Maansi Parpiani, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
The imposition of a lockdown by the Indian state mandated everyone to stay at home to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. Faced with loss of livelihood and threat of evictions, this was not possible for India’s informal workers. As they ventured out and became visible, their bodies became marked as criminal carriers of disease.
Rakesh is a daily wage worker in one of the busiest suburbs of Mumbai. When a complete three week lockdown was implemented from 25 March 2020 to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Rakesh began to fear starvation and homelessness more than the contracting the disease itself. He and his wife were unable to pay their rent for the single room that they live in, with their four children. They feared eviction. He had not earned a rupee in the preceding many days, and could not stock up his home with groceries, as did many Indians on the eve of the lockdown announcement.
The main cause of his predicament stems from the complete destruction of livelihood for workers like Rakesh. This was not caused by the ongoing pandemic alone, but the pandemic had exacerbated the prolonged unprotected and insecure nature of daily wage work. Every morning, daily wage workers gather at a street corner in the major cities of the country like Mumbai. These areas, also known as ‘nakas’ function as labour markets for a range of manual work like masonry, painting, electrical work, loading-unloading of materials, cargo, etc. Employers and contractors come to the naka, and negotiate the terms of a single day’s work. These could be both private individuals looking for labour for home repairs, or bigger construction developers seeking larger groups of workers. Contracts for wages are verbally negotiated, and there is seldom any written documentation. There are no provisions for minimum wage or social security in naka work.
The daily-wage labor sector is very susceptible to fluctuations and instabilities in the economy. A steep slowdown of India’s economy over the preceding four months has drastically impacted workers like Rakesh. Demand for naka workers tends to be restricted to the rather brief periods of boom in urban construction activity, forcing workers to wait out periods of slowdown by borrowing money. Rakesh notes:
'There had been a prolonged lull at the naka since last October, and work has been difficult to come by. Now it has completely dried up. When everyone said a curfew is coming, I borrowed some money and stocked up groceries and ration for 15 days. Now that stock is over, and I have neither any way to repay the debt nor any new sources of borrowing'.
Rakesh is one of tens of thousands of workers who have no access to any state protection in the absence of daily work. His wife, Smita, is similarly precariously employed. She does sewing work from home on a piece-rate basis. The contractor who usually gives her bulk work to sew buttons on shirts has not returned. Smita speculates he has gone back to his village. His phone is switched off and he left without paying her pending wages for the month of March 2020.
In the language of the state, workers like Smita and Rakesh are termed as informal workers. Why are their called so? How does their work operate without any state oversight? How and why does state action during a pandemic-crisis end up accentuating their ongoing employment crisis, instead of ameliorating their situation?
Myth of temporary informality
To address these questions, one needs to go look further back in the history of independent India, when the vision for an integrated labour policy was first put into place. The report of the first National Commission of Labour in India (1969) divided the labour market in India into the ‘organised’ and ‘unorganised’ sectors. Using unionisation as the criteria of classification, industrial, factory and public sector work was categorised as ‘organised’. On the other hand, the unorganised sector was believed to include ‘contract labour, construction workers, casual labour, workers from small-scale, handloom and power loom workers, bidi and cigar workers, sweepers and scavengers, workers from tanneries, tribal labour, employees in shops and commercial establishments and other unprotected workers’ (1969, 417–237). Unorganised workers, it was noted, were bound by custom to certain ‘traditional’ forms of work. The report suggested that these jobs were temporary, and would disappear over time with the intervention of technology.
This duality in India’s labour market was challenged by contemporaneous observers. Heather and Vijay Joshi (1976) noted that the idea of two distinct sectors of employment was an artificial construction and distorted the real scale of ‘unorganised’ work in India. Over the subsequent years, the binary argument however got increasingly entrenched in the state labour departments. It was replaced with an even broader differentiation of formal – informal work , that no longer had unionisation as a criteria. Anything outside the purview of work done in factories, public sector undertakings and white collar offices was termed as not formal work. Three decades later after policy makers had predicted a gradual disappearance of informal work, the reverse seemed to have happened. An unemployment crisis started to forge in the 2000s. A Second National Labour Commission (2002) confirmed that about 92 per cent India’s workforce was now working in the unorganised/informal sectors.
The informal workforce swelled due to multiple factors. The lack of agrarian work forced workers to move to cities and peri-urban areas. These migrant workers, however, did not transition to formal industrial work as was expected, but to informal manual work (Breman 1996; 2003). Workers like Rakesh’s father first moved to Mumbai during this time. He came from the north-western state of Rajasthan, and tried to seek work in the ongoing boom in construction activities in the city centre in the early 2000s. As land value rose in central Mumbai, textile factories located on expensive real estate sought to shut or move operations to the peripheries of the city. New residential buildings were constructed on erstwhile industrial lands, and migrant workers were absorbed into this demand for construction work.
Ironically, this demand in labour was created at the cost of the loss of livelihood for Mumbai’s factory workers. The ongoing employment crisis gave the state a rationale to implement a new policy, through which labour laws were diluted to facilitate industrial closures and ‘to remove disincentives to additional employment generation’ (‘Industrial Policy of Maharashtra’ 2001, 9–10). Mill owners were permitted to arbitrarily close down factories, sell mill lands, and undertake mass retrenchment. The Industrial Disputes Act, which provided workers job security and the right to strike, was also amended to be applicable to factories over 300 workers, instead of the previous threshold of 100 workers (Agarwala 2013, 173). A large proportion of these retrenched ‘formal’ workers and their families were redirected to the burgeoning demands of ‘informal work’. Former factory workers transitioned to private security work, employed on a temporary basis by middle class apartment buildings in Mumbai (Mhaskar 2013).
Another two decades following the employment crisis of the 2000s, a sharp drop in employment numbers yet again sparked a debate on job creation in 2019. The proportion of informal and temporary work had risen even further. It was no longer possible to dismiss informal work as a temporary feature, and attempts were made to include short-term jobs into the estimates of employment. Incentive-based work like that performed by app-based (Ola/Uber) taxi drivers and food delivery workers for platforms like Zomato and Swiggy were sought to be enumerated in employment data as employed persons. Platform-based jobs were upheld as the future of jobs. For the first time informal workers became fully visible in employment data. However, that was the extent of their inclusion. The employment crisis was framed as a crisis of employment data, now fully solved. It meant little qualitative change in their short-term contracts, low wages or lack of social protection. They remain informally employed, even if now formally enumerated in employment surveys.
The employment crises of both 2000 and 2019 propelled the state of informal workers to mainstream limelight. However, at both points workers’ newfound visibility was short-lived and an opportunity was lost to remedy their exclusion from protected work. They were either redirected to new kinds of informality, or their official status re-designated as formal in survey data, without effectuating any tangible and sustainable change in the uncertain and insecure nature of their work. A similar kind of process seems to be underway as a response to the COVID-19 crisis. The decision to implement a complete lockdown of the country threw the entire population into a state of panic. Informal workers could not afford to continue living in the cities where they worked, in the absence of work, and set out to return to their home villages. In the absence of transport options, many chose to walk hundreds of kilometres. Walby (2015) notes how events framed as ‘crises’ often have a cascading effect, spilling over from one domain to another. In this case, a health crisis has led to a humanitarian one. In that process, the migrant nature of the informal workforce has become visible. The state would have preferred these workers to remain invisible, but the call to stay at home made them set out on the journey towards their own spaces of belonging, where a modicum of physical and emotional safety could be sought.
It is, however, not the migrant laborer’s work that has attained public attention; instead, the focus has been on migrant bodies. Seen as possible carriers of disease, they have been criminalised for having ventured out and for having broken the rules of the lockdown. Fears of ostracisation by home villages have grown as a result. As the number of migrants on the move increased exponentially, the week following the lockdown revealed the retrospective nature of the state’s ‘migrant management’ activities – from the spraying of chemical cleaners on return migrants in Uttar Pradesh, to the crowded chaos at a bus terminal in Delhi from where buses were to take migrants back to their villages. Many workers continue to be stuck in transit, in unfamiliar cities and towns, not having found any way to get back home. Shelters were created in many parts of India, along dense migrant corridors. Given the mass displacement that took place, transportation of workers to shelters has become a complex logistical exercise in its own right. The state wanted the workers to stay home, and by that logic to stay invisible. This is however proving to be impossible for all migrant informal workers. Many like Rakesh stayed in Mumbai. He was born there to migrant parents, and did not have a rural home to go back to. Without wages, though, Rakesh could not pay the rent for the month of March 2020, and at the time of writing was gripped with the fear of a possible eviction. He noted, ‘They want us to stay home, and Mumbai is my home, but we might be becoming homeless very soon’.
Unlike circular migrants who go back and forth more often, workers like Rakesh tend to be more settled in the city. Termed as ‘middle migrants’ by Gidwani and Ramamurthy (2018), these workers only occasionally return to their rural homes, most often once a year for social events, elections, etc. However, even as city residents, they are seldom able to become property owners in expensive cities like Mumbai and Delhi. In the absence of both formal work and formal housing, they are not seen as legitimate citizens of the city by the local state authorities. The lack of domicile status prevents workers from accessing subsidised ration and any other welfare benefits that may be instituted for informal workers (Srivastava 2020). This absence of documentation to prove their urban status is further complicated by the linguistic politics of the different regional states (Kone et al. 2017). Migrants are stigmatised and face harassment by locals, also by local police, on the grounds of being ‘outsiders’. The nativist and sons-of-the-soil movement has particularly been strong in Maharashtra, upheld as a state for Marathi speakers (Deshingkar and Akter 2009). For instance, one’s migrant status has nothing to do with how long a person has stayed in the city. Not being a Marathi speaker makes you a permanent migrant in the city of Mumbai.
Olwig (2018) writes that due to these exclusions from formal processes and structures, migrant workers often occupy a non-synchronous and bumpy sense of time. They have to be agile to sudden changes in their circumstances: to changing policy paradigms, uncertain work, providing for family needs and sickness. Before the COVID-19 crisis, proponents of a ‘future of work’ discourse predicted that mass retrenchments and informalisation would occur in jobs redundant to a new technological world (ILO 2018; Manyika et al. 2017). Now, there is a sense that this future is upon us. In reality this has already occurred for the migrant informal workers several decades ago. The pandemic has pushed them further into an indefinite void of uncertainty, as they fight for survival from one day to another. Without access to food or basic supplies, they cannot stay at home. Faced with evictions and homelessness, they can no longer stay invisible either.
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Maansi Parpiani completed her PhD from the University of Copenhagen in 2019. She continues to be a Visiting Scholar at the University of Copenhagen, and is Senior Consultant for Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit working for migrant workers in India. She can be reached at email@example.com
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