COVID-19 migrants: Future of work and production

Work needs to be reimagined. This is an opportunity to renew rural economies and make them resilient; but it won’t to be easy  

By Sunita Narain
Published: Sunday 17 May 2020
COVID-19 migrants: Future of work and production. Photo: Down To Earth

Events are moving so fast in our world. It was just two weeks ago that I wrote how the economic collapse because of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) had made the invisible, visible. I wrote about the images of migrant labourers that haunt us, who made their way from villages to cities for jobs and are now walking back home because of job loss — often dying and collapsing with hunger.

Since then, the migrant crisis has made its way into our homes; into our living rooms; and, into our consciousness like never before. We have seen them; we have felt their pain; and, we have wept when we heard how tired migrants sleeping on train tracks were crushed to death by an incoming train. More and more of such cases have come to light — we are all traumatised. I know.

But it is also important to note that their pain has not gone unnoticed — the government has started trains to bring migrants back home; it has done this knowing there is danger that the contagion might spread to villages. But it knows that there is also anguish to go home. It had to respond. I can say that as yet, all these efforts, including the move to provide free food to the returning people, is still too little — much more needs to be done to take them home with dignity and to provide them with wherewithal to survive in the coming months.

However, what we need to discuss now, is not just the returning migrants, but what this will mean for the future of work and the future of production — not just in India, but across the world. So, what happens to work now — workers have returned home; they may come back as things improve or they may not. Already in Indian cities, we are getting news about how essential municipal services are affected without this workforce. We are getting news about the panic of builders — industry is finding that even when lockdowns are lifted, production needs workers. 

So, the value of their work — the worker who was until now dispensable and cheap — is being felt. These workers were kept in the worst conditions; sleeping and eating in hovels — inside the ‘sweat’ factory that the world has come to know. There is no government housing or transport or any other such facility for industrial areas — factories are supposed to produce and workers are supposed to find whatever means they can to survive.

We know that people live cheek-to-jowl with industry — this makes them vulnerable to toxic gas leakages or pollution. But have we ever stopped to ask why these informal, illegal habitations are built — because there is no housing provided. But labour needs jobs; industry needs labour. But now labour has gone; some say they will never return.

Work needs to be reimagined. In areas where people will return, this is the great opportunity to renew rural economies and make them resilient. But this is not going to be easy.

Just consider how, in the 1970s, when Maharashtra had the great famine looming and it feared massive unrest in its cities because of rural exodus, one man, VS Page, a Gandhian, had come up with the scheme to keep people employed at their place of residence. This was the start of the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS), which morphed into the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) many years later.

But what we forget as this programme took the avatar of government rules is that it was a contract — between the rural and urban. Professionals in cities paid a tax, which went into the scheme meant to provide employment at home for villages. It was a win-win for both.

What we also forget is the opportunity that this work provides to rebuild nature’s capital — through real and tangible assets of water, forests, grazing lands, horticulture and investment in livelihoods. This is not to say that these words are not there in the government document. All this is said, but there is little understanding of the intent or the opportunity. It is a tired scheme, meant to provide work during distress.

We need new direction and leadership. We must stop seeing this as a scheme for breaking stones in the scorching sun. We must see this as the scheme for providing livelihoods for renewal — do all we can to build the rural economy, driven as it is through value addition in agriculture, dairy and forestry. It needs a new blueprint; a new compact between the rural and the urban.

But this then brings me to the question of production — India and all other countries of the world are desperate to re-start factories and re-build economies. The fact is that the global economy is built on cheap labour and by discounting environment protection — there is a cost to providing homes for workers; providing adequate living conditions and wages that would give people well-being.

There is a cost to ensure that water and air and waste are not dumped, but treated and then disposed of. The rich did not want to pay this cost; they wanted cheap goods for consumption. That’s why production moved to our world. So, what happens now? I will discuss this in my third connected thread of this dialogue next fortnight.


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