dry rations inevitably takes time. Plus the added issues of trying to maintain sanitization norms and social distancing have increased the challenges of providing succour to those most in need at this time.
But there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel for at least some of them now. With the lifting of curbs on operations of rural industries as well as those linked to essential needs and export units in selected districts, many of these workers can either go back to their old jobs or at least find new employment as vacancies are now aplenty. In addition, those stranded within the same state have the option of being able to travel back to their homes in case they wish to do so. This still leaves lakhs facing continuing travails including those who cannot find immediate employment or those who need to cross states to reach their destinations.
In the medium and long term, however, there is the possibility of an even brighter prospect for the migrant workers who have so far not been on the radar of policymakers. First of all, the plight of these workers who form the backbone of the economy has been highlighted for the first time. It is not that articles have not been written about those working in what is described as the unorganised sector. It is that these have not been paid adequate attention despite the size of the employment in this sector, as against the organised sector of corporates and industries. In fact, the organised sector is well represented by trade unions who have been for decades agitating for a better deal for workers employed on a full-time basis. The plight of daily wage workers in small establishments has not been taken up as vigorously. As a result, successive governments, have made sure that full time employees in companies are covered by protective labour legislation. But the segment that works in small and tiny industries as well as for contractors in the construction sector have been left by the wayside.
To give an idea of the size of the problem, one must go back to the latest data on the unorganised sector, which is about a decade old. The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) had then estimated this sector to include 43.7 crore workers. Of these, 24.6 crore were employed in the agricultural sector, 4.4 crore in construction and the rest in manufacturing and services. It has also been estimated that the informal sector accounts for anywhere between 85% and 93% of all employment in the country. In other words, there has been little attention paid to those who constitute 90% of employment.
But as mentioned earlier, the first glimmer of hope for this category of invisible workers is that they have actually become visible in the public eye. The result being that policymakers are now scrambling to dispel the negative images by trying to take care of their welfare. The second element that brings some hope for the future are the new guidelines for industries that are meant to provide some protection from infection by the coronavirus. These are, firstly, that the workers will have to be transported in buses with adequate social distancing and secondly, that they will have to provide on-site accommodation. Thus, workers will be provided comfortable transport facilities instead of overcrowded buses and also be given housing facilities instead of renting accommodation in nearby towns. It is now that the central government needs to step in and ensure that these basic requirements are incorporated into labour laws so that companies are forced to give basic amenities to these employees. So that measures introduced on a temporary basis become permanent provisions for the long term.
The third issue that is now likely to be resolved is of those who cannot avail of government benefits owing to the lack of identity cards like Aadhar or ration cards. One of the reasons that many migrant workers lack identity cards is because these have been left behind in their rural homes to be availed of by the family. Thus, efforts to provide food grains to workers based on ration cards or even cash support has proven difficult owing to this disconnect between urban and rural areas. A big effort needs to be made now to enumerate those who are working in urban areas and provide them benefits available under government schemes without relying on the traditional Aadhar or ration card model. A first step has been taken by the Pune zilla parishad by providing to over 80,000 undocumented people in the district thereby enabling them receive food grains under the public distribution system. The coronavirus emergency has thrown up many challenges for the government, but the plight of migrant workers due to the lockdown was probably the most unexpected one. And the reason it was not envisaged was because this is a segment of society that has literally remained unseen despite its enormous presence. The suffering of migrant workers has not yet ended but both Central and state governments are clearly working on short term options to tackle their immediate problems. One can only hope that the crisis created by Covid-19 ultimately ends with some of their critical problems also being resolved in the long term.