This year Labour Day (May Day) came at a time when laborers were struggling to even survive. The unbelievable humiliations and tortures meted out to them when they tried to walk home is not only heart breaking, it rings a very coarse warning. The heart-rending story of the death of 16 workers, sleeping on rail tracks, as they were completely exhausted due to their 700 km long walk, highlights the saddest plight of workers. Not only that, until now more than 383 innocents have lost their lives due to the lockdown. Now, will they readily return to work in Pardes? Is it going to turn into a silent but unprecedented strike? It is true that they will be forced, this time even more, by further worsening of their already adverse socio-economic conditions when they are at home without employment, but, nonetheless, they are at present in no way ready to return. Not only that they stand completely dejected and frustrated by the treatment they have received from the bourgeoisie, the police, the administration and the Governments, but are also scared of Covid-19 pandemic.
In America, more than 3.3 crore people have lost their jobs in the past 7 weeks. In India, almost 12 to 14 crores workers are out of job now. Together, the lives of more than 50 crore unorganized sector workers are in peril. A survey report by Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) suggests that 8 out of 10 workers have not been paid full wages during the lockdown. These workers have no social security or savings and are being pushed deeper into poverty. Their miseries cannot be justly described by figures or data, more so with the difficultly in capturing the real employment scenario or status of all the migrating workers who ran from cities all over India in lakhs and crores.
Those who are still in cities are desperate to go home hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away on foot. They have already lost their source of livelihood and have remained half-fed since the first lockdown. Now they fear the risk of contracting Covid-19 apart from facing starvation. These risk factors have further made them desperate as they know they would be thrown out of their rented rooms by their landowners once they get to know that the workers have contracted this infection. Where will they live, then? In the shelter homes? But what will happen if infection spreads there, too? What will become of them in the hospitals and quarantine centers? And where will they get basic treatment for benign fever as it will make them victims of social stigma surrounding covid-19? What form of the much required ‘social distancing’ will be followed in their single room quarters and cramped up slums where they are herded and hurdled like cattle? They know that the bourgeois society where they live is apathetic towards them. That is why they can be seen, even after being excessively pressurized, coerced and tortured by all means by the bourgeois state, carrying their belongings and children with little to no food to eat during the long journey. They don’t know whether they’ll even survive the perilous journey or not, but the exodus doesn’t seem to stop as the horrid experiences they received while living in cities during the lockdown will chase them away from the concrete jungle. They have lost faith in government’s assurances. Imagine, most of them have chosen to walk on foot without awaiting their turn for a seat in the ‘Shramik Special’ Trains, thanks to the hefty ticket prices and arduous registration process!
Notwithstanding the sympathetic announcement of the governments that come from time to time, even now, they are being chased, beaten and humiliated by the police on the roads and now also on the railway track. If caught, many of them are being deported back. To add to that, many states may pass laws which will allow the industries to take adverse action against workers who won’t return back to work. A report published in Economic Times dated 11 May 2020 reads, “Labour department officials in states such as Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh told ET that issuing such an advisory to factories in their states is being considered at the top levels to bring workers back. Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have loosened labour laws that will allow companies to hire and fire workers more easily as part of measures to make conditions for companies easier in order to resume economic activity.” They are running from pillar to post. To keep safe from the police, they choose one road, then another. Sometimes, they’re forced to take village trails and jungle trails even at night. They come down from railway tracks and take to nature’s trail and then walk through open farms, balancing their exhausted toddlers on one shoulder and luggage on another along thin trails. All this just to keep the police away! Nonetheless, many are caught and beaten. Everywhere, they are chased, abused and beaten by the police, sans few exceptions, instead of being offered food or at least water, let alone any help in the journey. Many of them, more than what the numbers suggest up until now, might have already perished on the way. The whole account hasn’t come out, yet. The real picture would come only after some time and we’ll come to know about the real miseries of their journey as well as the actual number of those who have died of agony, depression, desperation, frustration, beating and torture, exhaustion, hunger and what not during the long journey.
What does this indicate? Apart from other things, they are being indirectly subjected to bonded labor by not allowing them to go back home and forcing them to stay so that when industries restart, they must be available to put their labor power to work.
Have they taken it lying down? No. In Gujarat, they have taken to roads and revolted demanding to enable them to return back to their villages. Thousands of workers have been agitating in Surat and other cities since April along similar demands.
In TV debates as also in newspapers’ columns, it is being debated that if they all rush home, who will work in the industries? Without showing any concern for the helpless workers, apathy goes on unabated. The miseries of the workers are countered by a question, how will economy revive if they all leave? Another question arrives, how will GDP curve go up? A genuine question indeed, that puts to rest the question: who actually runs the industries and who generates value which constitute the GDP? It must be clear to one and all that who creates wealth for the nation and profit for the capitalists, and, for this matter, to whom does this shining modern civilization owes itself. Now, who is responsible for this unprecedented exodus of workers from their work places? Why were they not paid salaries and given proper food? Even the supreme court didn’t care to intervene. Why were the proper arrangements of their safe living not done? Why were they and their dwellings thrown out by the house owners, the land-owning bourgeoisie? Why, in the name of quarantine, were they cramped up into tiny quarters with no food or water? Why were they not given basic humane treatment? Why were their outcries not heard by anyone from the Modi government to the Supreme Court? There is no answer.
The pandemic has highlighted the real working and living conditions of the unorganized workers under Indian capitalism. It is simply horrible. The ‘progressives’ among the apologists of capital are now astonished and aghast at it and in utter dismay, they say, ‘the unfolding crisis does make one stop and wonder – how can this be the situation of most Indian workers, 70 years after independence? (Arun Kumar, Malcolm Adiseshiah Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences in The Wire.)
True, conditions in general have improved from what they were in 1947. But for workers, only little has changed. ‘Desh ki janta bhukhi hai, ye azaadi jhoothi hai’ still rings. There are better education and health facility in general, but, for unorganized workers in particular there seems to be virtually no change. The privatization and neo-liberal policies have completely taken away the remnants of anything that, if at all, existed for them. However, the apologists of capitalism would boast while pretending to be worried about workers saying: Child mortality rate has dropped and longevity has increased. Many of the poor own mobile phones and wear chappals. Electricity and tapped water have reached many villages. Though most of such claims have existence on the ground, yet these are the developments in the general strides of capitalist development of a country. Increase in per capita income by 8.2 times since 1950 is on the basis of the whole population and contribution to this increase is because of the amassing of huge amount of wealth by a handful of rich people. It is not a new fact to state that if the data is calculated after excluding them, per capita income would fall flat. But with these ‘forged’ data, they justify the Trickle-Down Theory that has long gone with the wind in these neo-liberal times.
For unorganized migrant workers, there is no human dignity either. The never-ending queues just for a plate of food has shown the depravity of these unorganized workers. Even the marginal improvement in the material conditions of many of these workers evaporates in the times of crisis like this. The liberals would say, ‘in the present ruling economic ideology, equity is not high on the agenda’. But then, when was there a ruling ideology that ensured equity on their agenda? Never has an exploitative state ever granted the workers all of their rights in actuality. Even minimum wages are not given, let alone giving them social security or protective gear at worksites. They have no security of employment. They usually work on zero-hour contract basis. Among non-permanent workers, working hours are fixed at the whims and will of the owners. Often wages are not paid in time. Muster rolls are either absent or fudged. Leaves are seldom granted and that too without pay. Wages are quite low, not even bare minimum to support them and their families where new generations of workers are reared. They have to live in sordid conditions with many herded in a small room in a slum. Safe and clean drinking water is scarce. Lack of clean and adequate toilets spread diseases. There is lack of civic amenities like sewage in the slums where they live. Their children don’t go to schools on regular basis and play on the roads amidst fear of accidents.
These are generally the words of a liberal who would like to write and usually writes in theoretical journals and speaks in seminars. And this is alright. Their conspiracy lies in the fact that they still propagate that capitalism can be remolded, reshaped and reconstructed to give a proper dignified life to the poor and workers.
Now in the name of battling Covid-19, the last sliver of security that was available to the workers has gone as well. State governments are eliminating various labor laws to favor their masters and owners of the factories and businesses. The plea is that this is needed to revive economic activity. So, sucking the blood of workers is necessary for the revival of the economy, they indirectly say. The chief minister of MP says, ‘with this reform new investment will come in the state.‘
Let us see if new investments really come, but this is laughable. The economy is in peril, and they talk of investment by way of dismantling the labor laws! Even the supporters of capitalism will accept today that the economy is facing a very grave situation of low capacity utilization due to unprecedented slump in the demand, and, even prior to Covid-19 invasion, such situation was existing. And the more the capitalists tend to exploit, the more precarious situation they will face in the form of further slump in demand.
In the wake of Covid-19 induced crisis, more exploitation and humiliation of workers will take place. Increasingly the elites and the government both will treat the workers with much more disdain, even though they say they need workers the most for their industry. This will not soften their hearts. To the contrary, the big and medium businesses will resort to more and more of contractualization and informalization of labor. What the workers will receive in this situation cannot maintain their bare existence, let alone ensuring a civilized existence. So, more humiliation will be meted out to them, more torture and depression is on their way. Their fate hangs to the last rope under capitalism, particularly of those employed in informal and unorganized sectors.
The organized sector, where workers have greater social security and receive a higher wage, is shrinking. With such a huge unorganized sector, organized sectors have no future, as unorganized sectors are like reserve army of industry with which the capitalists exert downward pressures on their wages. Not only this, the fate of organized sectors, with having to face such a huge unorganized sector, is already sealed. They will perish in coming years or so.
Covid-19 spreads rapidly. Now as neither a medicine nor a vaccine is available to contain this, a lockdown followed by testing, isolation, sanitation and treatment is required. But how can quarantine and isolation be made possible in congested areas in slums where the unorganized labourers live? Frequent washing of hands is required but how is that possible without any proper facility? So, the workers are being used as cannon fodder by lifting the lockdown for the sake of reviving the economy. The workers can sense this. And hence this exodus at any cost. They want an end to this precarious situation. Naturally, they don’t want to die of the Corona virus. No one would. After reaching their villages somehow, they are again not being allowed entry due to fear of Corona spread in the villages. So, there is not an end to their humiliation. In future, this will further accentuate their inhibition to migrate to industrial cities. They are faced with Sophie’s choice. If they live in big cities where they used to work, they don’t have means to survive in the face of Covid-19 pandemic. They have seen all this. They do not have money to get tested or go to a hospital for treatment. They are also poorly nourished and so, their resistance to the disease is already less. They often have co-morbidities which make them more susceptible to the disease. Finally, they are going to be made victim of the very dangerous theory of early herd immunity. They have sensed it and are therefore scared, apart from feeling dejected and frustrated at the horrifying treatment meted out to them by the bourgeois state.
Lockdown is being lifted at any cost and workers who stayed back in the beginning are tacitly and coercively being forced to stay in the cities. For this, they are being constantly tortured. The Wire writes – ”Businesses want the lockdown to end so that they (industries) can restart and if not earn profits, at least start cutting their losses. This is being presented as the trade-off between life and livelihood. They argue that workers without work and incomes will die of hunger. They also argue for ‘herd immunity’ – when the majority will develop immunity to the disease – saying it is inevitable. But how many will die in this process? The UK experimented with herd immunity but, as the number of cases and deaths spiraled, policy had to be reversed. They now have the largest number of deaths in Europe. In India, even if 3% of the infected people die, it would mean thousands or lakhs of lives lost, depending on how many people are infected. Are we prepared for this and for the social upheaval that will follow?”
Obviously, workers are not. But still, they are being made both, the tool as well as the victim, of such a dangerous theory of an early herd immunity by throwing them in the mouth of death. It is also clear that those asking for lifting of lockdown in the name of livelihood are not at all concerned about the workers’ safety from Covid-19 if and when they will go back to work again. Whether they will get employment or not, is also not clear as of now. But one thing is clear to them i.e. they will have to put up with more severe exploitation as 12-hour work day instead of 8 has been announced and implemented by around a dozen states till now with more in lines, and many more laws that gave at least some protection to them are already suspended. This has further accentuated their fear and will forbade them from returning to their former work places. On the other hand, the states and governments are, as usual, worried about their profits and in this race, they will not bat an eyelid before sending the workers into the mouth of death.
Workers are well aware of these situations. That’s why, they are in no mood to return and would like to stay, unless forced otherwise by some more acute reasons other than penury. By the time they feel they are safe and ready to return back, it may be too late for the capitalist economy.
Originally published in Scientific Socialism: PRC’s Theoretical & Political Weekly Commentary on Current Issues (Issue 2 / 7-14 May ’20)