Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP
The most jarring visual of a crisis in any part of the world is always its human face. And the bigger the scale of a disaster, the more devastating the image. Over the last couple of months, as the coronavirus pandemic swept across Asia, it revealed consequences of not just the pandemic, but also how a virus can instantly change life as we know it.
In India, the world’s harshest lockdown manifested in the loss of livelihood and displacement of hundreds of thousands of informal labourers and migrants—which some say saw an exodus bigger than the one during the India-Pakistan partition (which saw the displacement of 15 million people). Now, as we approach the end of the lockdown (May 3—though this is tentative in many parts of the country which are seeing high numbers of positive cases), analysts and researchers are predicting the same demographic will possibly face even more exploitation as workplaces rush to meet the rising demands and make up for lost time and money.
Trinanjan Radhakrishnan, the project coordinator for private sector engagement at Oxfam India, an international non-profit that works towards issues such as women empowerment and inequality, told VICE that this scenario is “very likely” primarily because India’s informal workforce—which stands at almost 93 percent of the total population (according to the Economic Survey of 2018-19)—already work under a system where they have no legal protection and are thereby exploited because of that. “Think of folks who are a part of the supply chain or construction workers— they have lost three months of work, they have to make up for the lost time. There will be increased work hours,” he said. “In supply chains, the margins are already slim, so there will be more pressure or more hours at lesser wages.”
This trend, adds Radhakrishnan, will be especially prevalent in textile supply chains—a trend that is currently unfolding in Bangladesh right now. Owing to the pressures from international brands to meet export deadlines and piling orders, many Dhaka factories opened this week despite a nationwide lockdown. In some Western countries, factories have reopened. In others, like in India, there are attempts to open up the economy to restore its broken supply chain because of the lockdown. Experts feel that the unorganised workers will face not just the dangers of coronavirus infection, but also an increased burden of work.
“You have to choose between either losing your job, or working doubly hard,” says Radhakrishnan. “Their consignments still have to be made up for. There will be lesser breaks. If eight hours is the law, the norm is 12 hours, and now, it will increase further. They will probably see 18-hour shifts. This could be worse for some people more than others.”
In India, such work conditions and its exploitative nature put the country quite high up on the Global Slavery Index 2018, where “modern slaves”—those who are severely exploitated for personal or commercial gain—made up of 7.9 million people (as of 2016). Workers in informal and unregulated sectors, owing to a lack of strict labour laws and regulations, often fall under this bracket. The United Nations has condemned this, and calls it “contemporary forms of slavery”. “The majority of those who suffer are the poorest, most vulnerable and marginalised social groups in society,” says the UN statement. “Fear, ignorance of one’s rights and the need to survive do not encourage them to speak out.”
Over the last few weeks, the lockdown has also increased the risk of jobless informal workers resorting to loans, which will sink them deeper into modern slavery. In fact, there are concerns that those stuck in brick kilns and rice mills are already overworked and exploited. “Owners of these facilities have pushed up deadlines for work to be completed, knowing that the workers will … (go) home once the lockdown is opened,” Jaba Prince, a social worker for the International Justice Mission in southern Tamil Nadu, told Reuters.
India is not the only country where experts have predicted exploitation of vulnerable workers even after the pandemic. UK-based charity Focus on Labour Exploitation, which works to end human trafficking for labour exploitation across the world, recently came out with a study that highlights this risk in “low-paid and insecure employment in the UK”. “Struggling to make ends meet, low-paid workers are at high risk of falling into debt and facing destitution,” reads the report.
There have also been concerns about women in the labour force facing even more exploitation owing to “gendered, cultural and structural issues”, such as discrimination related to pregnancy and maternity, gender-based violence and sexual harassment at work. “The burden on them will increase at work along with the unpaid care work at home,” said Radhakrishnan.
At the same time, there are reports of the pandemic and ensuing lockdown changing the labour market considerably. In India, this analysis has come after witnessing mass displacement of migrant workers, and them struggling to go back home even now. Now, experts say that this has “taught workers that distance matters.” “The Indian economy is functioning at not more than 25 percent capacity and most of the unorganized sector has shut down leading to migration back to the rural areas. Consequently, in states like, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, demand for work under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) has increased dramatically,” Arun Kumar, one of the leading authorities on black economy, tells VICE. “This shows that workers don’t have work and because of the fear factor, they will more or less not return to urban areas in the near future and look for work in rural areas.” Kumar also predicts that owing to these factors, businesses will function “way below capacity”, which will lead to more unemployment. Poverty will increase all around.
It’s also been argued that though India’s lockdown may have been successful in minimising the spread of the virus, it has also paralysed the markets along with its people. And if the unorganised sector is forced to get back to their unsafe and exploitative workplaces again, it might just lead to something bigger than we have now. “A second wave of the pandemic is being predicted by the experts, especially because we do not have enough testing,” said Kumar. “Big businesses are being shortsighted in demanding an immediate restart of the economy because if the disease flares up again, the poor will be hit hard due to lack of adequate medical facilities and another lockdown would be required. And experts say that a second lockdown will be even more painful than the first. And if the poor continue to be unprotected, there can be chaos in society.”
Radhakrishnan looks at this as a critical juncture for how to treat the marginalised and the poor, a response that even the UN is advocating for right now through their “build back better” campaign. “This is not the economy for the 1 percent,” he says. “Whenever many people think of the economy, they think of that section of the newspaper with words like ‘GDP’ or ‘mergers’ or interest rates’, and so on. But when the lockdown happened, you saw the other face of the economy. That’s the human face of our economy, and this is the time for us to refocus ourselves and relook at our priorities. We need a human economy that works for everyone and not just a select few.”
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.