Thirty-four year old Geeta*, along with a family of six, traveled about 1200 kilometers from Delhi back home to Jharkhand in a crammed auto-rickshaw in the first week of April 2020. On her return to the capital city seven months later in October 2020, she described that journey as an unfortunate, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the strict lockdown imposed in India thereafter, from March to June 2020, revealed anomalies in day-to-day life hitherto unseen at a scale so huge. In no time, heart-wrenching photographs and shocking accounts of migrant workers leaving big cities to go back home flooded mainstream media. The images of people walking endlessly, with their homes on their backs, feet sore and with little food, took me back to my childhood days when my grandmother shared stories about the 1947 India-Pakistan partition — how her family had to abandon their small village in present-day Pakistan to take the leap towards the Indian side of the new border in hopes of a safer life. The contexts are surely different, but the imagery is strikingly similar.
Post-September 2020 – which is when the first wave peaked as per the official numbers – some migrant workers, including Geeta, began moving back to urban areas, amidst fear, insecurity, and lack of employment opportunities in villages. Conversations around COVID-19-induced stress that raked the lives of vulnerable populations took backstage with passing time, only to make a quick and unexpected comeback in March 2021.
This year as a massive second wave swept the country, lives and livelihoods again face a perilous future. However, few things were visibly different: there was no blanket nation-wide lockdown, inter-state transport was still running, and not a lot of migrant workers were trudging home on foot. While we did not witness the plight of migrant workers in the same form as 2020, it will be a grave misunderstanding to assume that the migrant crisis is over or that the situation for this vulnerable group has sufficiently improved. Multiple states imposed lockdown restrictions including major destination states such as Delhi, Maharashtra, Kerala, and Gujarat. Unemployment, food insecurity, and economic vulnerability are all once again a looming reality for millions of migrant workers who were hoping to see some light at the end of the tunnel in the new year.
It is time to take stock of where we stand with respect to the mass exodus of migrant workers. How can authorities take measures to make our cities less alienating and more hospitable for migrant workers? What are some key differences and similarities between last year's and this year’s lockdown? What role can businesses play in ensuring the wellbeing of migrant workers?
Migrant workers, big cities, and alienation
Of the 454 million internal migrants in India, 60 million are inter-state migrants, like Geeta who aspire to move to big cities in search of work opportunities. Migration is considered central to economic mobility among the poor, opening the door to higher wages and human capital accumulation. However, migrant workers lose important networks during mobility, and feelings of loneliness and social isolation are likely to surface among this group. In a survey Good Business Lab conducted with more than 700 workers in 2019 across eight garment factories in Karnataka, we found that migrant workers were 33 percent more likely to suffer moderate mental distress and more than 75 percent more likely to suffer severe mental distress than the average worker.
Despite being heavily dependent on migrant workers, Indian cities haven’t lived up to the promise of establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with migrant workers, beyond merely an economic one that is often skewed by the employee-employer power dynamics. The absence of an inclusive social protection infrastructure, political patronage and favorable legal frameworks, are few among the many factors that have pushed migrant workers to the periphery of the society. Being a key contributor to high-growth business sectors such as construction, manufacturing and urban services, daily-wage migrant workers continuously experience high levels of precarity. Employment of migrant workers, especially in the informal sector, often leads to their double-marginalization in destination states: firstly, due to their status as a mobile group — mostly unable to speak the local language and integrate into local customs — and second, due to the informal nature of their employment, leaving them vulnerable to harassment and poor working conditions.
State accountability, then and now
The homeward exodus of more than 11.4 million migrant workers in 2020 – more than the population of Uttarakhand – resulted in at least 971 non-Covid deaths. Not only did one in every four migrant workers walk home at the time, but 40 percent of the workers also faced food scarcity.
The Interstate Migrant Policy index 2019 developed by India Migration Now, which measures whether a state has equitable policies for residents and migrants based on various parameters, scores the average Indian state 37 out of 100. The Index assesses states' performance on eight policy areas - education, children’s rights, health and sanitation, housing, identity and registration, labor market, political participation and social benefits - spanning more than 60 policy indicators. This low average clearly reflects the gaps in state policies for migrant workers, which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic.
While central policies exist to foster the integration of migrant workers, the implementation responsibilities lie with the state governments, who are required to take care of a much wider range of policy areas touching upon migrant workers’ everyday lives. In 2020, some states dealt better with the migrant crisis than others, despite having insufficient time for planning.
Kerala showed initiative early on by announcing a comprehensive package of Rs. 20,000 crores for protection of livelihoods of workers, including migrant workers, even before the lockdown. Migrant workers in the state reported having enough food during the lockdown. States also leveraged technology to track migrant workers and aid them. In Kerala, prompt and multilingual information dissemination using popular platforms like WhatsApp was considerably effective. The Jharkhand government launched a mobile app to help with the registration of approximately 600,000 migrant workers from Jharkhand who were stranded in 10,000 different areas in India.
Despite several relief measures being announced by state governments, in addition to the ones extended by the Central government, questions around state accountability continued to exist even as the lockdown was lifted. For example, which state government was responsible for a migrant worker from Jharkhand working in Delhi? While there is evidence on migration corridors (the routes from source state to destination state) which throws light on the number of migrant workers in different states across the country, the lack of mechanisms to capture migrant profiles at state level is a major hindrance to holding states accountable.
“What we saw in terms of governance issues was a two-fold challenge: first was the lack of recognition of temporary residents in the destination states, and second was the inability to reach a large set of people who were consistently on the move. The lack of a comprehensive unified database of migrants led to the inability of the government to respond with speed to bring a wider net of people in the ambit of existing or new programs. That was a fundamental challenge”, says Sharanya Chandran, Associate Director of Policy at J-PAL South Asia in an interview with Smit Gade, Senior Research and Data Manager at Good Business Lab.
As the question around state accountability lingered, some state governments including, but not limited to, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh attempted to extend the workday from 8 hours to 12 hours, suspend the protections of various labor laws for three years, and regulate the movement of workers across state borders. We also witnessed growing nativism in Haryana (a destination state) and Jharkhand (a source state) as they decided to reserve jobs for locals in the private sector. A combination of these factors along with other effects of the COVID induced economic fallout is expected to have led the job market to shrink further.
Research also showed growing misinformation across migrant communities. According to a Misinformation and Anxiety study conducted by Good Business Lab between June 2020 to August 2020 with 914 migrant garment factory workers in Karnataka, only 8 percent of respondents were certain that COVID-19 had remedies. 13 percent said they would recommend drinking cow’s urine. A third felt that consuming turmeric regularly protects from COVID-19 infections, while 21 percent said that people of certain religions are more likely to spread the disease.
We are seeing the aftermath of these conditions during the second wave of COVID-19 in India, which set in motion a series of state-wise complete and partial lockdowns. While some state governments announced aid and support for migrant workers during this lockdown, the long-standing fears and anxieties from 2020 led to many attempting a move home. For instance, even after CM Arvind Kejriwal’s plea for migrants to not leave the city, Delhi saw a movement of over 0.8 million migrant workers departing to their hometowns within the first four weeks of the lockdown. Railway stations in Mumbai saw heavy crowds of migrant workers throughout April and May and by the end of May 2021, about 1 million migrant workers had left the city for their native states.
A proportion of migrant workers have also continued to be stranded in destination states without any social safety net. Many have reported a drastic fall in work opportunities and timely pay, especially in destination states such as Delhi, Haryana, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu. Challenges around ration distribution have also continued, including black marketing of food grains. Many of the challenges from last year along with increased anxiety levels and supply-side constraints around vaccines have yet again left migrant workers feeling extremely distressed and vulnerable.
Way forward: Navigating the labyrinth together
The pandemic-induced migrant crisis has essentially made the requirement for refreshed policies and innovative support systems more urgent. This has created an opportunity for researchers to think of simple, scalable solutions which appreciate the nuance and complexities of the migrants’ economic and social behaviors and tackle the challenges around disruption to work and payment of wages, accessing social security protection schemes, availability of affordable housing, loneliness and so much more.
While both central and state governments have taken certain steps to benefit migrant workers, the results of these measures are yet to unfold. In order to complement government efforts, active support of businesses towards the cause of migrant workers can help in paving a quicker and more holistic resolution.
First, enumeration is key. The lack of credible and updated data is one of main causes of the exclusion faced by migrant workers. Credible data on migration is essential to understanding the reasons, nature (permanent or seasonal) and patterns for migration (the source and destination areas). Insights on the living conditions of people— needs for housing, extent of financial inclusion, and so on could also help paint a better understanding of the situation. It is also important for the data on migration to account for specific vulnerabilities, especially for women and children. “The key challenge right now is that the major national surveys do not have a uniform definition of what constitutes a migrant worker. For instance, the National Sample Survey (NSS) and the Census have different definitions, and national surveys typically have a higher focus on permanent migration and are unable to adequately capture the nature of seasonal migration. If you look at the NSS 2007-2008, it captured migrant flows to some extent but that was not comparable to the previous NSS rounds. And similarly, the 2011 Census did not focus on migration flows. So then, how do you work with these differing definitions as well as differing data sets? It's very difficult for them to speak to each other”, says Sharanya Chandran of J-PAL. While the government is working towards creating a database of migrant workers, a strong case can be made for businesses’ contribution to this activity in order to complement government efforts. Those employing migrant workers can aid the process of enumeration for those employed by them, thus assisting national bodies in having a more accurate count of migrant workers across the country and plugging existing data gaps.
Second, paying more attention to non-wage amenities such as housing through hostels/dormitories for migrant workers will help in building an inclusive infrastructure. Studies have shown that migrant workers usually adopt an incremental housing process in urban cities which leads them to seek cost effective and flexible accommodation. Due to high rent, they often stay in subsidized housing in hostels operated by employer firms. Life in hostels is generally characterized negatively – cramped quarters, a lack of cleanliness, insufficient access to basic utilities, and risk of theft and violence. At GBL, we studied the impacts of a change in the management of hostels from the employer to a local NGO for migrant garment workers across 80 hostels, housing a total of 7,500 employees, working in 19 factories, in Bengaluru, India. Through survey data, we found that change in management led to hostels showing roughly 10 percent increase in both cleanliness and safety scores. Toilet and bathroom conditions showed positive improvements. The study also found that when the actual improvements in living conditions have not measured up to workers’ high expectations, they can cause declines in satisfaction and increases in worker separation. Thus, businesses need to play a key role in both setting the right expectations and maintaining a consistent standard of living in these urban hostels, based on feedback from migrant workers and support from local NGOs.
Finally, focusing on tackling social isolation and loneliness among migrant workers by providing them a support center in destination states. Research suggests that feelings of loneliness and social isolation are likely to be exacerbated among the many millions of young migrants moving to cities from rural areas to pursue economic opportunities. Available evidence suggests that social isolation and loneliness can have sweeping negative consequences ranging from reduced subjective well-being and happiness to impairments in cognitive function, physical health, and even mortality. Further, young migrant workers find it difficult to navigate a new city and its life – right from accessing public health facilities to finding nutritious food as per their taste- sometimes ascribed to linguistic, cultural, and ethnic differences. To fill the informational, social, and psychological gap faced by a migrant worker in a new city, we at GBL collaborated with Shahi Exports and H&M to help design and develop a central migration support center (MSC). The activities undertaken at the center are aimed at providing migrant workers with access to social services, increased financial inclusion, skill building opportunities, holistic health, support in dealing with disputes at work, counselling services, among others. For instance, during the second wave, we shared information on how the MSC can support migrant workers, COVID-19 prevention techniques, how to care for oneself at home in case of infection, videos on breathing exercises and importance of vaccination, among others, over WhatsApp. Since majority of the migrant workers associated with the MSC are from Odisha, these materials were translated into Odia for the ease of accessibility. Here are some sample materials that were shared:
Our eventual aspiration is to identify opportunity areas to innovate in the service design and delivery experience of an MSC that is inclusive and accessible; and produce a scalable MSC framework.
The pandemic has exposed certain fault lines, which can be mitigated by the collaboration between businesses and the government and by them working in tandem to find concrete solutions, rather than focusing on transient, situational instances. It is about time that industries and policymakers look at migrants like Geeta with a lens of empathy, to avoid another probable nationwide uproar.
*Name changed upon request of the interviewee.