Containment has been the norm in the countries and around the world since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first lockdown imposed in India in March last year was of unprecedented severity and had varying impact across different classes of society. As the salaried and well-to-do class shifted to work-from-home scenarios, the plight of the poor, including day laborers and migrant workers, was gruesome. With most of the states in lockdown mode in Wave 2 now, the horrors of the past year have come back to haunt them.
Recognizing this, the Karnataka wing of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), affiliated with the Indian Communist Liberation Party (Marxist-Leninist), released a report titled “Second Wave Workers: The Impact of COVID -19 Pandemic and Containment of Local and Migrant Workers in Bengaluru ‘in collaboration with the Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU) and the Domestic Workers’ Rights Union (DWRU). The report examines the impact of the pandemic on the health, livelihoods and food security of workers in Bengaluru. While the health impact has been continuous with many workers dying from the virus, last year’s lockdown also had a far-reaching effect on livelihoods and food security. Restrictions introduced since the last week of April have only worsened the situation.
Speaking at the report’s online launch on May 18, several workers shared their experiences of how the pandemic and the lockdown had turned their lives upside down. Syed Zameer from Bengaluru Jilla Beedhi Vyapaari Sanghatanegala Okkuta (Bengaluru Federation of Street Vendors Unions) said: “Permission has been granted [by the State government] for vendors of fruits, vegetables, greens and flowers to sell their wares for four hours in the morning during the lockdown. Without autorickshaws and buses, four hours is not enough for these vendors to go to wholesale markets and come back to sell their product. These products rot overnight if unsold. Vendors of other items cannot even be on the streets. It is a dire situation for street vendors.
An indignant pourakarmika (sanitation worker) called Ratna who is a member of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) Pourakarmikara Sangha has poured out his woes. She said: “We have worked conscientiously since the start of the pandemic but have not received any benefits from the government. We eliminate used masks and are the first line of defense. Our role is even more important than that of doctors. And what do we get for that? We are treated worse than dogs. When we ask someone for water, he tells us not to touch the gate. Today is the 18th [of May] and I still haven’t received my salary!
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DWRU’s Vannamma said domestic workers were only paid “half of their wages or sometimes no wages” during the time they were asked to take time off work. Renukamma L. of GATWU said workers in garment factories “are really suffering because of the lockdown”. Prem Khan, a ragpicker, said: “At least last year [during the lockdown] we received rations, but this year no help was provided.
The report brings together such voices to explain the gravity of the situation. No less than 73 local workers and 46 migrant workers were interviewed by telephone for this purpose. Interviewees include a wide range of people including construction workers, garment factory workers, metro workers, security guards, small shop workers, garbage pickers, domestic workers, taxi and car drivers, library workers, street vendors, hospital workers and pourakarmikas in Bangalore.
Said Maitreyi Krishnan, a human rights lawyer who is a member of the Karnataka State Committee of AICCTU: “Of the total 25.5 million workforce in Karnataka, informal workers constitute 22.2 million, or 86.9 percent, and these are the people who have been hit hardest by the pandemic and the lockdowns. She added that “the maximum number of people are self-employed followed by casual workers and employees.”
Reduced wages, lost jobs
One of the main findings of the report is that “wages have fallen considerably” for more than half of the respondents. Local and migrant workers, including those working for the Bengaluru Metro Rail Corporation Limited, shared this concern. This situation was exacerbated by the fact that often one of the spouses was unemployed. Vannamma, who spoke at the online launch, said that “men who would earn 150 rupees a day are sitting idle at home because of the lockdown.” For workers such as hospital staff, Anganwadi workers and pourakarmikas (who are mostly women), while their wages had not decreased, their workloads had increased. They were also at increased risk of contracting COVID. Several migrant catering workers also complained of being overworked and not receiving their wages for several months.
The report observes that “the nutritional security of the working classes is seriously compromised by the loss and reduction of income due to the lockdowns induced by the pandemic”. Many respondents said they had reduced their meals “from three to two or one meal a day” because they could not afford it. Respondents also said they had “cut back on their purchases of vegetables, meat and milk”. High on the list of concerns for many was the burden of paying rent with no income and paying off loans. Many respondents also expressed their fear of contracting the virus because they were employed in jobs that involved exposure to other people (for example, taxi drivers and security guards). They also didn’t know what action to take in case they got infected. Several respondents noted the lack of sufficient vaccine as a serious concern.
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In this situation, workers’ expectations of the government to alleviate their problems include “extending EMIs on loans, if not loan waivers”, “ensuring payment of compensation in the event of injury or death of a family member who earns an income ”,“ increase the amount of ration provided under the public distribution system ”, and“ exemption from electricity and water bills during the period of confinement “.
The report accuses both central and state governments of being completely unprepared despite “credible warnings that a second wave was imminent.” He states that “it is clear at this point that there has been a failure on this front on the part of central and state governments, and a massive gap has emerged between the availability of various resources, including hospital beds. hospitals, oxygen, essential drugs, etc. “
Significantly, the report highlights how “there were predictions of the second wave of COVID-19 in the report of the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) appointed by the government of Karnataka, as of November 24, 2020”. He says the TAC “predicted that the second wave of COVID-19 was expected in January-February 2021 and detailed the measures needed to contain the second wave, including the extent of the medical infrastructure required. … According to a TAC member and nodal officer for genomic confirmation of SARS-CoV-2 in Karnataka, the situation could have been brought under control had the report been taken seriously at the time or even in March of this year. So if the state government had heeded TAC’s advice, the workers would not have been in such a desperate state.
The report ends with a series of recommendations on “health aspects” and “livelihoods”. Apart from those that would benefit the general population such as “strengthening public health infrastructure”, there are recommendations such as giving workers “priority in ESI (National Employee Insurance) hospitals”.
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The AICCTU also recommended that COVID benefits be provided to all families below the poverty line (BPL). It also recommends that the livelihoods of all workers be protected. He said: “The government of Karnataka (GoK) must take all necessary measures to ensure that no workers are made redundant and that full payment of wages is made. In accordance with circulars dated May 10, 2021, issued by the GoK ordering employers not to fire construction workers, sanitize their residences and pay wages, similar instructions [are] to be issued to other industries to ensure the protection of workers’ livelihoods.
The report also contains sectoral recommendations aimed at improving the situation of different groups of workers such as migrant workers, hospital and frontline workers, sanitation workers, domestic workers, taxi drivers and taxi drivers. automobile, street vendors, textile workers and metro workers.