Migrant Workers Stranded Yet Again

5th May 2021

As the death toll and positivity rate in the wake of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic stays alarmingly high, lockdowns and other restrictions have been instituted in many parts of the country. Even though an announcement of a nationwide lockdown has not been made, work has been severely disrupted with calls for further curtailment of non-essential economic activity. The brunt of the resulting distress has once more disproportionately impacted informal workers, including migrant workers and street vendors. Traumatised by the events of last year, workers have begun returning to the safety of their hometowns and villages. The journeys back home have not been without fatalities. In a grim replay of last year’s tragedies, three migrant workers were killed when an overcrowded bus ferrying people from Delhi to Tikamgarh overturned. Many, however, remain stranded, without access to any social safety net. 

As distress calls started trickling in, the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), which was set up last year to support migrant workers, has relaunched its efforts to help these workers and provide them with micro cash transfers to meet their basic needs. Further, given the extent of the health crisis, SWAN is also disseminating public health messages and underscoring the importance of vaccinations and the need to abide by COVID-19 protocols. 

Since we resumed our efforts on 21st April 2021, 51 groups/families of workers (comprising approximately 300 people) have reached out. From an average of two calls in the first week, the number of calls per day has increased by threefold in the last three days alone. The increase may partly be a result of the word about relief assistance spreading, but is also indicative of the increasing distress, especially as lockdowns get extended or become tighter. This is more so for those who have chosen to stay back. Recognising that the calls we receive may not be an accurate assessment of distress, SWAN volunteers also proactively reached out to 92 workers who contacted us last year to check in with them and understand their current livelihood and health situation. A more detailed description of the types of distress and testimonies that workers shared with SWAN volunteers is in the attached note: “Capturing the distress of workers in the COVID-19 second wave”.

Following is a summary of the workers’ conditions, based on the volunteers’ conversations with them:

  • 81% of the workers we spoke to reported that work (daily and contractual) has stopped due to locally declared lockdowns. On average, workers reported that work had stopped for 19 days.
  • We received calls from across the country, but many were from workers in states like Delhi, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh. 
  • 68% of workers (whom we spoke to) reported that they had received their full or partial wages for the previous month. However, only 18% had received any money from their employer since the work had stopped.
  • Some workers have returned to their native villages, while others were unsure about whether they should go back or wait for work to resume. The inflated cost of travel has deterred many workers.
  • Those who have stayed back in the cities face a shortage of money for essential needs like ration, room rent, etc. 76% reported that they needed ration and/or some limited cash support. 
  • Hearteningly, most migrants were not experiencing any serious COVID-19 related symptoms. However, many whom we also reached out to have not received vaccinations, which could be a function of age (most were below 45 years), but worryingly also because of vaccine hesitancy expressed by a few. 

In his speech on 20th April, the Prime Minister (PM) urged migrant workers to stay where they are. Some Chief Ministers (CMs) have also made direct appeals, such as the Delhi CM, who assured migrant workers that they would be taken care of, saying “main hoon na”. In terms of relief, so far the Union Government has announced an extension of Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) benefits to households with ration cards. While we welcome this move, the plight of migrant workers has once more been overlooked. Last year’s experience demonstrates that such measures alone are insufficient. As per estimates by Dreze, Khera and Mungikar, at least ten crore eligible beneficiaries do not have ration cards. In addition, many migrants do not carry their ration cards with them and cannot avail of benefits in the places to which they migrate. In a belated move last year, the Union Government was compelled to announce free rations for eight crore migrant workers. Why not the same this year? Why was there a need for a PIL to be filed in the Supreme Court once again demanding assistance for migrant workers after the crisis last year? 

Our initiative this past week has documented only a section of the distress of migrant workers and extended only a fraction of the support they need. However, we hope that in sharing their experience and continuing to collate their needs, we will be able to amplify their experiences of the lockdown and make the urgent case for supporting them in their hour of need. To this end, we would recommend the following:

  1. Government must ensure the extension of free ration coverage as part of Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY)  to migrant workers.
  2. Government must ensure that every primary employer strictly adheres to paying the wages to their contractors and the workers. The Labour Ministry should also immediately issue an order demanding payment of wages by employers even during lockdowns/curfews.
  3. Immediately add additional funds for NREGA and increase the entitlement to 200 days per household. Some workers have been hesitant to work owing to fear of the virus. Ensure small, sanitised work groups keeping physical distancing norms, failing which, the government must pay the full wages for the period.
  4. Provision of travel assistance should be made for stranded migrant workers from non-neighbouring states who wish to return home.
  5. Labour Welfare Boards should pay collected cess to all registered construction workers. 
  6. Wage compensation of Rs. 7000/- for the next three months should be provided to all priority households/migrant workers.
  7. No eviction of tenants by landlords for inability to  pay rent. Like last year, orders must be issued to this effect. 
  8. Prioritise vaccination of migrant workers returning to their home states. 

Migrant and informal worker testimonies to the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN)

In 2020, during the nationwide lockdown imposed following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, , workers from across the country had reached out to the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), an initiative of volunteers, for assistance with food, rations, cash and travel. A year later in 2021, with the country grappling with the  second wave of the pandemic many of the vulnerabilities experienced by migrant workers have resurfaced.

This is a short note based on 92 check-in calls made to workers outlining the nature of crises as it is unfolding, and the impact on workers in different parts of the country. The distress documented here is with regard to disruptions to work and payment of wages, accessing social security such as rations and job cards, anxieties relating to travel and health, and emerging issues with vaccination. 

  1. Unemployment, disrupted work  and intermittent or unpaid wages

The criticality of employment and wages is captured in the words of one worker who said, “We have food as we have work. No work means no food”.  The anxieties around work were more pronounced in the states where lockdowns were in progress such as Delhi or were imminent such as Karnataka. The types of issues included cessation of work, intermittent availability of work and problems of pending wages..

The precariousness of living without work and wages, and accumulating debt was evident in the case of a worker in Gurgaon, Haryana, who had received no wages for work done. He had been surviving on credit with shops, but the shopkeepers were no longer accepting credit (“Udhaari khaate hain par dukaan ab udhaari nahi le raha hai”). It was not just daily wage labour that was impacted. In Delhi a woman working in a beauty parlour and her husband who runs an e-rickshaw were both in difficulty as work had stopped owing to the lockdown.

Interrupted or work stopped

  • In the case of one family from Bengaluru, Karnataka, they had no earnings for 10 days prior to the lockdown and were extremely worried about how they would tide over the 14 day lockdown that had been announced.
  • In another instance a worker in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, said that his work had stopped 5 days ago. The person who was to pay him had gone back home to Bihar saying that the wages pending would be paid after work resumes. The worker is currently managing on his previous month’s salary but that would run out soon. He also was only left with ration worth Rs. 500/- left.  
  • A daily wage worker dependent on the labour mandi in Delhi had been without work for 2 weeks . He was unsure if he will even get work in the city anytime soon.
  • A worker who had returned to his home in Giridih, Jharkhand, fearing a lockdown in Mumbai, Maharashtra  had been earning some money ironing clothes but said that he was prompted to leave when business reduced as cases started rising in the city.  He had a large family to take care of and worried about how he would manage if a lockdown was imposed.
  •  A worker from Rajasthan, currently in Mysore, Karnataka, said that he had gone home last year when travel restrictions were lifted post the lockdown in 2020. But he had returned as the city was the only place he could get work. Now a lockdown has been announced in the state and the few months he has been able to work since their return from home was hardly enough to have any savings.
  • One worker who called from Tamil Nadu said they did not have a full day’s work anymore. As supply chains were disrupted and goods were not moving out of Tirupur to Gujarat they have around 2 hours of work per day for which they get paid at the end of the month.
  • Another worker in Hyderabad had been paid for some of the work done but had no work till May 10th as the place he worked was going to be shut.

Pending wages

  • A tailor who worked in a garment company in Surat, Gujarat, had pending wages of around Rs. 15,000/-. But the owner said that he will pay this only when the market reopens.
  • One worker in Gurgaon, Haryana, said that his contractor (thekedar) owed him money for 1.5 months worth of work.
  • A woman working in housekeeping in Bengaluru, Karnataka, was worried that she may not receive the monthly salary. She said she was a temporary worker, with no  ID card, and she does not know if the office keeps any account of the days she has worked for this month. She has been working for 2 months, and has been paid for one month. Her son had been working in a mall, but he lost his job when the mall shut down on account of the pandemic.
  • Another worker said he had not received money for this month, but he does not expect to be paid in full because the company, where he had been employed for a year now, was not working at full capacity (as they had to practise social distancing). 
  • A lady whose husband worked in a small factory in Yeshwanthpur in Bengaluru city said they were not sure if her husband would get the monthly wages as lockdown was imposed in Karnataka and the factory was closed for two weeks.
  • One worker in Bommasandra, Bengaluru (Karnataka) hailing from Muzaffarpur, Bihar, said that his contractor had informed all the workers that the pending wages could be paid only after the contractor had received money from the owner—possibly by  May 10th.  
  1. Continued failure of social security—Issues with ration cards and accessing the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural employment Guarantee Scheme

The availability of ration cards to access the Public Distribution System (PDS) system could provide a security net for workers whether migrants working in cities or those in the villages. However, as in the previous year’s case our conversations with workers presented a different picture captured in the narratives below. The issues mentioned by the workers we spoke to included not having a ration card, difficulty in getting a card, continuing issues of non-portability of card across states, inadequate quantities of ration and authentication issues.

Ration card and PDS related issues

  • One worker from Surat, Gujarat, who was in  his village in Samastipur, Bihar, said that he had applied for a ration card thrice but had never received it. 
  • Speaking about the irregularity of ration availability one worker said, “The dealer doesn’t give ration regularly, just distributes it on certain days of the month and if you don’t collect it in those days then you have to wait until next month.”
  • Another issue was the continued issues with portability of ration cards. A worker from Rajasthan, at present with his family in Mysore, Karnataka, where a state-wide lockdown has been imposed, had no access to work. With dwindling savings of just Rs. 1200/- he has no access to ration at affordable rates as his ration card with a Rajasthan address cannot be used in Karnataka.  Workers stranded in Delhi, also under a lockdown, are buying groceries on credit—as their ration cards, from other states such as Bihar, are not valid in the capital.
  • Quantity of ration too was an issue in the case of large families where work had stopped. With no income especially where lockdowns have been imposed such as Karnataka and Delhi the quantity of ration available through the PDS is inadequate to meet a family’s food needs as one worker said.
  • In one instance a worker in Bengaluru said that the machine was not recognising his fingerprint, and with just Rs. 700/- remaining in his pocket he was worried about how to make ends meet especially during the two week lockdown that had been announced.
  • In another instance a worker said that the ration card did not have all the names of family members. While the worker’s name was on the card, his wife’s and children’s names were missing. 
  • Workers with names included in their parent’s ration card were unable to get their share of ration in the states they had come to work. This was true of one worker originally from Vaishali, Bihar currently working in Tirupur, Tamil Nadu.
  • One family working in Bengaluru, Karnataka, had returned to their hometown in Bidar, Karnataka before the lockdown, and were told that ration cards were not being issued presently so they could not get one for themselves

Issues with regard to MGNREGS

With intermittent work available, and lockdown in effect in many cities, migrant workers were reluctant to return home as there was no employment opportunities in the villages back home or had no job cards under the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) as they had faced issues in securing one in the past.   

  • According to one worker who did not have a job card the reason he gave for not applying for one was that not much MGNREGA work happened in his village in Bihar
  • One of the workers now in Bhagalpur, Bihar, said that he had no job card. His brother’s household did have one but they had never received any benefit from it and hence he had not tried to get one. He mentioned malpractices in getting the cards and said he did not want to get into the politics of it or as he said, “Magazmari me nahi phasna”.
  1. Travel related issues 

After the travails of trying to get home post the 2020 lockdown, workers are in a state of anxiety this year. A group of 10 working as agricultural labour in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, were travelling back to their home in Motihari, Bihar, fearing another lockdown when a SWAN volunteer spoke to them. Travel was also extremely expensive and what little money earned after wages and work was being spent on travelling home to avoid at any cost the experience of  being stranded in the city with no access to food or rations.   

  1.  Medical and vaccine related concerns  

As in the case of the 2020 lockdown, medical emergencies too are taking a toll on dwindling family incomes and resources. In addition to costs there was also the anxiety about being unable to access health care. A new and worrying concern was around vaccination both in terms of lack of information available, also contributing to  vaccine hesitancy. 

  • One worker who was suffering from tuberculosis said, “I was prescribed two kinds of medicines, one is given by the ASHA worker but the other one I had to buy from a private medical store, and I am not able to pay for that since a week.”
  • Another worker, a woman in Bengaluru, Karnataka, was extremely worried as her delivery date coincided with the date that Karnataka had announced a lockdown for 2 weeks. She was worried about not having transport to the hospital, and the additional costs of arranging for an ambulance.
  • Another worker, the sole earning member of his family, was desperately in need of cash support, as he has not been able to work this whole month, and had already incurred a debt on account of his wife’s medical needs.
  • Workers returning home expressed fear of COVID-19 spreading in their villages, and  the inability to get tested if they developed symptoms.

With regard to vaccines, scarcity and barriers to access owing to a technological platform for registration are being reported. In our calls with the workers we noted  vaccine hesitancy from having inadequate information about side effects of the vaccines.

  • A mason working in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, hailing from Amora, Chhattisgarh, was clear that he would not get vaccinated. He said that he had got his mother-in-law vaccinated but had to spend nearly Rs. 13,000/- as she had a fever for 20 days after taking the vaccine. According to him, “Jo tika lagwaaya hai woh beemaar padh raha hai. Jo nahi lagwaaya uska health hai”. (Those who took the vaccination are falling sick. Those who have not taken are healthy)
  • One worker said that there was a rumour that the vaccine actually caused corona.
  • Lack of information also seemed to be a problem. One worker whose mother had side effects from taking the vaccine expressed some hesitancy in taking it himself. But he also wanted to know where he should take the first shot—in Dibrugarh, Assam where he was working or in his home state of Bihar.He also wanted to know whether both shots had to be taken in the same place.
  • Another worker in Karnataka, hailing from Bihar was concerned that he would be told by the Karnataka  government to get the vaccination from his home state Bihar (“Yahan ka sarkaar bolega tum jao tum Bihar ke ho”)  and was wondering if he should travel back home.