COVID has blurred the lines between waged, coerced and trafficked labour in India

Wage theft by employers was reported widely; a high proportion of migrant workers did not even know who their employer was who owed them wages. Labour organisers spoke of near total ignorance among workers of their rights under the law. Workers reported feeling abandoned by the urban middle classes, who banned hawkers and domestic workers from housing complexes, and, in some cases, attacked them if they were Muslim. Not much was heard from India’s leftist parties as this extended exodus unfolded, but new activist civil society organisations emerged to assist workers, document their condition, and provide succour.

Precarious work in the cities is connected to life back in the village: remittances pay off family debt while also meeting family expenses for food, health care, education, and social obligations. The sudden loss of work and wages resonated well beyond the exodus. Returning migrant workers found neither food security nor livelihoods back in the village. Families with small agricultural surpluses could not take crops to market as transport was locked down too. Desperate, many returned to cities and to zones of capitalist agriculture, only to find that work had dried up there as well. Indian cities now report an increased number of people begging in the cities.

There are reasons to fear that economic recovery from the pandemic, like the ‘growth story’, will be shouldered by precarious labour. An already deep employment crisis is worsening further. Massive backlogs exist in public sector recruitment. Millions who have taken competitive exams for jobs are still awaiting results and postings, even as the vacancies remain unfilled, reflecting the unwillingness and inability of central and state governments to recharge employment. Likewise, jobs in the formalised private sector are also drying up. Approximately 122 million jobs are reported lost in April 2020 alone. This is on top of the 6 million government job vacancies that have remained unfilled, including in the big recruiters such as the railways and the defence sector. This will further crowd the labour market, with too many workers and too few jobs pushing wages and work conditions down further.

Migrant workers hail from the poorest regions of some of the poorest states – Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, and Jharkhand. As the eminent scholar of labour in India Jan Breman notes, India’s migrant workers come from non-farm owning or small farm-owning backgrounds, and agricultural labour and produce markets had collapsed due to the lockdown. For returning migrant workers, then, home was not a security net: there was not enough food or work. Rural employment schemes, once derided by Modi as symbols of the Congress Party’s failure to provide proper jobs, were unable to absorb such a large returning labour force. Not surprisingly there is a concentration of coerced labour and trafficking these states.

The pandemic has led to increases in trafficked and coerced labour

Rights activists speak of severe reversals in India’s fight against child labour and child trafficking in the pandemic. It is said that a child goes missing in India every eight minutes, abducted by traffickers, sold for illegal adoption, or put into illegal work by parents facing destitution, joblessness, and hunger. Children themselves are reported to have volunteered to take on work. With little work and food in villages, families returning to cities from the countryside are seen in the cities begging.

Bengal, with pockets of extreme rural poverty, apparently leads other states as the primary source of trafficked children. With the traditional employers of child labour – restaurants, food stalls and food carts, roadside repair shops – facing their own crisis, children are increasingly trafficked for domestic servitude, sex work, and internet pornography. Internet and encrypted digital communication apps are used in conducting transactions, enabling traffickers to evade already lax law enforcement. A sharp increase in trafficking of children and young women is also said to have occurred in northeast India, and trafficking from and to Nepal is also on the rise.

The government’s strategies to reverse the economic catastrophe caused by the pandemic have been sluggish. India has entered a recession. Modi announced a stimulus package worth $265 billion dollars, but barely 10% has been disbursed and it’s entirely unclear whether food and cash are reaching the most needy. Meanwhile, already lax labour laws are being loosened. In many states ruled by Modi’s party, BJP, there has been steady erosion of labour rights, ostensibly to increase the ‘ease of doing business’ to bring the economy back on its feet.

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