Shrinking Job Market

Impact of Covid-19 on Informal Sector Workers

Nityananda Ghosh

Workers in the informal sector are the worst sufferers during the post- COVID-19 period throughout India in general and Bengal in particular. A majority of them lost their livelihood due to COVID-19 pandemic. They are domestic workers, agricultural wage labourers, integrated child development scheme (ICDS) workers, other workers engaged in brick-kilns, eateries (including dhabas and street hotels), sanitation, sweeping, goldsmith establishments, restaurants, bigbazars, shop establishments, small factories, lathe units, leather complexes, tanneries, vendors to name a few. Migrant workers generally move from their native places to different states cities/towns, 500 to 1500 km away from their homes and work mainly in building construction, goldsmith and diamond polishing establishments, restaurants etc. All unskilled manual labour! It is needless to mention the deplorable condition of the migrant workers just after the Prime Minister Modi's sudden unplanned declaration of lockdown in the country due to outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The second wave in 2021too had a tremendous toll on the migrant workers. One popular theory of spreading the COVID-19 across the world is the conspiracy of the big business, particularly the corporate lobby. After all they have multiplied their profits enormously from the COVID-19 crisis. The workers of the informal sector continue to face tremendous hardships; they have nowhere else to go in the post- COVID-19 period. For one thing female workers in the informal sector are more vulnerable than their male counterparts.

A joint survey conducted by 'UN Women' and 'ILO' on the workers of 189 countries who are either parents having a six-year-old child or single mother or single father shows their engagement in jobs had declined. It declined before pandemic to 55 per cent from total women participation (i.e.62%) which is again much less than men's participation (97.1%). The gender discrimination is also seen in pay structure (female workers get less pay than male workers), social security (pregnant women workers deprived of maternal benefits, women workers do not have separate toilets—they have to use common toilets). Besides the pertinent question of harassment at work places, particularly sexual harassment is everyday's occurrence for which they have to sacrifice their jobs for lodging complaints against the culprits who obviously are either employers or managerial staff.

The joblessness among women workers was rampant during post- COVID-19 period. They lost their jobs in institutions like schools, colleges, universities which were closed for more than two years since March 2020. There was the same scenario in private institutions as well. More or less 1,130 lakh women within the age group of 25 to 54, having six-year-old single child lost job during the pandemic. During this period their male partners numbering 130 lakh also lost their jobs. Before pandemic there was slow increase in number of women workers having single child with their life partners but suddenly the situation deteriorated dramatically.

No doubt women workers were the worst sufferers during the pandemic. Although men workers had suffered due to fall in economic activities during pandemic, women workers relatively lost more jobs significantly than men.

In India, pandemic has its maximum toll on women workers and their participation in job market is gradually shrinking. According to a World Bank report women participation in job in India had declined from 26% in 2005 to 20.3% in 2019. During the hard hit lockdown period of April to June 2020 in the tri-monthly period the unemployment rate was15.5%, in July–September it was 16.1% where women unemployment was 15.6% and men's was 12.6% respectively. The recently published Centre for Monitoring of Indian Economy (CMIE) report shows that during last 5 years 1.25 crore women workers have lost their jobs. The situation has not been changed much during 2022 too. The 'UN Women' survey entitled 'The rapid gender assessment' has revealed the gradual deterioration of women workers' mental health and sensitivity than the men workers. Twenty two countries reveal this feature among the 33 countries surveyed by 'UN Women', managing domestic work which is a thankless job and without pay also. Women become mentally upset 1.6 times more than the male who do not help them in domestic work and child care.

Workers engaged in informal sector, particularly women workers have to face domestic violence as well as violence in the workplace, physically and mentally. The respective state governments and the central government have no policies to look after the interest of the women workers. As if to face violence is the fait accompli of the women workers. The much vaunted women empowerment by the Modi government, Beti bachao Beti Padao (save daughter, teach daughter) or gender equality is still a far cry. The present central government led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is out and out anti-women. They are patriarchal and feudal in outlook.

A section of migrant workers who were engaged in construction work lost their jobs during the post- COVID-19 period as real estate business slowed down. COVID-19 and the disruption induced by the pandemic hampered the process of building construction in different parts of the country and the migrant workers have to face the consequences. Real estate developers in the cities like Ahmedabad, Vado-dara, Surat and Rajkot (all are in Gujarat)—registered fewer projects with the Gujarat Real Estate Regulatory Authority in the fiscal year 2020-2021.

The number of real estate projects—residential, commercial, mixed development and plotted schemes—registered with GRERA declined by 22.8% to 1,346 in 2020-21 from 1,745 projects in 2019-20 (data available on the website of the state real estate regulator). Decline in real estate projects due to pandemic definitely curtailed the workforce i.e. the number of workers (migrant workers in particular). The picture of migrant workers working in other states, particularly AP and Tamil Nadu is no different.

Inflation and unemployment are the two major problems encountered by the Indian economy at the moment. The report published by CMIE is awesome. According to this report job loss in the month of June 2022 is 1.3 crore whereas unemployment rate increases to 7.8% from May's 7.1%. In the month of June 30 lakh became unemployed according to this report.

In West Bengal several thousands mid-day meal workers (Gayatri Chakraborty Spivak told this correspondent why Bengal Government or other governments call it mid-day meal—it is actually lunch- meal supplied at noon) get paltry amount of Rs 1500/- per month since 2013 which is much less than what is paid in other states. In this scheme the centre and the state's share is 75:25 but at present it is 60:40 which is unbearable for the states. The 45th and 46th workers' conference have recommended pay hike, social security for these workers. The kitchen employees deserve worker status. Mid-day meal workers of other states are getting much higher remuneration. In Kerala it is Rs 7,600, in Puducherry Rs 6458; AP, Odisha, and Maharashtra pay Rs 3000. Jharkhand pays Rs 2000 and in Bihar it is Rs 1650 per month. Here in Bengal there are 2.5 lakh mid-day meal workers. The sanitary workers also do not get minimum wages which is less than what is prevalent in other states. Other unorganised workers i.e. workers belonging to other informal sectors face the same fate and they are deprived of minimum wages stipulated by the central government. In agriculture the labourers are employed contractually. They are not absorbed in jobs throughout the year; rather they get a lump sum amount during sowing and harvesting seasons within a stipulated period. The workers employed in hundred days works i.e. MGNREGS have been deprived of their dues for months. As per the state government's version the central government's team is visiting different districts of Bengal without informing them. The central team's main allegation in this regard is that the Bengal government is not submitting audited accounts of MGNREGS. They also allege that bills submitted by West Bengal Government are fake e.g. money has been sanctioned under MGNREGS without any work done. The central government did not sanction the proposed Rs 3,000 crore 'labour budget' this year. As a result the rural workers in Bengal are not getting job. They are demonstrating in different districts to receive their legitimate dues. The central government is unwilling to sanction money on MGNREGS alleging that Bengal Government has been involved in corruption in this scheme. Not only that, the main opposition of the state BJP is also shouting and complaining regularly to the central government not to sanction money on MGNREGS in Bengal. The workers of informal sector are really facing tough time in this state and they survive precariously. It is a matter of pity that there is nobody to voice their agony.

In a recently held (02-08-2022) round table meeting organised by Nagarik Mancha (a Kolkata based organisation) in Kolkata Prof Biswajit Dhar of JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University) disclosed an interesting fact saying that informal sector workers have been made formal by the Labour Ministry of the Government of India. As per the Union Labour Ministry’s e-portal a vast section of informal sector workers' names have been put in that portal to diminish their numbers. Informal sector workers who constitute 50% of the total workers have now come down to 20% as told by Prof. Dhar.

The Labour Ministry of Government of India is desperate to cut down the figure of informal sector workers in a bid to avoid controversies which were raised during the lockdown period where migrant workers had to face deplorable condition as they have not been enlisted either in the Government of India's Labour department or in the provinces' labour department.

Back to Home Page

Vol 55, No. 14-17, Oct 2 - 29, 2022