New Delhi: “We took just one bag with us. It had bedsheets and some food. The lighter the load the easier it is to walk,” recalled Sampat Lall, 31.
On 25 March 2020, Sampat and her husband Lakhan, 34, began what they described as “one of the longest walks” of their lives. With three school-going children, the couple set out to travel nearly 430 km from Delhi to their hometown, Jhansi, in southern Uttar Pradesh. It took them six days, the major part on foot, relieved only when auto rickshaws offered them lifts.
The Lalls are beldars or construction workers who migrated to Delhi nearly 15 years ago. For nearly 10 months after a lockdown ordered with a four-hour notice by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 24 March 2020, both were jobless. In December 2020, they returned to Delhi and their itinerant jobs.
Today, on an average work day of at least eight hours, Sampat gets Rs 300, which is Rs 100 less than what her husband earns. Together, the couple earns less than they did before the Covid-19 pandemic because the number of work days has reduced by more than eight to 10 days every month.
They have lost their savings of nearly three years and are unable to provide digital access for their children’s education, who go to school when classes are intermittently called.
In the first of a two-part series, we explored the impact of job losses—reporting from a village of migrants in Bihar—caused by the lockdown and the employment compromises forced on workers as the pandemic continues to rage.
Today, in the second part, we report from India’s capital how the worst hit are women in a country where no more than 20.3% of women were part of the workforce in 2019—112 of 153 economies in the world, behind countries such as Kenya, China and Nepal—their proportion falling from 30.3% in 1990.
Sampat and her husband are among more than 10 million migrant workers who returned to their home states, many making epic journeys by foot, as the national lockdown continued for 68 days. A Pew Research Centre analysis released on 18 March reported that the “middle class in India is estimated to have shrunk by 32 million in 2020 as a consequence of the downturn, compared with the number it may have reached absent the pandemic”.
Like Sampat, several migrant workers across Delhi, many of whom similarly travelled home during the lockdown, cited job losses, erratic work opportunities and wage cuts as the most significant fallouts of the pandemic.
Sampat said she had considered moving back to Jhansi, but did not for fear of affecting the children’s education. Her husband, who said he had “never seen anything like last year”, explained that a larger city offered more opportunities for workers like them.
“Our (construction) work was halted whenever Delhi was engulfed in smog,” said Lakhan. “And then came the pandemic. Everyone said that trains and buses need to be shut because migrant workers will carry the virus home. The bottom line is, whether it is pollution or a disease, the poor pay the highest price. People like us belong nowhere.”
K.R. Shyam Sundar, a labour economist and professor at XLRI-Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur, said the past year had made migrant workers realise that it would take “quite some time” for labour-market disruptions to ease.
“The pandemic has definitely reordered and restructured the economic, psychological patterns of migration. Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) data of the last 8-10 months show tremendous amounts of fluctuations,” said Shyam Sundar. “That is why workers see three adverse labour markets outcomes—irregular employment, under-employment and instability in income and earnings.”
The uncertainties are evident from CMIE data that show India’s urban unemployment rate. In February 2020 dropped below 7%—the lowest since the pandemic struck—but was as high as 24.95% at the peak of the national lockdown in April 2020.
Jobs For Men Recover, Not for Women
Data from August 2020, when employment for men had recovered, showed that the likelihood of women being employed was 9.5 percentage points lower than the pre-pandemic period, wrote economist Ashwini Deshpande in an October 2020 paper.
The findings are the lived experiences of women migrant workers in the national capital. They described more irregular work, particularly for daily wage workers, lower earnings for jobs with fixed monthly salaries and pandemic-related stigma for some, including domestic workers.
Soma (who uses only her first name) is a construction worker who migrated to Delhi in 2017 from Chhatarpur in Madhya Pradesh. In a spare two-room home without furniture in East Delhi’s Rohini neighbourhood, Soma lives with her husband, three children and a brother-in-law. On a weekday afternoon in March, both the men of the family were out at work but she has stayed back because work for her was erratic.
“Earlier, I used to get work for 25-27 days in a month,” said Soma. “Now I feel lucky even if I work 12-14 days in a month.”
Whether she finds work for the day or not, Soma has to finish daily chores: cooking, cleaning and sending her three children to school. She said if she did not find more work, taking care of her family would be difficult.
A fact sheet from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in June 2018 said that across Asia and the Pacific, women perform 80% of the total hours of unpaid care work, which, on average, is 4.1 times more than men.
Asha Hans, director of the Bhubaneswar’s Development Research Institute, said the events of 2020 had led to “enhanced vulnerability” of women workers, but they were learning to cope.
“It is not only about job loss; it is also about loss of assets,” said Hans. “Often, migrant women workers mortgage belongings like jewellery etc. But this time it was worse because the cost of coming back home was much higher.” She said women migrant workers faced a triple blow of “no jobs, no assets and price rise”.
Many women migrant workers, such as Soma, said their lives had worsened since the pandemic, and running households on tight budgets was a mental strain.
Domestic worker Mamata Devi, 29, said she worked in 10 houses and earned up to Rs 8,000 a month before the pandemic. For six months since the lockdown, she could not find work or did she get paid by old employers. She stayed back in Delhi hoping “things would improve”. They did by September, but Devi now works at only four houses and earns Rs 3,000 a month.
“There is still a lot of stigma attached to the poor, especially domestic workers, as they are unfairly perceived as carriers of the virus,” said Devi. “I also feel that during the lockdown people got used to doing chores at home. Their work from home is affecting our work for home.”
The long walk of migrant workers during the 2020 lockdown led to new attention on their work and living conditions. Both Centre and states announced a flurry of policies and programmes, including free foodgrain, ration cards that could be used nationwide, affordable rental housing and a database that aims to record details along with skills of migrant workers.
Many existing programmes faltered, as migrants returned, Article 14 reported in August 2020.
While most migrant workers in Delhi said they got food and other aid from the state government during the lockdown, they wished that more assistance was provided after they returned to work. Some migrant workers, like Soma’s neighbour, Kailashi Devi, confirmed that they got a one-time assistance of Rs 10,000, intended for construction workers.
Workers who got benefits had to be registered with the government’s construction board, a process that excluded many because no more than a quarter of an estimated 1 million of such workers are registered in Delhi. S C Yadav, Delhi’s additional labour commissioner said “a lot of people” received the “one-time financial assistance”.
“We were also redressed several complaints which came during that time, whether it was about (unpaid) salaries or others (such as not getting assistance from employers),” said Yadav.
State assistance is important because, according to an August 2020 survey of workers with informal jobs, more than half of 11,537 respondents said they had incurred additional debt during the lockdown, while over three-fourths reported a loss of livelihood, according to the advocacy group Action Aid.
Shabari Nair, labour migration specialist for South Asia at the International Labour Organization's Decent Work Technical Support Team, said the long-term impact of the great migration was the mainstreaming of discussions on migrant workers and a policy spotlight on their issues.
“The policy vision we need to look at is, can the informal sector be formalised?” said Nair. “In order to achieve the formality of the workforce, some of the issues that governments have been focusing on include strengthening the rural economy and stepping up skill development. Better skilling empowers workers.”
Nair said “a key focus” should also be on ways to ensure social protection for migrant workers, including the basics, such as food and accommodation. He said that “portability of social protection”, meaning migrant workers could use food or cash programmes anywhere in the country, could be a “massive step forward”, as it would reduce informality.
Both Sampat and Lakhan said that despite the “television visuals” last year of informal migrant workers returning home during the lockdown, no one was really concerned about the conditions in which they lived and worked.
Lakhan said that the governments should encourage workers from smaller cities and villages to come and work in the metros. “Agar majdoor aayega nahi yahan, toh building kaha se banega?” he said. (If labourers do not come here, how will the buildings be built?)
Last of a two-part series.
(Anuja is an independent journalist based in New Delhi who reports on the intersection of policy and politics.)