ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Who Cares for Labour?

An Empirical Inquiry Based on the PLFS 2018–19 Data Set

Around one-third of the informal workers in urban area earn less than the minimum wage stipulated for unskilled workers. Ten percent of employed workers are working poor, and around 27% are vulnerable workers. In total, around 37% (39 million) workers are either poor or vulnerable to working poor. The government’s failure to reduce this wage inequality and ensure even a bare minimum wage to a large chunk of the urban informal workers of whom the majority are Dalit, Adivasi, and Other Backward Class during the normalcy is strongly linked to the massive exodus of the urban informal workers to their native places during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The authors would like to thank Chandan Kumar Sharma and Akhil Alha for their valuable comments on the paper. The authors also thank Bikash Kumar Malik for the requisite data. They would like to thank the anonymous referees for their valuable comments and suggestions.

During the nationwide lockdown imposed in March 2020, a mass exodus of migrant workers from urban locations to their native places took place that was widely covered by print, electronic, and social media and witnessed by the whole nation. These migrant workers were rendered helpless as they tried to reach their villages; the visuals of overloaded trucks and buses with them are still afresh in our memory. However, the worse was that thousands embarked on this journey on foot, and for many, this was as far as 1,000 miles away from their urban locations. The returnee migrant workers defied not only heat, hunger, and tiredness but also unwarranted police brutality. There were instances of death for these workers due to starvation, fatigue, and road accidents on their journey back home. According to a rough estimate, 10 million people migrated back to their home cities, while 2.6 million remained stranded across the country (Chishti 2020). Despite this mass exodus, there was limited engagement and support from the government (both union and state).

While mapping out the direction of this reverse migration, it has been observed that most of the reverse migration took place from urban locations of a few rich states like Maharashtra, Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, and Rajasthan to the poorer states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh (UP), Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh (MP), and West Bengal. The extant literature extensively discusses the reasons of migration from poorer states to the urban locations in rich states, which include agrarian distress, social and societal discrimination, lack of livelihood, etc (Papola 1998; Kundu and Sarangi 2007; Gupta and Mitra 2002). However, there is no such discussion in the case of reverse migration from rich to poorer states since the massive reverse migration like the one witnessed in March 2020 was unprecedented in post-independence India. Therefore, a question arises: What causes these people to make a desperate attempt to return to their homes? One possible explanation is related with the informality in the urban labour market where the majority of the workers are vulnerable and living in precarious conditions even in a time of normalcy. The sudden announcement of a lockdown immediately deprived almost the entire urban informal workforce of their jobs. The anticipation of its further extension, in terms of job lay-offs, loss of any other potential source of earnings, coupled with the government’s inadequate support measures, left these workers with no choice but to head back home to survive.

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Updated On : 12th Feb, 2022
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