A survey of 3,196 migrant construction workers whose livelihood has been disrupted after the announcement of the 21-day lockdown over COVID-19 paints a dismal picture of migrant lives, especially seasonal migrants, now caught unawares as the Indian economy virtually shut down. The survey confirms the effect of the lockdown wherein 92.5 per cent of labourers have already lost work ranging from one week to three weeks.
The non-governmental organisation Jan Sahas has some important conclusions from its telephonic survey of workers from North and Central India: first, that “42 per cent of the workers mentioned that they had no ration left even for the day, let alone for the duration of the lockdown”.
The survey also found that if the lockdown continued beyond 21 days, 66 per cent of the labourers mentioned that they will not be able to manage their household expenses beyond a week.
Second, one-third of the respondents said they “are still stuck in destination cities due to the lockdown with little or no access to food, water and money”. While nearly half the migrant labourers were already in their villages, they face different challenges such as no income and accessibility to rations.
Third, that “31 per cent of workers” admitted to “have loans and they will find it difficult to repay it without employment.” The highest proportions of the loans were from money-lenders, nearly three times more than who have taken loans from banks. While more than 79 per cent of those who have loans fear not being able to pay them back in the near future, “a disturbing fact is that close to 50 per cent of the labourers who had taken debt fear that their inability to pay can put them in danger of some kind of violence”.
On March 24, 2020, the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment issued a directive advising state governments and Union Territories to transfer funds to the accounts of construction labourers through DBT from the cess fund collected by the Labour Welfare Boards under the (Building and Other Construction Workers) BOCW Cess Act. The Survey finds that “94 per cent of the workers do not have the Building and Construction Workers identity card, which rules out the possibility of availing any of the benefits that the State has declared from its Rs 32,000 crore BOCW fund”.
According to the survey, the immediate relief that migrant workers wanted was rations, then a promise of monthly support. About 83 per cent of them worried that they would not be able to find work at the end of the shutdown, while 80 per cent were concerned that the impact of 21 days lockdown on their family will be to leave them without any food.
The survey also found that 55 per cent of the workers earned between Rs 200-400 per day to support an average family size of four persons, while another 39 per cent earned between Rs 400-600 per day. This means that a majority of these labourers are underpaid as the minimum wages act, where the prescribed minimum wages for Delhi are Rs 692, Rs 629 and Rs 571 for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers, respectively.
The construction sector contributes to around 9 per cent of the country’s GDP and employs the highest number of migrant workers across India with 55 million daily-wagers. Each year, an estimated nine million workers move from rural areas to urban cities in search of work within construction sites and factories.
The Census 2011 put the number of these “internal migrants” at about 37 per cent of the Indian population, or 450 million. This is an increase of 45 per cent over the 309 million recorded in 2001.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet said in a statement that she was distressed by the plight of the informal migrant workers affected, many of whom were, in effect, forced to leave the cities where they worked at just a few hours’ notice, unable to pay for rent or food; “The lockdown in India represents a massive logistical and implementation challenge given the population size and its density and we all hope the spread of the virus can be checked,” she said the importance of ensuring that measures responding to COVID-19 are “neither applied in a discriminatory manner nor exacerbate existing inequalities and vulnerabilities”.
Jan Sahas conducted the survey between March 27-29, 2020.
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