A member of the cleaning staff doges around a crowd of masked patients, mopping the floor, outside the communicable disease screening ward of GMCH 32. Unlike the crowd of patients anxiously waiting to be screened for Covid-19, the cleaner remains unmasked.
“We have been told to wear a mask, but to be honest, no one really cares about what happens to us. If not the disease something else will get us. If we refuse to come to work, we will lose our pay, and if we spend time here we might get this disease everyone has been talking about. Only god is our guardian,” says the man, before swooping back with his mop into a masked crowd again.
Although for healthcare workers, contractual or not, it is mandatory to resume operations as usual, despite the pandemic, most other daily wage and contractual labourers in the city fear losing out on work and their livelihood, while fearing for the safety of their children and themselves amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, many have already lost out on work and are struggling to make ends meet.
“I had to work at a construction site in Sector 18 and our contractor was supposed to call us, but there has been no communication as of now. They are not beginning any new construction projects and older projects have also been stalled,” says Raja Ram, a daily wage construction worker living with his four children and his wife in Dhanas. Ram also adds that they have not received any information regarding taking preventive measures to prevent contracting the novel coronavirus disease. “There has been no communication either from the union or our contractor, all we know is what we hear on the phone,” adds Ram.
Another daily wage labourer from Dhanas, Ajay Kumar claims that he and a few of his colleagues have had no work for the past 10-15 days and have been anxiously passing the days trying to look for work. “Most of us live in a jhuggi, so at least we do not have to pay rent. But I do not know what we will do if this continues longer than a week. We have no savings, how will we feed our children?” says Kumar. “I do not care for the danger of the virus, I need to keep working because we are not provided with any paid leave or health coverage,” adds an impassioned Kumar.
At the multipurpose hall construction site inside Panjab University, where work was being carried out as usual till Tuesday, a site engineer claimed that most workers will be dismissed soon and construction work will halt until March 31. “Most people have already stopped coming for labour here, and more will be given letters to cease work soon,” says the site engineer. When questioned about the impact of halted work on the lives of daily wagers employed at the site, the engineer has no answer.
Contractual workers at educational institutes
Even as classes have been suspended at education institutes across the city, teaching and non-teaching staff still have to come to work. At Panjab University, apart from the teaching staff who have some liberty to come to work as they please, there are about 600 non-teaching staff employed as daily wage labourers at the varsity. Furthermore, about 200 of these workers are contractual staff who are the mercy of their contractors for their monthly pay. “Since so many people are employed, we are trying to take measures to ensure that there is no over-crowding and threat to anyone’s life due to lack of social distancing. But dismissing members is not an option because those who rely on daily wage will not be able to survive through this,” says Deepak Kaushik, President of the non-teaching staff association.
As 3,000 non-teaching staff are employed at the university and they have been coming to work, the non-teaching staff union has put forward three demands to the university to avoid overcrowding. The union has demanded that the staff be split up into two groups at their respective offices and be asked to come in on alternative days. They also demanded that the audit section be operated in three seperate time period by three different teams of staff, and only ten people be allowed to go inside the administration block for general inquiries at a time. Kaushik hopes that this will limit overcrowding without compromising their livelihood.
In Punjab Engineering College, where classes have also been suspended till March 31, more than 200 contractual employees are still working at the college. Satish, leader of the mess workers’ union at PEC, claims that at least 50 workers gather to work there everyday, as they cannot afford to quarantine themselves lest they lose their wages. “Most of them have a contract till June anyway, so they have to keep coming to work no matter what. There is no other solution where they can safeguard themselves and also get paid,” claims the union leader.
“It is nothing new to us, unemployment has been the norm for us for a long time now. We are used to feeling like we are disposable,” says Kumar, a labourer from Dhanas, as a wry smile grows on his face.
UT Deputy Commissioner Mandip Singh Brar, who heads the Chandigarh Building and other construction welfare boards as well, claims that no construction activity has been or will be suspended in the Union Territory, so daily wage workers have not yet been affected by the pandemic.
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