‘They are invisible’: the migrant workers struggling in wake of India’s Covid response

When Ram Yadav fled India’s strict countrywide lockdown imposed in March 2020, he was one of the lucky ones, managing to hitch rides from Delhi on trucks going in the direction of his village near Kanpur, 400km (250 miles) away.

An estimated 10 million workers were forced to walk home, travelling on foot via fields, forests and highways in the scorching sun.

The day Yadav, 34, a construction worker, reached his village, he vowed never to return to the city. “I felt betrayed twice: by society, because no one around me lent a hand – my landlord kicked me out – and by the state. I trusted [the prime minister Narendra] Modi to help me in a once-in-a-lifetime crisis,” he says.

But when he failed to find any work in his village, he had no choice but to return to the city, only to find himself in an even worse situation than before. Like millions of others, he is poorer, hungrier and feels more abandoned than ever in the wake of the pandemic.

An estimated 400 million people work in India’s informal sector, on low daily wages and with no contract, pension, paid holidays or health benefits. The vast majority are not unionised as they are migrant labourers, scattered all over the country, who speak different languages.

Construction worker Ram Yadav, who has been left poorer, hungrier and feeling more abandoned than ever. Photograph: Amrit Dhillon

The labour economist KR Shyam Sundar says pay and working hours have worsened. “This is partly because employers are taking advantage of their desperation – workers will starve if they don’t work – and partly because the Indian economy has yet to recover from the losses of the pandemic, so jobs are very scarce and employers are looking to cut whatever they can,” says Sundar.

Yadav can vouch for the fact that wages are lower. Scrolling on his phone during a brief break at a construction site in Okhla, the suburban village south-east of Delhi where he works as a bricklayer, he says he is paid 450 rupees (£4.60) a day instead of the 600 rupees he earned before lockdown.

“Loads of us were in the queue for my job. The contractor said if I didn’t want 450 rupees, then others would be happy to take it,” says Yadav.

Across the country, a vast army of wage hunters is searching for chronically scarce jobs. Unemployment has risen to almost 8%, according to the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy.

On 15 August, Modi gave a rousing speech to mark 75 years of independence. “I have been able to understand your happiness and sorrows,” he declared from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi. “I could sense your soul calling about the hopes and aspirations you have. With whatever I could embrace of your dreams, I immersed myself fully in empowering those countrymen who were left behind and deprived from being a part of the mainstream.”

Yadav, who has watched the televised independence speech every year since he was a teenager, ignored it and went to visit a relative instead. “I’ve realised it’s just words. Modi imposed the lockdown without even making sure that I had a roof over my head and something to eat. Why should I listen to his speeches?” he asks.

Chandan Kumar, coordinator for the Working People’s Coalition, in Mumbai, says migrant workers are powerless in the face of exploitation.

Indian migrant workers walk out of Delhi along a highway towards their villages following the announcement of lockdown, 28 March 2020.
Indian migrant workers walk out of Delhi along a highway towards their villages following the announcement of lockdown, 28 March 2020. Photograph: Altaf Qadri/AP

“Migrant workers cannot defend themselves. When they go to another state, they don’t even speak the local language. No one inspects the premises to check working conditions are safe. They don’t even feature in the records of the local state government. They are invisible,” he says.

The lack of bargaining power has made life harder for Varun Sharma, 16, one of the countless young men who deliver groceries by bike in the capital. He went home during the devastating second wave of Covid in March 2021 because, although the shop he worked for remained open, his family were scared for him. He returned last December.

“When I came back, uncle [his employer] paid me the same wage, but I have to work till 9pm instead of 7pm. I have to send money to my family in Bihar so that they can eat, so I had to accept the terms,” says Sharma.

Sundar has observed three changes in workers’ behaviour and hopes. One is that migrant workers have been so scarred by their experience of being abandoned by the state in their time of need that it determines their decision on where to work.

“Many now refuse to go to a city where they don’t know anybody, even if the wages are acceptable. Social capital is what matters now. They prefer to go where they have a relative or know someone. That’s the psychological impact of the lockdowns. There is more fear than before,’ says Sundar.

The second is that workers are so desperate they are settling for wages they used to reject.

“Pre-pandemic, workers would not work for less than the ‘reservation wage’ [an economic term meaning the lowest wage rate a worker is willing to accept] but now they are prepared to accept it,” says Sundar.

The third consequence is the loss of opportunity, he says. Informal workers used to dream about moving up to work in the formal economy, where they would secure a salaried job with social security, paid holidays and health benefits.

“That dream is now beyond their grasp. Not only are there no jobs, the lucky few to be permanent workers are holding on to their jobs for dear life, leaving no scope for daily wage earners to move up,” he says.

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