Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Center for Contemporary South Asia

No Country for Workers: Latest Stranded Workers Action Network Report

June 23, 2021

Sociology PhD Candidate and CCSA affilate Anindita Adhikari continues to contribute to reporting by the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN).

SWAN Report: No Country for Workers | The Covid-19 Second Wave, Local Lockdowns, and Migrant Worker Distress in India

For two successive years, India has experienced various levels of stringent lockdowns. Despite the Government of India’s (GoI) claims to the contrary, the restrictions following the second wave of the pandemic have led to cessation and disruption of economic activity. This has disproportionately impacted the lives and livelihoods of migrants and informal sector workers who form 92% of the country’s workforce. 

While there are strong parallels in the dimensions of precarity experienced, there are also important and disturbing differences from last year. When the pandemic began the country was already reeling from historically low rates of economic growth and employment, widening socio-economic inequality and reduced levels of social spending. The first wave exacerbated the situation. Multiple studies have indicated that over two-thirds are suffering from increased hunger and more than half the workforce have lost work and incomes in 2020. The unprecedented and ubiquitous health care crisis during the second wave of the pandemic has compounded the situation and deepened the level of distress. 

In 2020, although woefully inadequate, some relief measures were announced by the GoI. This year, the migrant worker distress has been underplayed and the GoI has completely abdicated its responsibility. The only policy initiative announced thus far has been the allocation of 5 kg of free grains per individual under the PMGKAY (Phase III). While providing a minimal level of relief, such measures do not cover migrant workers who usually do not carry their ration cards where they work.  In cases where state governments have acted, either following the Supreme Court’s directive or through their own initiative the response has been somewhat myopic. 

In the context of the government’s tepid and halting response, the Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), a voluntary effort that started in March 2020 to mobilise relief for stranded migrant workers, relaunched its helpline on 21st April, 2021. By 31st May SWAN had received over 1,396 requests (adding to 8,023 people) for ration support, medical assistance, transport help, rent, and other basic needs. SWAN has recorded and compiled their testimonies in a new  report. In addition to presenting the government and Courts’ response to the crisis, the report details the multiple dimensions of precarity and resilience of migrant workers experienced in 2021 lockdowns. It can almost be read like an audit by migrant workers themselves and a chargesheet of GoI’s continued negligence towards the working class. Some of the salient findings of the report include: 

Key Findings (The number of respondents for each of these vary. For details see the report):

  1. 1,396 worker groups contacted SWAN. These add up to 8,023 people, including 4,836 women and children.
  2. 60% of the callers were daily wage workers and 16% were self-employed. 
  3. The median daily wage of those who reached out is Rs. 308.
  4. 82% of the workers had at most 2 days of rations left when they spoke with SWAN. 
  5. 76% of the workers had at most Rs. 200 left with them at the time they reached out. 
  6. 34% were not paid their pending wages for completed work, while 13% of them were paid only partially. 
  7. 92% had not received any money from their employer once restrictions were imposed and work had stopped.
  8. 56% of workers reported that their work had stopped for more than a month.
  9. Rs 3.30 million has been crowdsourced from individuals and transferred directly to the workers’ accounts.

The continued prevalence of hunger and loss of livelihoods underscores the need for a  more comprehensive relief response beyond vaccination and health systems. Led by the Working People’s Charter, SWAN members participated in consultations with various academics and civil society organisations to prepare a national recovery package. The key elements of the package include a focus on food, work and income covering 82% of the country’s households. 

  • Undertaking crisis cash transfers of Rs 3,000 per month for 6 months. (1.97% of the projected GDP of 2021-22).
  • With 100 million tonnes of food grains at FCI warehouses, grains through PDS for non ration card holders needs to be made available.
  • Expanding NREGA work entitlements to 150 days per year.
  • Initiating immediate public works programmes for urban employment.

You can read the full report at: http://strandedworkers.in/mdocs-posts/no-country-for-workers/