Bad Times Ahead for Working People (By Ashwin Tombat)

By Ashwin Tombat
10 May 2020 12:16 IST

The end of the second phase and start of the third phase of lockdown has brought a partial easing of restrictions. This has made life much easier for many people, especially in ‘Green Zones’ like Goa.

However, for more than 12 crore daily-wage workers in the country who suddenly lost their jobs, their nightmare is only getting worse. Around four crore of them are estimated to be migrant labourers. A survey by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) indicates that 78 per cent of them were not paid their salaries during the lockdown, 82 per cent did not receive any ration from the government, and 64 per cent exhausted their savings, and have less than Rs100 left with them.

Little wonder that more than one crore workers have registered with different state governments to return to their native villages. Even in India’s tiniest state, Goa, over 80,000 migrant labourers have registered to go home. The first ‘Shramik Special’ train from Goa, carrying 1,200 migrant workers, left Thivim station for Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh on Friday.

The attitude of the central government, the state governments and even the judiciary towards migrant workers has been deeply disappointing.

When the lockdown was first imposed, it seems no one in authority – in the centre as well as the states – was even aware of the crores of migrant workers in India’s cities who were suddenly rendered jobless. They woke up only when thousands of men, women and children began walking hundreds of kilometres to their villages.

Rather than help these people who had lost their jobs and could not afford to pay rent to stay in the cities, the central government ordered all state borders to be sealed. It directed bankrupt state governments to buy foodgrains from the centre to feed them. But only a few were fed. Many of them got nothing, or were given ration just once or twice in the 40 days from 24 March to 3 May.

The moment of greatest disppointment came when a bench of the Supreme Court (SC) led by the honourable Chief Justice of India remarked before it rejected a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) seeking that the government give money to migrant labourers left jobless by the lockdown: “If they are being provided meals, then why do they need money…?”

Do migrant workers have no other needs? Don’t they have families back home to support? Are they animals; that it is enough if they are just fed?

‘Shramik Special’ trains were organised only after spontaneous mass protests by migrant workers broke out in many cities after Lockdown 1.0 came to an end. But penniless workers are being charged higher-than-usual train fares. The central government piously claimed it was bearing 85 per cent of the ticket cost. But during the hearing of a PIL on the issue in the SC, the government failed to give a calculation of this 85 per cent when the bench asked for it, and it became crystal clear that it was a purely notional figure. In actual fact, the government is not paying a paisa. On the contrary, migrant workers have to pay a ‘corona surcharge’ of Rs50 over and above the normal train fare!

Sadly, the Supreme Court refused to intervene in this case too. Jobless migrant workers will have to beg, borrow or steal to pay their own way home.

Under pressure from industrialists and builders, state governments are actively discouraging migrant workers from returning home. After a quick consultation with big builders, Karnataka cancelled all ‘Shramik Special’ trains. The BJP’s ‘shining star’ – Bangalore South MP Tejaswi Surya – tweeted his full support, saying the stoppage of trains was “a bold and necessary move”. The tweet continued: “It will help migrant labourers who came here with hopes of a better life to restart their dreams. Also, it will kickstart economic activities full throttle. Karnataka will emerge out of this stronger!”  The Karnataka government reluctantly restored the trains a few days later, after there was a nationwide outcry against its attempt to virtually bring back bonded labour.

The Goa government, in a much more decent move, has appealed to its migrant workers to stay. Unfortunately, the same decency was not seen in the Goa Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GCCI), the apex body of employers in Goa. In a letter to the Chief Minister on Monday, the GCCI claimed that “many” migrants were provided with shelter, food and wages during the lockdown period and they were “not really stranded in the true sense”. It alleged that “now that they are getting a free ride to their home states, many of these workers have left their employers high and dry”!

Goa’s employers seem to have suddenly discovered the real value of migrant labourers, But regrettably, their contemptuous attitude remains unchanged, even after their realisation that this workforce is vital to the state's economy.

In any case, no one is getting a free ride. In fact, the real idea behind making migrants pay for their train fares is to set up a financial barrier – to discourage them from leaving. Most of them are have no money left and will find it very hard to pay the fares.  

But if you think that the bad news is only about ‘them’, you are wrong. Post-Corona India is not going to be a good place for all working people, including you and me.

Private companies have already sacked lakhs of people and cut the salaries of the rest. Governments have frozen dearness allowance (DA); government servants and members of the armed forces will get no salary increases for over a year, regardless of how much prices go up. The centre has also compulsorily deducted a few days’ salary from each and every government employee for the ‘PM Cares Fund’, whose accounts are mysteriously kept secret. No one knows how and where public donations worth thousands of crores of rupees are spent.

Uttar Pradesh has suspended all but three of its 38 labour laws for a period of three years. Laws governing minimum wages, unionisation, contract labour, health and safety, working conditions, dispute settlement and pensions… All of these are scrapped.

Madhya Pradesh will amend the Factories Act to exempt new factories coming up in the next 1,000 days from most of its provisions, except the security and hazard related ones.

Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh have amended their respective Factories Acts to allow for a 12-hour working day instead of 8 hours. Maharashtra and Goa have also increased the working day to 12 hours, till 31 July 2020.

We just celebrated Labour Day on Friday 1 May 2020. On that day in 1886, labour unions in the US went on strike demanding that workers should not be made to work for more than eight hours in a day. Today, 134 years later, the eight-hour working day is being abolished, along with most other protections for working people, under cover of this lockdown.

Industry leaders and governments say that this is the only way to revive the economy after the Covid-19 pandemic. But that is only a lame excuse. The truth is that this country’s economy has been in the doldrums for years before the corona virus struck.

Soon, we may all find ourselves working for 12 hours a day instead of eight, with no protections of any kind for our safety, health or job security. For salaried and daily-wage working people alike, there are very dark times ahead.

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

Blogger's Profile

Ashwin Tombat

Ashwin Tombat has been the Editor of Gomantak Times and Herald. Worked as an Associate Editor of national magazine Gentleman in Mumbai, before shifting to Goa. Loves sailing, also participates in Marathons. Has worked as an activist in students's union and trade unions in Maharashtra. Also an artist of Street Theatre during student days.

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Wake up call to all

- Dr Ghanashyam Mardolkar , MARDOL Goa 403404 | 10 th May 2020 09:57


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