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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 3, New Delhi, January 8, 2021

COVID has blurred the lines between waged, coerced and trafficked labour in India | Subir Sinha

Saturday 2 January 2021

by Subir Sinha

21 December 2020

Labourers in India barely made ends meet before the pandemic. Many are now facing catastrophe.

Numerous news outlets and activist groups in India have reported an increase in trafficking, bonded labour, and slave-like working conditions in the past weeks. The two main stories were the rescue of young boys from a basement bangle factory in Rajasthan and Gujarat and the rescue of young girls from sex work and domestic servitude. Instead of seeing increases in trafficked and coerced labour as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown imposed in March, I suggest that it is located in a longer story of labour’s weakening position vis-a-vis their employers and the erosion of their existing rights. The pandemic and the lockdown did not create the conditions for the subjection of labour or for trafficking. They deepened existing asymmetries.

The popular view of the ‘India success story’ is that of sustained high growth rates on the one hand and record reductions in absolute poverty on the other. But in fact high growth was delivered on the backs on hyper-exploitation of ‘informal’ and ‘migrant’ labour, which has been “ground down by growth”. India has also relied heavily on the large-scale transfer of land ownership and the hyper-exploitation of nature. Successive governments have pursued the strategy of making ‘cheap land’ and ‘cheap nature’, along with ‘cheap labour’, available to capitalists, which has produced a steady stream of workers away from affected rural areas to the cities.

Factors other than the effects of economic policy also bear on the conditions of labour. Climate events leading to drought or flood, for example, have pushed people into hyper-exploitative labour relations and work conditions. The simple fact of too little or too much rain has helped fuel pockets of extreme deprivation – in Bihar, Bengal, Jharkhand, Orissa, and Uttar Pradesh in particular – which are the main sources of trafficking and coerced labour in India. Wage theft by employers, poor enforcement and understanding of rights, the presence of extremely coercive work conditions, violence with impunity against workers – all are endemic to this milieu.

Rightlessness, wage theft, and precarity made plain by the pandemic

That migrant workers overwhelmingly come from poor, rural families with no or little land was well established before the pandemic. In 2018, the 56% of the rural population was landless. A UN report found that India had the largest number of people – 364 million – facing multidimensional poverty. Of those, 113 million – 8.6% of the population – were classified as extremely poor. At the same time, a sharply increasing number of people from rural areas have been displaced by changes in land laws that allow for the reclassification of agricultural land, opening it up for other purposes. Workers enter labour markets from a position of dispossession and desperation, which the pandemic intensified.

For hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, the thin margin between paid and unpaid labour, and free and unfree labour, collapsed when the complete lockdown announced on 25 March 2020 by Narendra Modi, the prime minister, came into effect with just four hours’ notice. They had little time to secure food, cash, and other necessities, and all economic activity and transport came to a grinding halt. The reality of their abject conditions became exposed to the nation as workers posted desperate pleas for basic food supplies and cash on social media. Their exodus back to the village – on foot, across hundreds of kilometres – also received massive coverage on television.

Recovery from the pandemic, like the ‘growth story’, will be shouldered by precarious labour.

Wage theft by employers was reported widely; a high proportion of migrant workers did not even know who their employer was who owed them wages. Labour organisers spoke of near total ignorance among workers of their rights under the law. Workers reported feeling abandoned by the urban middle classes, who banned hawkers and domestic workers from housing complexes, and, in some cases, attacked them if they were Muslim. Not much was heard from India’s leftist parties as this extended exodus unfolded, but new activist civil society organisations emerged to assist workers, document their condition, and provide succour.

Precarious work in the cities is connected to life back in the village: remittances pay off family debt while also meeting family expenses for food, health care, education, and social obligations. The sudden loss of work and wages resonated well beyond the exodus. Returning migrant workers found neither food security nor livelihoods back in the village. Families with small agricultural surpluses could not take crops to market as transport was locked down too. Desperate, many returned to cities and to zones of capitalist agriculture, only to find that work had dried up there as well. Indian cities now report an increased number of people begging in the cities.

There are reasons to fear that economic recovery from the pandemic, like the ‘growth story’, will be shouldered by precarious labour. An already deep employment crisis is worsening further. Massive backlogs exist in public sector recruitment. Millions who have taken competitive exams for jobs are still awaiting results and postings, even as the vacancies remain unfilled, reflecting the unwillingness and inability of central and state governments to recharge employment. Likewise, jobs in the formalised private sector are also drying up. Approximately 122 million jobs are reported lost in April 2020 alone. This is on top of the 6 million government job vacancies that have remained unfilled, including in the big recruiters such as the railways and the defence sector. This will further crowd the labour market, with too many workers and too few jobs pushing wages and work conditions down further.

Migrant workers hail from the poorest regions of some of the poorest states – Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Bengal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, and Jharkhand. As the eminent scholar of labour in India Jan Breman notes, India’s migrant workers come from non-farm owning or small farm-owning backgrounds, and agricultural labour and produce markets had collapsed due to the lockdown. For returning migrant workers, then, home was not a security net: there was not enough food or work. Rural employment schemes, once derided by Modi as symbols of the Congress Party’s failure to provide proper jobs, were unable to absorb such a large returning labour force. Not surprisingly there is a concentration of coerced labour and trafficking these states.

The pandemic has led to increases in trafficked and coerced labour

Rights activists speak of severe reversals in India’s fight against child labour and child trafficking in the pandemic. It is said that a child goes missing in India every eight minutes, abducted by traffickers, sold for illegal adoption, or put into illegal work by parents facing destitution, joblessness, and hunger. Children themselves are reported to have volunteered to take on work. With little work and food in villages, families returning to cities from the countryside are seen in the cities begging.

Bengal, with pockets of extreme rural poverty, apparently leads other states as the primary source of trafficked children. With the traditional employers of child labour – restaurants, food stalls and food carts, roadside repair shops – facing their own crisis, children are increasingly trafficked for domestic servitude, sex work, and internet pornography. Internet and encrypted digital communication apps are used in conducting transactions, enabling traffickers to evade already lax law enforcement. A sharp increase in trafficking of children and young women is also said to have occurred in northeast India, and trafficking from and to Nepal is also on the rise.

The government’s strategies to reverse the economic catastrophe caused by the pandemic have been sluggish. India has entered a recession. Modi announced a stimulus package worth $265 billion dollars, but barely 10% has been disbursed and it’s entirely unclear whether food and cash are reaching the most needy. Meanwhile, already lax labour laws are being loosened. In many states ruled by Modi’s party, BJP, there has been steady erosion of labour rights, ostensibly to increase the ‘ease of doing business’ to bring the economy back on its feet.

Across India employers have coerced workers with benefits to resign, only to rehire them at lower wages and worse conditions.

In Karnataka, one of the major destinations for migrant workers, the government has made it easier for small and mid-sized enterprises to lay off workers, and to evade laws on contract labour. In Gujarat, the BJP government extended the maximum number of working hours per day from nine to twelve to reduce overtime payments. In Madhya Pradesh, inspections of manufacturing units employing less than 50 workers will now take place only on the basis of complaints, and disputes between employers and workers will be settled at unit level, with no recourse to tribunals. Units employing less that 50 workers no longer even need to be registered, increasing informality and removing government oversight over labour relations. Across India employers have coerced workers with benefits to resign, only to rehire them at lower wages and worse conditions.

So far pressure from labour unions, including the BJP-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, has succeeded in holding off the near-total removal of protections to labour that has been mooted in states like Uttar Pradesh. But the orientation in favour of employers is clear. In May, when workers countrywide were reporting wage theft, the Supreme Court of India ruled that as long as workers received food, and firms could show they were in financial trouble, employers could not be prosecuted for non-payment of wages.

The pandemic has worsened conditions for labour as a whole, and for informal sector migrant workers specifically. For the fight against trafficking of women and children, and against coerced labour, challenging times lie ahead. While data from the National Crime Bureau show a reduction in human trafficking, such data are also notoriously suspect: police are known to persuade families of trafficking victims to file ‘missing persons’ cases, or, at worst, ‘abductions’ rather than episodes of trafficking. This deliberate misclassification enables traffickers to go free or to get off with a lighter penalty.

Likewise, those trafficked or forced into sex work report being put under pressure to not undergo medical examinations. Police report pressure from political bosses to mis-categorise trafficking cases to keep formal numbers down. In bonded labour and child labour cases, when detected, rescued workers are ‘persuaded’ to file cases related to wage non-payment. Anti-trafficking laws that cover buying and selling of humans and exploiting bonded labour do not come into force in many cases. Very few prosecutions against traffickers take place, and they seldom lead to conviction, as witnesses are intimidated or paid off.

Where to from here?

Even before the pandemic, and indeed through its ‘growth story’, Indian labour was heavily migrant and informal, with few protections. This seldom worked in favour of precarious workers. The already blurred lines between waged and unwaged labour, between free and coerced labour, and between it and trafficked labour, have been systematically eroded by the pandemic, the government’s response in favour of employers, and the desperation for jobs and food felt across poor and less poor households. This has coincided with a period of historic decline for India’s labour movement, and the harassment and incarceration of labour rights activists. New groups have emerged in the pandemic to provide succour to such workers, but it remains to be seen whether they can alter the asymmetry between coerced and trafficked labour on the hand, and state and capital on the other.

(Subir Sinha is Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at SOAS, London)

(This article from Open Democracy is reproduced here under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence)

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