Does Any One Care? Life of Migrant Workers During COVID-19

Dr. Rakkee Thimothy (Fellow, CSES)

April 10th 2020

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely of the author and not of CSES

Story so Far

The migration landscape has witnessed tremendous changes in the last decade, with migrant stock growing in magnitude and migration flows becoming diversified—a fact that holds true for both international and internal labour migration flows. What remains unchanged is the predominance of low skilled workers in these labour flows and lack of appropriate administrative structures to respond to the needs of different categories of migrants. It is essential to recognise that a significant share of migrants from developing countries are engaged in the informal sector. Majority of such activities offer poor working conditions, often hazardous activities, where the right to health and safety of migrants are compromised. Several studies have noted challenges faced by migrants to be part of the formal social security system and their limited access to informal social support networks; this situation that holds for both inter country and intra country labour movements. The pandemic COVID-19 has opened up the pandora box of problems encountered by migrant workers across the world, which are conveniently forgotten by the mainstream society.

Never have we acknowledged labour migration as a process, which is beneficial to both labour sending and receiving regions. On the contrary, migrants are stigmatised, for taking away local jobs, labelled as spreading diseases, contributing to crimes, increasing garbage, draining public infrastructure, threatening the social and cultural fabric of labour receiving regions, and the list goes on. The present crisis brought by COVID-19 has brought into full display our long held bias against migrants, across or within countries. We demonstrated how easily we could dispense migrants, even if it means redrawing borders between countries. Of course here the discussion is not on the wealthy, educated migrants, who might have a different set of issues to deal with during the present crisis, but on poor, low skilled migrants engaged in manual work and/informal sector.

Let’s Face Racism

The concern voiced by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres about the possibility of discrimination against certain groups of people due to coronavirus pandemic is not surprising. Labelled as ‘Chinese virus’, initial negativity was directed towards Chinese people. Incidentally, referring Ebola as ‘African virus’ is nothing but racial. As all of us know, such stigmatisation is not displayed only by ordinary people. Those in power fueled such racial attacks. Even after the present pandemic started to destabilise American economy and society, the US President Donald Trump seems to live in a denial mode placing the blame on China, Chinese people, or Chinese immigrants in the US to be more specific. Apart from the blame game, something which has not received much attention is how it is affecting the migrants, particularly low skilled workers in the informal sector. Data indicates that in some of the countries worst affected by COVID-19, like Italy, Spain, USA, UK, the share of undocumented migrants, tend to be high. Such workers, maybe, without legal documents to work or stay in host countries, are mostly engaged in sectors which do not provide appropriate health and safety measures and often receive poor wages. How do migrants survive during COVID-19? Do they have enough food during the lockdown? Do they know how to protect themselves from the infection? Are they able to adopt preventive measures against the virus due to their cramped living conditions? What are the health care options available to them? Can they afford it? What are the additional vulnerabilities faced by undocumented migrants, who fear, seeking medical or financial help, will put them in the radar of immigration officials? Of course, questions are endless, though answers at best are half baked, sporadic or often absent.

In Italy, the epicentre of the pandemic in Europe, it was convenient to blame migrants for spreading the infection. Far-right leader Matteo Salvini, former deputy prime minister of Italy, was among the first to target migrants for the COVID-19 outbreak. Anti-immigration rhetoric was also vocal across Europe; in France, Hungary, Germany, Spain and Austria. In many countries, people from China and other Asian descent are reporting racist attacks and feeling insecure. Such feeling of suspicion against foreigners may stay or get worse if leaders continue their baseless blame game on migrants.

There exists no reliable evidence to support that COVID-19 has spread among migrants more than the native population. Prato province in Tuscany, home to Italy’s most prominent Chinese community, is a case in point. Ethnic Chinese who make up about a quarter of Prato’s population are engaged in the textile industry, though the region noted the lowest infection rate in Italy. But this may not be necessarily true in other places. For instance, Lombardy in Italy, which has some of the world’s top cloth and leather fashion labels that employ many migrant workers, recorded one of the highest infection rates. The situation is likely to be extremely difficult for undocumented migrants in Europe and elsewhere, who keep the country afloat: farm work, stocking grocery stores, delivering food, care work, cleaning homes and buildings and several other poor remunerative jobs. Factors like deplorable living and working conditions and other social determinants of health of migrants make them more vulnerable to the infection in comparison to the native population. So the fight needs to be targeted not against the migrants, but the situation of migrants that aid in spreading the virus. For those staying in crowded places, it is practically impossible to practise social distancing or to practice good personal hygiene habits. Further, for many migrants testing and medical facilities tend to be unavailable or unaffordable and paid quarantine leave is not an option. Even worse, their poor economic conditions may force them to work despite being sick, and in the process may infect others.

New York, the centre of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, is estimated to have 5,00,000 undocumented immigrants. Due to ‘stay at home orders’ several of these undocumented workers are without work. While some domestic workers continue to work, even work more hours, so that their employers can work from home uninterrupted!! Enough evidence exist on the gap in access to health care between White Americans and African Americans. Latest data highlight a sharp increase in COVID-19 infection and mortality among African Americans compared to the other communities.[1]So it is not hard to imagine the plight of undocumented migrants in the US. They may simply avoid seeking medical care for fear of being coming under the scanner of immigration authorities. Issues of migrants are likely to getless attention, affecting their access to essential services, as the Government is mobilising all resources to care for their citizens. For instance, in Italy, several projects providing migrants with food and other essentials have come to a halt.

The situation is likely to be similar in the Gulf region, which accounts for a significant share of low skilled Indian workers, who stay in the labour camps. A conversation with a Welfare Officer in one of the labour camps in Dubai suggests that there are 5,000 workers in different camps run by his company alone who supply workers to construction, maintenance and cleaning sites across UAE. Now, there is no work due to two weeks lockdown to combat COVID-19. In such situations, it is not mandatory for the company to provide food and accommodation to workers as per labour laws in the UAE. This is going to have a considerable impact on migrant workers and their families back home.

Displacing the ‘Other’ in India: Case of Interstate Migrants

To be stuck in a foreign country during a pandemic is tough. Yes, we get that. But what about India’s response to interstate migrant workers? The State’s unpreparedness to deal with COVID-19 unfolded in the form of an exodus of labour migrants from metro cities and industrial hubs. For an economy crippled by misguided economic policies like demonetisation and GST, to name a few, there was little to look forward. The Economic Survey 2016-17 estimates the share of labour migrants at 100 million in 2016. Majority of these migrant workers who could merely make hand to mouth existence live in cramped accommodation provided by contractors/employers or in urban ghettos. It is hard to believe that there was no direction or words of reassurance to them during or post lockdown announcement. They were made invisible, but not for long. Soon after the lockdown announcement, migrant workers decided to walk home, not because they feared COVID-19 (honestly, the majority of migrants did not know what it was). But for sure, they were afraid of the stark reality—no work, no food.

Lockdown made migrant labourers stranded and vulnerable. In several places,’ migrants were thrown out of their rented accommodation or asked by contractors to leave labour camps. The majority did not have any money to survive without work. All of them realised they are unwanted in a city they build, worked so that they remain clean and were also bothered about their families back in the village. What followed was something new and unheard. Hundreds of thousands of men and women, young and old, grabbing whatever they have and walking through highway, with the only hope of reaching their village. Some were lucky who could cramp themselves in the last bus or train to their nearest destination. Responding to a query from the Supreme court, Government of India responded that between 5-6 lakh migrants mostly from Delhi, Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana have walked to their villages. On 31 March 2020, the Supreme court mandated state governments to make provision for food, shelter and medicines for the migrants who are stranded.

As per several media reports, at least 22 people have died in the mass migration, exhausted and hungry. Some were beaten at State borders by police, who said ‘they were just trying to manage the crowd’. As the crisis worsened, authorities scrambled to arrange transport, shelter and food for them. Reports from Bihar indicate migrants were denied entry to their villages due to the fear that they may be carriers of the virus. In Bareily, UP, returning migrants were hosed down in chlorine solution by the district authorities, which made international headlines. Across Delhi, northeast migrants have reported racial attacks, and it again showed that we are too smart to narrow down specific ‘communities’ who could spread infection. There are also a section of affluent Indians who could afford work from home continues to be in a dream world; cherishing ‘good old days of untouchability’ and how we practised social distancing, much ahead of time!!! It is problematic how we differentially treat international and internal migrants even during the time of crisis; the former could remain at home quarantine, while the poor workers cannot enter their village.

It is an irony that lockdown implemented to prevent transmission may become a breeding ground for community transmission and virus spreading to the countryside. It is not clear how prepared is the public health services in rural areas to fight against COVID-19. Even if there is one person whose infection goes undetected or cannot get treatment, that person will pose a risk for everyone. From the current narrative, something is emerging clear and loud— how COVID-19 is going to deepen and spread prevailing inequalities in the country. Migrant workers are going to be one group who will be worst affected.

A Ray of Hope

Kerala has never stopped to amuse us. Guest workers, the term used to address interstate migrant workers in Kerala has become an indispensable part of the economic and social life of the State. As the profile of guest workers have diversified, in terms of the State of origin, skills, sector employed and place of employment, it has presented an immense challenge to migration governance; something that deserves critical attention during and after the crisis.

When the exodus of migrant workers was the headline in other parts of India, the situation in Kerala was different. To ensure the safety of migrant workers during the pandemic, the Government have announced a series of measures.

Firstly, steps for information dissemination among migrants on how to prevent transmission of COVID-19. Measures include Bandhu helpline number, distributing brochures, and leaflets and short videos in 6 languages (Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Assamese, Tamil, and English). Bandhu helpline is also offering counselling facilities for guest workers.

Secondly, contractors and employers were made responsible for ensuring food to guest workers. For those guest workers, who are not working under a contractor or employer, food was provided through community kitchens, organised by local bodies. In places which have a large concentration of guest workers, Perumbavoor, Ernakulam for instance, there exists migrant exclusive community kitchens. The State has also opened 4,603 relief camps to house 1,44,145 guest workers.

Thirdly, District collectors and labour department were made responsible for looking after the welfare of migrant workers while the local bodies are in charge of coordination. The State has demonstrated how to treat its guest workers with dignity.

It is essential to emphasise that welfare measures targeting guest workers of the State were not a sporadic response at the time of COVID-19. During the massive flood that hit Kerala during 2018 and 2019, this sentiment was well demonstrated. On how to deal with interstate migrant workers and integrating them to the host society, other states have much to learn from Kerala. Kerala has implemented several measures for migrant welfare: Apna Ghar, an attempt to provide decent accommodation to guest workers; Roshini scheme to improve the educational performance of migrant children and; Awaz that includes health insurance and death insurance coverage, are some of them. The state government is contemplating a new insurance scheme for guest workers in the wake of COVID-19.

Of course, this does not mean that all is well with guest workers in Kerala. Helpline number dedicated to guest workers saw a flood of complaints against employers trying to evict them from the accommodation, cutting off electricity, not providing adequate food and locals becoming hostile towards guest workers. There were also isolated incidents as what happened in Payippad village in Kottayam, where guest workers agitated complaining about inadequate food and shelter and demanding transportation to return to their home town. Perhaps, post COVID-19 the State will have to study the working and living conditions of its guest workers and come up with policies to address issues encountered by them in the labour market, health, education and housing.

Although the State is in lockdown, migrants workers in some sectors, continue to work. Mitu, a domestic worker from West Bengal, came to Kerala two years back along with family. Shop where her husband used to work is closed for now. Mitu rejoined her employment as a domestic worker when she quickly learned it was impossible to feed the family without work. To avoid police surveillance, she goes to work early and return late and commute by walk. As everyone at her employer’s place is at home, her workload has increased, though not her salary. As Mitu says, “I don’t have many options left, but to continue work. We need to eat.”

Story of Manoj from Assam who works in a supermarket is similar. He came to Ernakulam 6 months back. Now workplace is understaffed as locals do not turn up for work. He has to multi-task; clean, take stock, refill shelves, attend to the customer and sometimes go for delivery. For him too, no change in salary but extra work. Although Manoj says, “what COIVD-19, I need to work to live”, he confesses to being anxious when he feels tired after a long day at work on the possibility of getting an infection from one of his customers.

Raju, a migrant from West Bengal who works as a gardener, turned up the other day for work. He wanted to work and was adamant that he would not accept money without doing work. Raju kept asking for how long he can afford to take money without doing work, which was a difficult question to answer.

While it is easy to reach guest workers who are staying as a group, those staying individually or in small groups, without strong local ties, crisis throws up challenges. They are unaware of the seriousness of the situation and whom to contact to obtain essential food supplies. Although there exist a lot of single women migrants in Kerala, mostly engaged in medium-skilled jobs in shops, beauty salons, hotels and restaurants, we have hardly heard anything about them in the media. One critical challenge is the lack of data on the number of guest workers in Kerala, which the Government is planning to address for better policy formulation.

Uncertainty looms in the mind of guest workers. Like everyone, they also have their doubts on how long this lockdown will continue, prospects of employment and desire to join their loved ones in their village during this time of crisis.

Joining the Dots As pointed out by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organization, “the greatest enemy we face is not the virus itself; it’s the stigma that turns us against each other. We must stop stigma and hate.” Several questions remain unanswered. But yes, the pandemic has managed to teach us a few things, the most crucial being ‘COVID- 19 does not care for your identity—your place of birth, language or religion’. The best learning from the crisis would be to acknowledge that all of us are fighting to contain the pandemic and let our compassion transcend human-made borders.