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End of lockdown not end of trouble for migrant labour; here’s what workers may face when economy opens

The end of lockdown will likely start a new phase of problems for migrant workers, as labour exploitation may rise significantly in the pockets where there is an oversupply of workers.

migrant worker, labourer, coronavirus, covid 19, lockdown, factories, forced labour, exploitation

The soon-expected end of coronavirus-led lockdown may not be the end of troubles for many, especially labourers and migrant workers. The end of lockdown will likely start a new phase of problems for them, as labour exploitation may rise significantly in the pockets where there is an oversupply of workers, even as the industry seeks to dismiss the idea of such a situation arising. The exploitation of the labour class may rise after the lockdown is lifted, as more and more people try to regain their jobs and financial health, making an oversupply in the market, experts said.

“In a post lockdown world, there are going to be work deficit zones and work surplus regions. In the work surplus areas, the situation will be grim as there is going to be an abundance of returning workers with relatively higher skills, and thus the exploitation could commence,” Gayathri Vasudevan, Executive Chairperson and Co-Founder, LabourNet Services, told Financial Express Online.

Older problems such as forced labour and exploitation are likely to show cascading effects in the time to come as another concern is that more than 90 per cent of labourers in India are in the informal sector and are casually employed, being unprotected by any law. Arising as a threat from the same situation, the burden of forced labour may get further heavier and the workers may have to work overtime for which there is hardly any perk.

“Things are going to get worse after the lockdown is lifted. As the people are already desperate to get wages, work, or means of livelihood, chances of exploitation increase,” Trinanjan Radhakrishnan, project coordinator, Oxfam India, told Financial Express Online. Even earlier, the workers were working for 12 hours instead of 8, now they will be working for 16-18 hours, that too, under adverse circumstances, he added.

While organisations working with labourers and workers raise concerns about the possibility of exploitation after the lockdown, the industry, on the other hand, says this is very unlikely if the rule book is followed. “With the calibrated restart of production across geographies based on zoning basis, the green zone being the first to start off, demand for labor will gradually return to almost normalcy and while it won’t be entirely normal, from the labor perspective, things will start moving,” Niranjan Hiranandani, President, Assocham, told Financial Express Online. The exploitation of labor is something that India Inc does not want and one hopes that the unorganised sector will also follow trends of the organised segment, he added.

Meanwhile, there is also a silver lining around the cloud of grim employment situations. Worker conditions will likely improve in the work-deficit pockets where there is not enough labour available. Several cities and industrial estates will become work deficit, as the migrant workers who form a large majority of the workforce in these areas will go back to their home towns and areas.

Here companies and employers will be more worker-focused and thus the workers’ welfare measures such as food, transport, stay, etc, will gain precedence and the wages may also rise in the fear of losing workforce, said Gayathri Vasudevan, who is a former project officer at the International Labour Organisation. Further, Assocham added that the industry at any given point of the time faces some shortage of skilled workers and thus once the lockdown is lifted, a lot of the labor force would have to be incentivised to get back to work.

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