Need for emergency support for urban informal sector workers of Gujarat to combat COVID-19

FB_IMG_15851362778714794In a letter to Vijay Rupani, chief minister of Gujarat, 40 senior experts and activists* have sought emergency support for urban informal sector workers in cities of Gujarat to combat COVID-19 pandemic. Text of the letter:

We are writing to you on behalf of a network of civil society organisations, researchers, urban practitioners, informal sector workers, collectives and individuals who have been working on urban issues in the cities of Gujarat in various capacities.

We are writing to you to bring your attention to various issues already being faced by the urban informal sector workers, when the entire country is facing severe threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plight and suffering of these workers – men and women and children, is going to be further exacerbated in light of the 21-day curfew announced by the Central Government from midnight of 24th March 2020 onwards. While we fully understand the looming threat of the pandemic and compulsions that have forced the government to announce such extreme measures, however, to ensure minimal suffering and uncertainties faced by the informal sector workers, we want and sincerely hope that the government would put in place necessary measures and support systems.

The informal workers in Gujarat constitute over 80% of the total workforce of the urban areas in the state. Working from home is not an option for these workers, neither is social distancing nor self-isolation. Many workers such as construction workers and street vendors work at informal sites – by the road, on construction sites, at dump sites, and live hand to mouth. No work for them means no food at the end of the day.

We appreciate the steps that the Government of Gujarat has taken so far to save people from COVID-19 pandemic. However, we do feel that a lot more could be done to support the urban poor and protect the informal workers of the city. Below, we make a few recommendations in support of the same. Looking at the present situation, with the lockdown extended till 14th April 2020 (with a likelihood of further extension), the informal sector workers stare at the terrible situation of being in their homes and whilst having to fend for their families.

It is in this context that we hope the Government of Gujarat reaches out to different informal sector groups, employers of this workforce, unions or worker collectives and provides them with the financial cushion they need to survive and aid them in the fight against COVID-19.

Following are the key demands from Informal sector and urban poor groups:

Provision of protective gears in authorised centres – The mass provision of protective masks and gloves and gumboots to all informal workers, especially those working with members of the public, organic and waste materials, and where cash exchanges hands like Street vendors, Construction workers, Domestic workers and Waste pickers. Government should set up centres in every neighbourhood. List of authorised centres or shops, with free or subsidized pricing should be made available at the community level, particularly in slums and unauthorized colonies.

Provision of soaps, sanitizers and water for workers as public handwashing booths –  Mass provision of soaps and sanitizers with provision of water as handwashing booths in public spaces (bus stops, near drinking water taps, public toilets, local markets etc). Provision should especially be made in their workplaces. Where the permanent supply of water is not available, the demand should be met through water tankers.

Issuance of guidelines for different worker groups – Guidelines be issued to worker groups and populations that interact with them to aid / support their livelihoods, while ensuring social distancing but extending solidarity. Like, all resident and apartment welfare associations (RWAs), urban local bodies should be asked to make necessary arrangements for waste-pickers, domestic workers and informal waste collectors to easily wash their hands with soap in common taps. Also, directions should be issued to all the RWAs and other societies to not to cut the daily pay of the Domestic workers, Waste Pickers and other workers registered to work with them, even if they are unable to come for work due to the lockdown.

Provision of adequate PDS to all – Similarly, ration (including grains, soap/hand sanitizers, oil, sugar and salt) which can sustain the informal workers for the next one month should be provided immediately. This can be supplemented through the other state feeding institutions. But let it not be restricted to only those possessing PDS cards but anyone wanting to avail ration. This is to ensure that many who are not in the urban poor – worker bracket can avail them for free or at subsidized prices.

Setting up of subsidized food canteens – Government should set-up canteens that provide cheap food for workers. This would be a critical need in the period of continued lack of employment. Such canteens may be expanded through homeless shelters or even in-migrant worker clusters / industrial areas where workers – urban poor groups live in high concentration.

Provision of health check up booths at the settlement level – The settlements of workers are densely populated and the residents are highly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19, we strongly recommend that the government should arrange regular health camps for screening and medication purposes. Also, proper arrangements of fogging / disinfectant spraying should be made in all these settlements on a daily basis. For such, small booths to be set up and manned by trained workers to provide / locate preliminary screening of suspect cases at the local-level.

Provision of basic services and amenities like water with free access to public/ community toilets – Immediate measures should be taken for providing clean water, electricity and sanitation in informal settlements like slums, unauthorized colonies and homeless clusters. Charges for using public toilets and urinals should be removed and the toilets and urinals should be cleaned and disinfected regularly. They should be equipped with soaps, refilled every day by the local bodies, or resident/apartment complexes.

Promise compensation for workers – In case of fatality related to COVID-19 of any informal worker, a compensation of INR 10,00,000 should be given next to the kin.

Engage private hospitals- Private hospitals should be equipped to gear up for dealing with COVID-19 cases and directions should be issued to all the Private Hospitals / Clinics to conduct free check-up and treatment of the infected people belonging to the informal sector. All the workers belonging to the informal sector should be covered under the relevant schemes insurance scheme of the State or the Centre. Directions should be issued to all government and private hospitals to consider the insurance for the treatment of the infected person. In case the private hospitals are involved going forward, they should remain sensitive to the poor and extend their services to them too.

Initiating a minimum income support program for informal workers – All the informal workers holding any form of worker ID cards, or documentary proof that they are informal sector workers should be given ‘Immediate cash transfer’ of INR 10,000 for one month. Workers possessing ‘construction worker welfare board card’, Street vendors possessing licence for vending by municipal institutions or registration under shops and establishment act, or surveyed, challaned, trained by FSSAI, or a part of registered union, Daily wage workers / migrant workers, domestic workers, waste picker workers carrying any worker organisation card such as Trade Union, Worker Collective or CSO should be given INR 10,000 and send a directive to all employers not to deduct salaries of employees who cannot work remotely, who work on full time or part time basis in their homes or establishments.

Doorstep delivery of Mid-Day Meals and PDS to individual houses – Arrangements should be made to provide the Mid-day meal at the door-steps in order to ensure quality nutritious food to the children. This can be coupled with the above mentioned PDS scheme that may be delivered home after such a request is placed. This will ensure that people remain indoors and social distancing is maintained.

Ensure the inclusion of at risk, marginalized groups such as Trangenders, elderly homeless, women headed households – The inclusion of such groups that are extremely vulnerable medically, socially and economically is absolutely essential. Homeless shelters should have special provisions that provide spaces, intensive care and food / water access for elderly residents. Vulnerable transgender communities should be provided sanitisers, masks and soap and temporary handwash facilities along with the required medical care. Many transgender persons are employed in the informal sector and they should be included in the financial cover being provided to informal sector workers.

Special needs of pregnant and lactating women should be kept in mind and supplementary nutrition ensured through Aanganwadis.

The care burden on women who are vendors, construction or domestic workers has also increased tremendously because of the closure of schools and other livelihood opportunities, which means more sick members to take care of at home, more resources needed to put food on the table but almost no avenues to pursue their livelihoods. Any government relief should include these households and assist them during this unprecedented time.

Constitution of Para Medical Team and a campaign for awareness – A team of paramedical volunteers should be formed in coordination with CSOs and NGOs, which can further reach out to the most vulnerable areas and help the government in conducting awareness drives, identification of the possibly infected people and connecting them with the nearest hospitals or screening  centres. Mental health support or psychosocial counselling should be provided for quarantined or isolated persons. We understand that a large number of health workers / scheme workers / Honorary workers will be accessing the honorarium, however their health will remain at high risk. We demand INR 10 lakhs ex-gratia compensation in case of fatality, and reimbursement of entire medical expenditure.

Establish and facilitate Self Help Groups – Specifically to produce soap, sanitizers, masks, etc., on a large scale and at affordable prices, for which informal sector workers and other communities can be employed at a large scale. This is critical considering that the pandemic and its impact will only grow in the upcoming months.

Preparing for COVID-19 pandemic as a disaster – Altering community centres and schools to be used for emergency purposes / isolation and treatment centres or setting up state government service provisions of PDS and health screenings. Start preparing isolation wards at a large scale and convert existing state institutions into the same to prepare for the avalanche of cases that we might witness soon. Prepare a disaster management plan for the pandemic especially focussing on the next 15-30 days as the community spread is predicted to increase exponentially which will then overwhelm the healthcare facilities. This disaster management plan should also include the livelihood and welfare of the informal sector workers.

Urgently formulate a committee for informal workers relief to address COVID-19 disaster – To manage all of the above, initiate a committee that can provide an assessment of how the relief fund that may be allotted by the Government of Gujarat be spent. The committee should draw plans for reaching out to the most marginal worker groups and also undertake any assessment on urgent basis for such dissemination.

It is hoped that the State Government supports such an urgent emergency package that will bring relief for the workers. These funds must be both protective as a response to current welfare shocks which workers are facing as well as aid in the fight against COVID-19. Now is the time for the Gujarat Government to support lives of the informal workers who have been contributing in innumerable ways and show community solidarity to the lives of whom we have never seen before.

Click HERE for those who have endorsed the letter


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