COVID-19 pandemic: A pathbreaking period in history for migrant workers

The Jesuit Conference of India organised a webinar “Accompanying Distress Migrants” on the International Migrants Day, 18 December. Padma Shri Dr Sunitha Krishan, Founder of Prajwala, Shri Shabari Nair, Labour Migration Specialist, ILO Decent Work Technical Support Team (DWT), New Delhi, and Shri Rajiv Khandelwal, Founder and Executive Director, Aajeevika Bureau, Udaipur, were the panelists at the webinar. A report:

With migrant workers, women and children facing greatest exploitation and traumas of the time, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a pathbreaking period in history, said Padma Shri Dr Sunitha Krishan, Founder of Prajwala. She was speaking on the occasion of “International Migrants Day- Accompanying Distressed Migrants”, organised by the Jesuit Conference of India/South Asia. Dr Krishnan said that the pandemic showed a mirror to each one of us on our apathy of migrants and migrant workers, and to acknowledge how important they are to our life. Migrant workers are brough back to cities by flights to work thereby recognising their significance for sustenance of towns and cities.

India saw a large humanitarian crisis due to pandemic with immense impact of distress migration on women and children. There have been multilayers of impact like loss of jobs and increasing debt that migration workers went through. Domestic spaces became the most violative space for women and children. Women went through increased amount of domestic violence due to increasing alcoholism among men. Children lost not only access to education, but also connectivity to the mainstream world with dignity forcing them to the whole world of trauma.

Never ever before in the history of the country has seen the amount of child-sexually abusive material content generated in India. The US-based organisation, National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which keeps a tab on the child-sexually abusive content across the world, came out with a frightening report that India tops the list of countries which generated the maximum child-sexually abusive content. The profile of the content is largely the poorest of the poor. In the months and March and April alone, more than 40,000 such contents were generated through mobile phones. Little children, as young as less than two years, were sexually abused. Children lost access to education and they were subjected to sexual abuse and exploitation, which were not reported, and it has been a frightening world that we pushed our children to.

There has been an increased amount of domestic violence against women. Women and girl children are easily disposable commodity in society, especially due to patriarchal norms in India. Women have been forced by own family members into prostitution, as families became extremely vulnerable during the pandemic. Mobile phones have become one of the biggest threats in the life of women. Before the pandemic the traffickers would grab data, phone numbers, and send bulk messages with offer of employment to earn Rs 15,000 to around 75,000 people. Out of these at least 1500–2000 people responded to such bulk messages, but during the pandemic more than 20,000 responded to such messages, and that is the kind of desperation we are in. Domestic violence has increased manifold. It is a scary pattern for us. While before pandemic young adolescent girls were offered lucrative jobs to bring them into prostitution, the criminal syndicates now are targeting married women, women subjected to domestic violence, and women who are dissatisfied with their married situation. These instances are happening all across the country, and especially in areas where distress migrants have gone back, and women are coming back from there landing up in sex rackets. This is just one part of the humanitarian crisis, where criminal syndicates subject women and children to multiple violence and exploitation, which are irreversible. The pandemic-led crisis has enabled offenders and sexual perpetrators to thrive., and increased the revenues of the pornographic industry by hundred-fold.

Dr Krishnan said “we need to think about bringing back children to safe nets of education programme, and a safe world for children, a world where they can have rights as other children have.” Safe spaces for women by plugging holes of criminal syndicates are needed. The world of sex trafficking is dominated now by women, women offenders, and a feminisation of offence is happening right now, which is a challenging situation. It makes difficult to plug criminal syndicates, and prevent such crimes. The larger question is how to create safer paces for women and children. Although it is relatively easy to get the government agree to come up with positive policies, it is extremely difficult to get them implemented.

Rajiv Khandelwal, Founder and Executive Director, Aajeevika Bureau, Udaipur, said when we talk of migrants we are talking about migrants at work, labour migrants, the temporary workers, which is the most important category of workers we need to be most concerned about. These are the people for whom the rural opportunities have exhausted, and it is out of distress that they roam in cities as construction workers, security workers, hotel and restaurant workers, porters, head loaders, etc. Rural distress has not just been an accident. There is a series of policies that led to exhaustion of opportunities in rural areas with large reserve of rural workers looking at cities, drawing upon its wages for survival back in the villages. The migrant workers are temporary people in cities, they are not going to settle in cities and they will go back. For them, their essential home is their village. The city is the site of their economic sustenance, but their home is back in their villages. Hence there is some sort of circularity, temporariness to their existence in urban areas. It creates its own peculiar kind of vulnerability as they are not permanent residents in cities. Their movement is decided by the availability of work and by the contractors and labour agents who control the market as mediators. Their work is defined as informal, with no formal contract, insecurity, hazardous work conditions, little recourse to legal actions, little support of local authorities for workers who have come from long distances from other parts of the country. As a society, we should undefine this definition of work. Work should create enough surplus, be secured and safe, and conducted in dignified conditions. Workers should have the option of finding legal aid, which is not seen as combative or adversary, but for future advancement. It is not for survival today, but for future also.

Rajiv shared that we continue to be in an economy where 40 per cent of our workers do not ear minimum wages. It is an enormous set back to the economy itself. When the wages are too low, the amount of money that workers can bring in to the economy, for the circulation of money in the economy, is too limited. The basics of the survival—food, nutrition, education—are not available to workers. There is a clear shift in the way work itself is carried out. We are moving away from wage labour to self-employment, and to piece-rated work in which wages do not exist, and is paid for the amount of work done, rather than the time used for work, especially after the pandemic.

Wages need to be transacted at certain level of dignity and fairness. We need to improve rural wages. A floor of wages needs to be escalated. One way of doing it is by better implementation of NREGA. If 150 to 200 days of work priced at Rs 220—250 can be made available, then it establishes a certain floor, and bargaining can happen. Improving agriculture production and rural opportunities wherever is possible is required. Opportunities should be created in a decentralised way. Decentralising economic growth not only reduces the cost of migration, but also creates efficiencies for the industry. Urban employment guarantee will also create a threshold of wages. Safety is another important area to work on. Since we have the largest number of accidents at work, safer work places are important. Rajiv said it is important to make cities more inclusive, and not restricted by domicile, by creating policies that enable universal access to services such as PDS, ration, healthcare, nutrition, education, social housing. Access to justice for workers is critical. He concluded by stating that creating institutions that workers can turn to, regardless of where they come from is important.

Shabari Nair, Labour Migration Specialist, ILO Decent Work Technical Support Team (DWT), New Delhi, referred to the UN Convention of 1990 on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Members of Their Family. The UN convention needs to be ratified by member states to make it work. There are 190 Member States, including India. Only less than 50 countries ratified, and India has not ratified it. Usually, countries that are predominantly seen as sending countries, see their workers are affected by the lack of protection.

India has not ratified the Convention because India is as much a destination country as it is a sending country. It is important to see how migration has become Us versus Them, You versus Me, North versus South, and Developed versus Developing. Migrant has become that stranger from the foreign land. In the US, they talk about undocumented aliens and not migrants. We need to recognise that countries have developed a sense of perspective around which, based on their national policies, but more importantly vote banks, more on populist demands, that then lead them to define that stranger or alien to be treated in the country.

The international community came together at the General Assembly in New York to adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The words “Safe, Orderly and Regular” automatically put a caveat to the entire conversation. It is for the people from the lowest of the lowest socio-economic backgrounds. There are 272 million international migrants out of which 164 million are migrant workers (272 million also include refugees). There are 455 million migrants with in India. Out of the 164 million, almost 50 million comes out of South Asia making the region the hot spot of labour migration. India accounts for 18 million, making it the largest migrant sending country in the world, and most of them (9 million) go to the Middle East. This is not the actual number, but approximate. Majority of these 9 million are in low-and semi-skilled category. In the Gulf, these workers are ruled by Kafala system – a sponsorship system. This sponsorship system exists in India too. Sponsorship is an issue that transcends political boundaries. It is up to us how we want to conceive the sponsorship system.

Shabari spoke of the Vande Bharat Mission, which has seen the largest repatriation exercise the world has seen in the history of human kind. Over 3 million migrant workers have been brought back home with the excellent coordination of the Ministry of External Affairs. There is a clash of experiences of internal migrant workers and external migrant workers. Both have lost jobs, but both came back with different sense of experiences, which brough the question of how to reintegrate people. Another issue is the perspective of skills, one with Indian experience of international experience, and the issue is whom we value more. Shabari also spoke of the issue of irregularity. People who are forced to sign contracts. Forced labour happens overseas also. Contract substitution takes place, the moment wherein one’s passport gets confiscated. When the contract does not get renewed, one becomes irregular migrant. Lot of people came back to India without wages. The worker who went abroad with debt, came back without wages and doubly indebted. It is vicious cycle due to lack of protection in so many fronts.

Shabari briefed the international connect, which is well defined in the Global Compact, which mentions the 10 guiding principles such ‘People Centred’, International Cooperation, National Sovereignty, Rule of Law, Sustainable Development, Human Rights, Gender-responsive, Child-sensitive, Whole of Government Approach and Whole of Society Approach. Shabari said the role of even faith-based organisations has been mentioned in developing the Whole of Society Approach.

Dr Jerome Stanislaus D’Souza, President, Jesuit Conference of South Asia (JCSA), in his message on the International Migrants Day said, “this day celebrates an individual’s right to overcome adversity and lead a better life. It upholds solidarity and fraternity. It affirms inclusiveness and co-development”. Further he said, when violent conflicts breakout, injustices and discriminations follow, and the economic and social imbalances scaleup, the victims are always poor, and today they are the migrants. Announcing the launch of the Migrant Facilitation Net (MFN), the helpline and resource centre for distress migrants, Dr D’Souza added that MFN and the webinar “Accompanying Migrants” show the Jesuits solidarity with migrants.

Moderating the discussions at the webinar, Prof Agnelo Menezes, Former Principal, St Xavier’s College, Mumbai, said “Migrants had their fright plus plight that led to their flight, making them move out of the cities in large numbers. Recognising their might and rights, it is important to put up a fight for the migrants.”

Dr Siji Chacko, Director, Conference Development Office, JCSA, said “MFN is a collaborative effort and a platform for the empowerment of the migrants by addressing their plight to ensure a better life and future for them.”

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