The informal sector suffered the first and the most severe brunt of the ongoing pandemic. As elucidated by various reports and the media coverage of the migrant worker’s crises the pandemic left many casual and daily wage workers unemployed, dipping into their meagre savings for survival and even incurring debt. This economic crisis also has gendered manifestations, with women workers facing higher rates of joblessness and homelessness. The new study by Action Aid, Workers in the Time of COVID 19, published this month, gives an insight into the plight of workers during the COVID 19 pandemic. It was collated over the third phase of the nationwide lockdown, surveying 11537 workers across 21 states. The survey shows pre-existing vulnerabilities of the respondents, the impact of the lockdown on livelihoods and wages, and the access workers had to relief and entitlements.

Also Read: Worldover, Female-Led Countries Show Better COVID-19 Outcomes: Report

Gendered Implications

Women workers comprise around 28 per cent of the sample, with a total of 3221 respondents. They outnumbered men in five occupations – domestic help, weeding work, general agricultural labour, waste work and beedi making. 85% of domestic workers lost their jobs by May, many of them had to reduce their consumption and rely on savings.

Waste workers faced difficulty in going out to collect waste owing to various reasons such as the fear of the disease, lack of protective gear, lack of transport, and policing. Others shared that the shutting down of godowns had adversely impacted them as they could not find any space to segregate the waste after having collected it.

On the whole, before the lockdown 90% of the women surveyed were working as compared to 85% of the men. However, by mid-may 79% women workers were unemployed as compared to 75% men. Over 88% of domestic workers live in urban areas as against only 11.5% in rural areas. Also, 40% of them said they had migrated for work.

The lockdown saw affect in food consumption as well, with 60% women workers reporting food insecurity. Before the lockdown, more than 79 per cent of domestic workers said that they had sufficient food, but after the lockdown was imposed, only 13 per cent said that they had sufficient food. There was also a drop in the water sufficiency levels, access to clean drinking water and running water for other purposes also fell drastically.

We reached out to Aniyan PV from the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, for his observations on the state of women workers during the lockdown period : “The women in those families whom we have distributed rations have lost their existence as independent subjects during the pandemic. First of all their only income source dried up and it had an impact on the family income. The earning male member in most such families were spending at his will and the other family members were dependent on the income of the mother. It had a direct bearing upon even on the dietary intake of these families. We met many such families who were completely dependent on the rations supplied by the government and us. Most of them were working as maids and domestic help basically in the hospitality sector. Their earnings were like less than Rs 10,000/- a month. We had to even supply milk to children and lactating mothers at many instances. These families were mainly from Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. ”

Also Read: Govt. Labour Force Report Underestimated Female Participation

Assistance and Benefits

The survey highlighted some longstanding issues that the informal sector worker’s face and those that were aggravated by the COVID 19 crisis. It highlighted the precarious status of housing -only around 13 per cent of workers in the sample reported that they have a rent agreement. Around 60 per cent of migrants said they had to vacate their housing after the lockdown. They were forced to vacate their housing because of a loss of livelihood (44 per cent), inability to pay rent (19 per cent), closure of factories (18 per cent), and eviction by landlords or employers (5 per cent).

A lot of these workers already had debts before the beginning of the lockdown, and around 60% borrowed more money to meet living and healthcare expenditures. Most respondents received no cash, transport, food or shelter assistance from any source during the lockdown. Approximately 79 per cent received no cash assistance, 44 per cent received no food assistance, and 85 per cent did not receive any shelter assistance. The percentage of workers who received help from non-governmental sources (NGOs, trade unions, self help groups and others) was higher than those that received help through government relief measures.

The survey also found the enrolment of the workers in government scheme was very low. Only 60% had ration cards, and enrolment in other schemes were much lower. Only 10% were beneficiaries of the Ujjwala Yojana and 19% were enrolled under Jan Dhan Yojana. Notably, out of those who have Jan Dhan accounts, almost 79% reported having accessed the money provided under PM Garib Kalyan Yojana.

As high as 90 per cent of respondents do not have written employment contract, which makes it extremely difficult to enforce any labour laws. This lack of legal recognition deprives millions of workers of their entitlements and rights.

This survey was a part of a multi phase longitudinal study, which will examine the same workers over a period of time to understand the long term impact of the crisis.

Anureet Watta is an Intern at SheThePeople TV. 

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