How the poor live in the time of pandemic and lockdown

Print edition : June 18, 2021

Ratna, a sanitation worker. “We haven’t received any benefit from the government,” she says. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Syed Zameer of the Bengaluru Federation of Street Vendors Unions. The restrictions during lockdown pose a dire situation for street vendors, he says. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A report by trade union organisations highlights the problems the poor people face in Bengaluru because of the pandemic and the lockdown.

Lockdowns have been the norm in the country and the world over ever since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. The first lockdown imposed in India in March last year was unprecedented in its severity and had varied impact across different classes of society. While the salaried and well-to-do class switched over to work-from-home scenarios, the situation of the poor, including daily wage labourers and migrant workers, was horrific. With most States in lockdown mode in the second wave now, the horrors of last year have returned to haunt them.

Recognising this, the Karnataka wing of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU), affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation, has brought out a report titled ‘Workers in the Second Wave: The Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic and Lockdown on Local and Migrant Workers in Bengaluru’ in collaboration with the Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU) and the Domestic Workers Rights Union (DWRU). The report looks at the impact the pandemic has had on health, livelihood and food security of workers in Bengaluru. While the impact on health has been an ongoing one with many workers dying of the virus, the lockdown last year had a far-reaching effect on livelihood and food security too. The restrictions introduced since the last week of April have only compounded this.

Speaking at the online launch of the report on May 18, several workers shared their experiences of how the pandemic and lockdown had overwhelmed their lives. Syed Zameer of the Bengaluru Jilla Beedhi Vyapaari Sanghatanegala Okkuta (Bengaluru Federation of Street Vendors Unions) stated, “Permission has been granted [by the State government] for fruit, vegetable, greens and flower sellers to vend their wares for four hours in the morning during the lockdown. With no autorickshaws and buses, four hours is not enough for these vendors to go to wholesale markets and come back to sell their product. These products rot within a day if unsold. Vendors of other items cannot even be out on the streets. It’s a dire situation for street vendors.”

An indignant pourakarmika (sanitation worker) called Ratna who is a member of the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) Pourakarmikara Sangha poured out her woes. She said, “We have been working dutifully from the beginning of the pandemic but haven’t received any benefit from the government. We dispose of used masks and are the first line of defence. Our role is even more important than that of doctors. And what do we get for this? We are treated worse than dogs. When we ask for water at someone’s house, they tell us not to touch the gate. Today is the 18th [of May] and I still haven’t been paid my salary!”

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Vannamma of the DWRU said that domestic workers were being paid only “half their salaries or sometimes, no salary” during the period they were asked to stay away from work. Renukamma L. of the GATWU said that garment factory workers “are really suffering because of the lockdown”. Prem Khan, a ragpicker, said, “At least last year [during the lockdown] we received some rations, but this year no help has been forthcoming.”

The report brings together such voices to explain the gravity of the situation. As many as 73 local workers and 46 migrant workers were interviewed over telephone for this. The respondents include a diverse range of people, including construction labourers, garment factory workers, Metro workers, security guards, workers in small shops, waste pickers, domestic workers, taxi and auto drivers, library workers, street vendors, hospital attendants and pourakarmikas in Bengaluru.

Said Maitreyi Krishnan, a human rights lawyer who is a member of the Karnataka State Committee of the AICCTU: “Of the total 25.5 million labour force in Karnataka, informal workers constitute 22.2 million, or 86.9 per cent, and these are the persons who have been hardest hit by the pandemic and the lockdowns.” She added that “the maximum number of persons are self-employed followed by casual labourers and wage earners”.

Wages reduced, jobs lost

One key finding of the report is that “wages had reduced significantly” for more than half of the respondents. Both local and migrant workers, including those working for the Bengaluru Metro Rail Corporation Limited, shared this concern. This was exacerbated by the fact that often one spouse was without a job. Vannamma, who spoke at the online launch, said “men who would earn Rs.150 a day are sitting idle at home because of the lockdown”. For workers such as hospital attendants, Anganwadi workers and pourakarmikas (who are mostly female), while their wages had not reduced, their workload had increased. They were also at an increased risk of contracting COVID. Several migrant workers in the restaurant sector too complained of being overworked and not getting their wages for several months now.

Food security

The report observes that the “nutritional security of working classes is severely compromised by the loss and reduction of income due to the pandemic-induced lockdowns”. Many respondents reported that they had reduced their meals “from three to two or one meal a day” as they could not afford it. The respondents also stated that they had “reduced buying vegetables, meat and milk”. What figured high among the list of concerns for many were the burden of paying rent without an income and the repayment of loans. Many of the respondents also expressed fear of contracting the virus since they worked in jobs that involved exposure to other people (for instance, taxi drivers and security guards). They also did not know what steps to take in case they got infected. Several respondents flagged the lack of sufficient vaccines as a serious concern.

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In this situation, the workers’ expectations from the government to alleviate their troubles include “extending EMIs on loans, if not loan waivers”, “ensuring payment of compensation upon injury or death of an earning member of the family”, “increasing the quantum of ration provided under the public distribution system”, and “waiver of electricity and water bills for the period of the lockdown”.

The report indicts both the Central and State governments of having been completely unprepared despite “credible warnings that a second wave was imminent”. It states that “it is clear at this stage that there has been a failure on this front by both Central and State governments, and a massive gap has emerged between the availability of various resources, including hospital beds, oxygen, essential drugs, etc.”

Significantly, the report points out how “there were predictions about the second wave of COVID-19 in the report of Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) appointed by the government of Karnataka, as early as 24th November 2020”. It says that the TAC “predicted that the second wave of COVID-19 was expected during January-February 2021 and detailed the measures needed to contain the second wave, including scale of medical infrastructure required.… According to a TAC member and nodal officer for genomic confirmation of SARS-CoV-2 in Karnataka, the situation could have been controlled had the report been taken seriously then or even in March this year.” Thus, if the State government had paid attention to the TAC’s advice, workers would have not been in such a desperate state.

The report concludes with a series of recommendations on ‘health aspects’ and ‘livelihood’ issues. Apart from those that would benefit the general population such as “strengthening public health infrastructure”, there are recommendations such as giving workers “priority in ESI (Employee State Insurance) hospitals”.

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The AICCTU has also recommended COVID compensation packages to be provided to all families below poverty line (BPL). It also recommends that the livelihood of all workers be protected. It states, “The Government of Karnataka (GoK) must take all necessary steps to ensure that no worker is terminated, and full payment of wages is made. In line with the circulars dated May 10, 2021, issued by the GoK directing employers not to terminate construction workers, to sanitise their residences, and pay wages, similar directions [are] to be issued to other industries to ensure the protection of livelihood of workers.”

The report also has sectoral recommendations aimed at alleviating the situation of different groups of workers such as migrant workers, hospital and front-line workers, sanitation workers, domestic workers, taxi and auto drivers, street vendors, garment workers and Metro workers.