With State governments announcing lockdowns and curfews in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases, migrant workers could once again be staring at loss of wages and lack of social protections, labour union leaders and activists said on Thursday.
A year after lakhs of workers made their way back to their home States after the nationwide lockdown was announced in March 2020, their condition has not changed much, they said.
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“Workers in the informal sector think that if there is a lockdown again, they could be stranded and so have started returning to their villages. After the lockdown last year, many of these workers could not get back their jobs as the contractors who hired them did not want to take the responsibility of paying them lockdown wages,” said All-India Trade Union Congress general secretary Amarjeet Kaur.
She added that unions had received reports of workers leaving from Lucknow, the Delhi-National Capital Region, Karnataka and Maharashtra.
“The government has learnt no lessons. To me it appears that the government knew that the economy was in a bad state last year and they imposed the lockdown with four hours of notice, blamed the bad economy on the pandemic, while playing with the lives of the workers. The workers have learnt that the government won’t do anything for them; they are protecting themselves [by leaving cities],” she said.
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Workers in the informal sector have already begun to face wage loss due the curfews and lockdowns in some States like Maharashtra and National Capital Territory of Delhi.
Nirmal Gorana, the general secretary of the Bandhua Mukti Morcha that works to free bonded labour, said with the Delhi government on Thursday announcing weekend curfew, a rush of migrant workers leaving the Capital could be seen on Friday evening. He wondered whether the Delhi Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board would pay the workers for the loss of two days of wages every week.
“The night curfew has already affected sex workers, construction workers and auto-rickshaw drivers. There is fear among workers... The job loss, hunger will be worse this time as the COVID-19 cases are much worse,” he said. The government failed to take actions like reducing the working hours of informal sector workers and getting them registered for social security benefits.
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Chandan Kumar, of the Working People’s Charter, added that most informal sector workers had not received their wages for the lockdown in 2020 despite government directions, and were facing the same crisis they did last year.
The Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, meanwhile, was organising awareness camps for workers to reduce vaccine hesitancy, said BMS general secretary Binoy Kumar Sinha. He said with the vaccine now available, the situation for workers would not be like it was last year.
“We had set up helpdesks and organised food for workers last year. This time, the requirement has not come,” he said.