Worrisome to think about the challenge if Covid-19 gets transmitted to working class population

Panicky migrant workers leaving Ahmedabad

Letter to Anil Mukim (IAS), Chief Secretary, Government of Gujarat, by Vipul Pandya, General Secretary, Baandhkam Mazdur Sangathan, Ahmedabad, regarding financial package for the livelihood support of the workers from unorganised sector during the lockdown imposed by the State in order to prevent Covid19 transmission:

In the wake of the rapid transmission of the Corona Virus, the central and state government has declared lockdown till 31st March. In coming days, in order to prevent this pandemic, governments would also declare curfew for a longer period. These steps would lead to many business and occupations coming to a stand-still mandatorily. These steps would also lead to almost 85 percent of working population in the state (approximately 2 crore), who are occupied as workers in unorganised sector/ informal sector, losing the livelihood support because of lockdown. Unorganised sector workers will become economically more vulnerable due to these steps.

The unorganized sector workers include self-employed workers, agriculture labourers, construction workers, street vendors and hawkers, domestic maids and servants, sanitation workers, rag pickers, auto rickshaw drivers and casual loading transporters, hotel-restaurant workers, Gig workers (such as delivery boys, Ola and Uber drivers), workers occupied in units not registered under Industries Act and other cottage or home based industries, contract workers, fish workers, stone quarry workers, salt pan workers, nursery workers etc.

World Health Organisation has issued an alert that this pandemic Covid19 will accelerate unemployment challenge throughout the world. If Gujarat state would have to declare a long term lock down, it would affect the informal and unorganised workers in worst ways economically. These workers have contributed significantly to the State’s GDP and Nation’s GDP. Today, when their livelihoods are threatened due to this global pandemic and the lockdown declared by state and central government, in order to compensate for their economic loss and in order to ensure them subsistence support is a constitutional duty that the State owes to them. We urge you to consider this on an urgent basis and declare financial package towards the same.

Several countries of the world have already declared the subsistence package such as providing them employment security, offer them paid leaves, extend them unemployment allowance, extend to them financial assistance for self-employment at lower interest rates, offer interest waiver on outstanding loans or lower the interest rates, offer them tax exemptions, etc.

Countries who have already declared such financial package include: United States of America, Spain, United Kingdome, Canada, Italy, France and other countries of European Union. In India, we have already seen some state governments such as Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Punjab, Delhi and others announce liberal financial package aimed at helping he workers of unorganised sectors.

While we welcome Gujarat government’s announcement to give the BPL and APL ration card holders two months of ration in advance, we consider this as inadequate. The Labour and Employment Department of state government has issued two circulars dated 21st March and 22nd March 2020 making “an appeal to employers not to retrench workers/ not to deduct salaries of workers who are not able to attend the work due to the Covid19 protection measures”. In addition, both the circulars note that employers shall remain committed to the social responsibility of extending economic and moral support to workers (shramyogis) during such a difficult time.

While these circulars issuing such directions are welcome, we find them inadequate since the State government’s constitutional duty as having legally enforceable powers shall not merely indulge in such appeals and requests, because such a language leaves out much to the discretion of the employers. Our usual experience informs us that in a state where workers do not get the minimum wages as per legal directions, we can’t afford to leave the future of informal and unorganised sector workers dependent upon the good will of the employers. It is also fallacious to presume that all the employers would be having a similar financial situation and today when all the businesses and industries are locked down it is improper to push such a responsibility merely on employers. State government must carry this social responsibility itself.

So following are a few suggestions from our side that would ensure that informal and unorganised sector workers would be able to tide over uncertainties arising from the Covid19 lockdown.

For Building and Other Construction Workers

  1. In Gujarat, there are an estimated 15 lakh construction workers and 6lakh 50 thousand construction workers are registered with the Gujarat Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board. The Board has a corpus of Rs 2900 crore unutilised balance, which needs to be utilised for the social welfare benefits for these workers. So, we demand that the Board ensure 50% of the prescribed minimum wage in the account of all the registered workers by Direct Benefit Transfer to their bank accounts. The Union Minister of Labour and Employment, Shri Santosh Gangawar has already issued a directive to all the state Boards to allocate funds from Board’s corpus.

We wish to draw your attention to the announcement by Punjab state government to allocate Rs 3000 to all such registered workers from Punjab Building and other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board.

  1. Due to lockdown, it is necessary to prevent the crowding of construction workers around squares and by putting a halt on the Shramik Annapurna Yojna of distributing cooked meal to workers at Rs 10 and instead provide workers with coupons for groceries and ration.
  2. Gujarat Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board has 25 ambulances (Dhanwantri Rath). We urge you to give directives that all these 25 ambulances would be pressed into duty to spread awareness amongst workers on Covid19 and to distribute them masks and sanitisers.
  3. We estimate that almost 60 percent of the membership cards are not renewed out of 6 lakh 50 thousand registered workers with the Board. As per the schemes, such workers are not eligible for getting the benefits declared by the Board. So, we demand that all the workers who were eligible for social welfare benefits as of 31st March 2014 shall be extended the financial assistance at 50 percent of the minimum wages.
  4. We also demand that Covid19 be listed in the list of occupational and terminal disease list of the Board and any worker who contracts Covid19 be extended the financial assistance of Rs 3 lakh as prescribed norms of the Board.

For Registered Workers of Gujarat Unorganised Rural Workers Welfare Board

In February 2007, Gujarat Government constituted Gujarat Unorganised Rural Workers’ Welfare Board. This board extends social welfare benefits to rag pickers and street vendors in Ahmedabad, Surat and Jamnagar, agarbatti (Incense Stick) workers, brass part workers, BandhaNi workers, kite workers, and sanitation workers who work in housing societies. More than 5 lakh workers are registered with this Board. So we demand that the Board declared livelihood support to all these registered workers at 50 percent minimum wage rates.

Vipul Pandya

In addition to this, we would remind that the state government had announced UWin cards for the unorganised sector workers in the year 2014 and issued approximately 2 lakh such cards. The state government shall also declare subsistence support for the remaining unorganised sector workers by using UWin cards database.

For Agricultural Workers and other Rural Workers

Almost 90 percent of unorganised sector workers in Gujarat work in occupations such as agricultural work, sugarcane cutting, working in brick kilns, fishworkers, nursery workers, gathering minor forest products, livestock keeping, poultry, saltpans, stone quarries and small and large scale mining, agate workers, gunnysack workers, tent service workers, workers of marketing yards. A large section of unorganised sector workers from the eastern tribal belt of the state also indulge in seasonal migration to Saurashtra, North Gujarat and Central Gujarat which are agriculturally prosperous regions.

All these workers would be adversely affected due to Covid19 lockdown, so we demand that the state government extend Rs 6000 to all the landed farmers as a subsistence support and to all the landless agricultural labourer, the state government must extend subsistence support at 50 percent of minimum wages rates.

For Migrant Labourers

Being a growth engine of India, Gujarat is a hub of migrant workers and more than 50 lakh migrant workers are employed in the state. Taking precautionary measures, the rail transport is stopped throughout the country and states have also sealed respective borders and state transport buses have also stopped all the routes. Most of these migrant workers are employed in contractual system, in occasional employment (seasonal) and as self-employed.

From today the state government has declared complete lock down which is a welcome step, but this decision has created vulnerabilities for migrant workers. We have the following suggestions on behalf of construction workers, ceramic workers of Morbi, industrial workers occupied in foundries of Rajkot or power looms of Surat and those migrant workers who live around GIDCs in Ahmedabad and other places.

  1. These migrant workers live in jhuggi jhopari and kuchha slums in rented premises around cities. They live in a small 9 by 9 feet room as six to eight workers sharing the room, so in such a situation how would they be able to practice social distancing. So many of these migrant workers want to travel back to their native places since right now there is no work as well as no certainty about getting their outstanding wages/ salaries. They also live under the fear of contracting the disease and are extremely worried about their families and in the same way their families are extremely worried about these stranded migrant workers. We suggest that state government shall organise special buses to take these migrant workers back to their native places. We have come to learn that many migrant workers from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh who were in Surat, Ahmedabad and Vadodara as well as those from Dahod and Panch Mahals have started a long journey back home on foot.
  2. We also suggest that state government shall direct the labour and employment offices to prepare the list of all these migrant workers and provide for their safe housing at a temporary camp site, where they could be provided basic amenities and their health situation can be monitored and attended to. We also suggest that labour officers shall visit the construction sites and supervise the housing conditions of such migrant construction workers and ensures that they are housed in hygienic conditions and are made aware about the Covid 19 transmission and how to protect themselves.

Today when the state government and administration is fighting against this global pandemic, all the citizens of the state have extended their support and are following all the directions that are issued. If the lockdown goes into long term extension, the state government would be compelled to find a financial assistance package as in the absence of the same, the unroganised sector workers would rush back to seek gainful employment. Let’s hope that we don’t witness such desperate times. Right now the Covid19 transmission is limited to the wealthier class people, but it is worrisome to think about the challenge if the virus gets transmitted to working class population.

So, we humbly plead with you to consider the above suggestions and declare the financial assistance package for the unorganised sector workers without any further delay.


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