Beyond relief: the impact of coronavirus on India’s migrant workers
Rohan Preece, Business and Human Rights Manager for Traidcraft India, reports from Delhi how coronavirus is affecting poor migrant workers, and reflects on the wider change needed..
In the days since the coronavirus lockdown was enforced in India on 25 March 2020, images of migrant workers returning home from cities such as Delhi have travelled the world. Since then, Indian factories have closed for business, orders and payments been suspended, staff laid off and supply chains left in tatters.
In 2019, Traidcraft India met apparel sector workers in the National Capital Region around Delhi to better understand the risks of forced labour and undertake an exploratory study. Visiting two locations – in the Kapas Hera area of southwest Delhi, and the Welcome area in Shahdara, northeast Delhi – we held in-depth interviews with 70 workers in domestic and global supply chains. We sought out workers from three principal types of workspace: formal factories; informal factories and production units; and homeworkers. One striking feature across all groups is that the great majority (97%) of these workers migrated to Delhi in their lifetime.
In the suddenly barren economic landscape that these workers now find themselves, many decided to take the long and arduous journey on foot to their home communities in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and elsewhere, where they have wider family and networks. Others have not been able to do so, and now find themselves stranded without work or income.
Zaira lives in Kapas Hera. She used to do stitching work on a piece rate to run her house and support her child. ‘Work has stopped,’ she says, ‘I have become helpless, I have no one.’
With no social security to fall back on, Zaira is surviving only with the help of the community. Hot food is being provided at a common pick up point, but for women with young children like Zaira, and infirm or elderly people, this is difficult to get to. Thankfully, she was able to get in touch with a young man named Shivam who with his mother Lakshmi has been taking calls and helping out. It has been local initiatives and organisations, along with volunteers like Shivam, making sure that people like Zaira can survive.
Zaira is typical of many workers in this part of Delhi, who have no contract or regular income, being paid piece rates or daily wages and earning below or barely at the minimum wage. They will have had to manage only with their last daily wage payment or the last piece they were paid for.
Many factory workers were on contract arrangements which often exclude access to social protection measures. According to a report by the Asia Floor Wage Alliance many contract workers based in the city of Gurgaon have not received wages for days worked in March whilst some workers have been offered loans. Many brands have not helped by failing to honour contracts, and cancelling orders without the assurance of payment. And whilst a $22.6 billion stimulus package was announced by the Indian government on 27 March, it has not been enough to prevent workers from the garment sector and other sectors going unpaid.
In the Welcome area of Delhi, a community kitchen initiative has also begun, feeding around 800 people each day. But meeting demand is a tough ask. When I spoke to Shakila, who is helping to facilitate the initiative, she explained that they only have two days’ food remaining.
In both localities, the fact that people are migrants puts them at acute risk of hunger. Because their home residence is outside Delhi, they are not eligible for the established ration scheme. Instead they must make do with an e-ration scheme. But rations will only get them so far: each e-coupon applicant is entitled to just 4kg of wheat, and 1kg of rice a month. Nothing more.
Whilst it is difficult to gauge how effective collective responses will be over the coming days and weeks, what is very clear is just how vulnerable these communities are, how limited their capacity to withstand economic shocks such as this. In an already volatile and highly competitive industry, thousands of apparel sector workers, like workers in many other sectors, are just one crisis away from near destitution.
Wages around or below the minimum wage are a common thread across workers in both domestic and export domains of the garment sectors, with even lower levels in more informal spaces and especially among homeworkers. This clearly affects workers’ ability to save. Further, those working outside formal factories lack access to any kind of social protection or employer accountability in the times of crisis. Informal workers especially, but even those in factories too, are also part of supply chains with multiple tiers, which makes accountability and coordination harder to enforce. This is part of a much wider pattern. According to a rapid assessment study undertaken at the end of March by Jan Sahas, one of our partner organisations, only 22% of households surveyed felt that they would be able to manage for a month, which, as the lockdown enters its fourth week is a major cause for concern. Whilst the coronavirus has affected everyone, the ability to withstand the shock of sudden disruption varies wildly across India’s social economic divides.
It is clear that once the present crisis begins to ease, we will need to reimagine the kind of society and economy we need to build. In any future such crisis, we need to ensure workers are not in a position where they have to flee their city homes because they cannot afford to stay there. Brands need to honour contracts as part of their mandatory human rights due diligence. Additionally, we also need to work towards solutions such as a universal basic income or universal social security, to ensure food security at a minimum. And we should also be in a situation where we can lean more on the State in times of crisis rather than depending on the private sector, civil society and isolated philanthropy simply to ensure that people get enough to meet their most basic needs. As we look beyond to the medium and longer term, a radical reorientation is needed in order to construct sectors, economies and communities that people will want to call home.
Read Traidcraft Exchange’s proposals for ensuring workers in supply chains are treated fairly in the current crisis: Bailing out the supply chain – Covid-19 and the impact for workers in supply chains
Traidcraft Exchange is calling on UK fashion brands to make a public commitment to honour their contracts with suppliers and support workers. Find out more.
 Voices of the Invisible Citizens: A Rapid Assessment on the Impact of COVID-19 Lockdown on Internal Migrant Workers – Recommendations for the State, Industry & Philanthropies:14, Jan Sahas: April 2020