Labour shortage

Print edition : June 19, 2020

Factory workers walk through a forested area in an attempt to cross the Delhi-Gurgaon border after they were stopped by the Haryana Police following the sealing of the border after a surge in coronavirus cases, on June 1. Photo: PTI

COVID cases start spiking in Haryana as the administration relaxes lockdown measures while industry and agriculture grapple with labour shortage following the exit of migrant labour.

THE COVID-19 graph is on an upward curve in Haryana, as in most other States. Still, cases continue to be concentrated in a few districts that have dense urban conglomerations. Gurgaon, Faridabad and Sonipat—industrial areas with populous urban settlements—account for most of the cases. The infections, worryingly, continue to spike despite the almost complete exodus of migrant workers from the State and a stringent implementation of the lockdown.

The number of cases in a day began spiking after the third week of May; until then, the daily increase had been gradual and minimal. As the lockdown relaxations announced by the Union Home Ministry kick in and as places of worship and malls start functioning again after June 8, the number of cases is expected to go up further. At the moment, Haryana’s contribution to the national caseload is surprisingly small. One reason for this could be under-reporting of cases from fear of stigmatisation.

Health workers Frontline spoke to earlier had confirmed that people who developed symptoms were not coming forward to report to hospitals. The overall rate of infection in the State was relatively high at 54.3 per cent. In the last week of May, the number of new infections grew at an average of 12 per cent per day. Delhi also has a higher number of confirmed cases and deaths. But Haryana’s daily rate of new infections is about double of Delhi’s 6 per cent and Tamil Nadu’s 5 per cent. The stringent lockdown measures in the State only managed to suppress the virus temporarily.

The Haryana government has issued guidelines for relaxation of the lockdown norms. On May 30, the Department of State Transport issued an SOP (standard operating protocol) that is to be followed by passengers boarding inter-State buses. Apart from the implementation of sanitising measures and physical distancing, people running a high temperature will not be allowed on the buses. The protocol also requires passengers and transport staff to have the Arogya Setu app installed on their phones and the “app should be functional at all times”.

Skeletal workforce

With the exodus of migrant workers from Haryana, the highly shrunk labour force is a major challenge for industry. The main producers of wealth, the factory workers, have left for their villages.

Jai Bhagwan, general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) in the State, told Frontline that nearly 70 per cent of the industrial workforce in Haryana was from outside the State, and 50 per cent of these workers had left. He said that the CITU had, along with other unions in the State, made a ground assessment of the extent of the migration in all the major industrial areas. The unions estimated that close to 30 per cent of the workers in Faridabad, 60 per cent in Panipat and Rewari-Gurgaon, and 50 per cent in Rohtak, Bahadurgarh, Yamunanagar and Sonipat districts had gone back to their homes in other States.

Haryana now has a skeletal workforce of permanent workers. While the bigger industrial units have opened up, the small and medium units have not. “The prospects of these industries opening up are dim as many of them operate as small workshops with an equally small workforce,” Jai Bhagwan said. Production is hit hard in export-oriented units and the automobile sector. The condition of cottage and home-based industries is marginally better. Textile, footwear and spinning are the hardest hit because most of those working in these units are not on “employment rolls” and have gone home to other States.

He said that following the shortage of labour and raw material and reduced demand, industrial production was in the range of 30 per cent at present. Employers and industry associations were worried about resuming production as workers did not want to stay back. But the short supply of labour did not mean wages would be upwardly revised.

In several big industrial units, employers had paid between 20 and 30 per cent of the wages for April. This was not incentive enough for the workers to stay back. With no intervention from the government to ensure that employers fulfilled their obligations towards workers, there was little option left for migrant workers but to head back to their villages outside the State.

Shifts stretching to 12 hours had been common even before the lockdown but have now become the norm. Workers are under pressure to step up production, which gives rise to resentment. In the construction sector, of the 22-25 lakh workers, 50 per cent are migrants. Not all of them were registered by their employers on the Construction Workers’ Welfare Board. Only 8,56,000 were registered, and not all of them were registered online. Of the workers who were registered, only 3,50,000 had received Rs.5,000 in five instalments. Around 25,000 workers had not received anything. “So only half of the registered workers have got those benefits. There is a lot of anger among those who haven’t received anything. It is their money after all as they contribute to the welfare board,” Jai Bhagwan said.

Agricultural operations impacted

The shortage of labour was expected to affect the transplantation of paddy, a labour-intensive activity for which farmers depended heavily on migrant labour. Farmers are reportedly being encouraged to grow other crops such as maize and cotton instead of paddy. The shortage of labour is also expected to hit sowing of paddy in many key paddy-growing parts of the State.

The number of rural job seekers is also high at present. A total of 17, 89,000 workers had registered themselves for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). But job cards were issued to only 9,50,000 people. “This meant that there was double the demand for work but only half of them had been given job cards,” said Jai Bhagwan, who had compiled figures of rural employment under the MGNREGA. A good proportion of construction workers were seeking work under the scheme, he said.

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