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Pandemic in South Asia: Massive exodus of migrant workers forced to leave their livelihood

Thursday 23 April 2020, by siawi3


Locked in migrant workers of South Asia cannot see a way out

Zofeen T. Ebrahim | Joydeep Gupta | Ramesh Bhushal

Updated April 21, 2020

Across South Asia, the impact of the Covid-19 on livelihoods has been extreme. Despite being an outlier in terms of low infection rates, and even low casualties, most South Asian countries have been left reeling due to the impact that shutdowns have had on migrant labour. This, in turn, should focus the attention of governments on the conditions driving labour from distressed areas in mountain and rural communities.

As agricultural incomes have stagnated over the last few decades across South Asia, accompanied now by climate change impacts leading to a frequency of droughts and floods, impoverished labour has flooded urban areas. In coastal areas, the rising sea has made the land saline and infertile, pushing millions into distress, adding to the throng of the impoverished desperately seeking employment elsewhere.

While there has been reporting on communities, especially in mountain areas, denuded of their male labour, there has been little focus on the men with little to sell but their labour in urban areas. As shutdowns enforced both overseas and within South Asia, the desperate nature of these lives is being revealed in stark terms as people struggle for day-to-day existence with their means of livelihood abruptly terminated.
At the edge of starvation

“Aap logon ke sehat ke liye aap log humein bandh karke rakha hai (you people have kept us locked for the sake of your health),” said Laxman Khatik.
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The bitterness came through on the call he made from a borrowed phone belonging to a volunteer at one of Indore’s Covid-19 quarantine centres for migrant workers. On his own phone, there is no credit left to make calls.

Khatik, a skilled mason with 10 years of experience building homes, does not have any cash to carry home, if and when he is allowed to leave. In his village in another part of Madhya Pradesh, central India, there is no farm labour available to harvest the wheat he had sown last November.

It is no good telling Khatik that he and 200-odd other migrant workers at the centre are being kept there to avoid the Covid-19 infection.

“We’re going to die of hunger much before we die of this new illness,” he retorted. “Do you know what we ate today and yesterday, or the day before? Khichdi (rice and pulses) once a day, each day. Who can live like this, squashed together, four toilets for 200 people? Are we animals?”

When asked if he has been talking to people back home, he said: “I did, till there was balance (credit) on my phone. I haven’t been able to send any money for a month now. They have to buy food and are being forced to chalk up huge bills at our village grocer’s shop. God forbid, if my parents fall ill, how are we going to pay the doctor or buy medicines?”

Although the government has said some construction work can restart on April 20, Khatik has little hope. “Where will I look for work? If the government allows, I can stand at the crossroads where labourers are hired for the day. But there will be eight people competing for each job. The daily rate will crash. I used to make INR 400 (USD 5.20) a day but now I shall be lucky if I make INR 100 (USD 1.30).”

Hundreds of kilometres away on the banks of the Yamuna in New Delhi, Ram Pal is in an even worse situation.

The man from Bihar who used to drive an e-rickshaw in India’s capital was among those spotted wolfing down half-rotten bananas which had been thrown away on the riverside.

“Earlier, I’d have been ashamed to do this — even more ashamed that TV reporters saw me. But now I’m glad they were there. They showed this on the news, and since then we’ve been getting food packets twice a day. Before we saw those bananas, most of us had not eaten anything for three days.”

In an India that has been locked down since midnight of March 24 to control the spread of Covid-19, Ram Pal’s tale is now drearily familiar. He was stopped while trying to walk to his village around 800 kilometres away as public transport was withdrawn during the lockdown. To make matters worse, he was sent to an overcrowded quarantine centre which kept running out of food, till one day, scores of people forced their way out and walked aimlessly on the riverbank. This is when they chanced upon the mound of bananas.

He does not want to talk about his family back home. “How do you expect them to be, when they have no money? I was carrying some money when I started to walk to my village. But now that I’m stuck here, I spent it to buy food. There’s no point in going home. How will I show my face? What will my wife and children think? What sort of a man am I?”
In Pakistan, the same despair

Roshan Khan, 46, a private cook in a home in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, was in his village on annual holiday when the government announced a lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The people I work for asked me not to come till they inform me,” he said over the phone from his village near Rawlakot, the capital of Poonch district in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

Without a steady salary, Roshan Khan has already spent PKR 16,000 (USD 95) to buy food and other essentials for his family. “Now, I am buying the daily groceries on credit and owe PKR 19,000 (USD 114) to the shopkeeper.” In his small village of Singhola perched on the slopes of the Pir Panjal mountain range, everyone knows each other, so the shopkeeper has not asked for money. “But I have a feeling the day is not too far when he will ask.”

There is no work for him in the village. All goods have to be carried up steep slopes from the road to peoples’ homes, and some neighbours earn money acting as porters. Roshan cannot do that because he recently had a neck operation to remove a cyst. “I cannot carry out hard labour or lift heavy weights. If I do, I get severe pain in my neck, head and also breathlessness.”

He has not asked his employer for money. He said he feels shy and, “they have not offered anything either.”

He has little hope from the government. Roshan was among those not paid the promised compensation after the 2005 earthquake. “I only received PKR 75,000 (USD 450) of the PKR 200,000 (USD 1,200) promised; and since then I have spent PKR 400,000 (USD 2,400) on building a basic home that is far from finished. Since 2007, I have been paying off my loan. I still have PKR 70,000 (USD 420) to pay off.” The state of affairs due to the coronavirus has only added to his anxiety.

Mohammad Khalil, 43, a waiter at a restaurant in Karachi’s Defence Phase 4, area, has not gone to work for three weeks, when all eateries were ordered to close down by the Sindh government. Sharing his misery are 12 other waiters who share three rooms for which they pay a rent of PKR 24,600 (USD 148) per month. Due to the lockdown, none of them can travel.

“My employer paid me PKR 300 (USD 1.80) every day and on average good days I earned PKR 500 (USD 3.00) as tips as well,” said Khalil. Now he and his friends get packed meals for lunch, distributed by a charity nearby. They cook their own dinner with the food they still have.

His wife and four children in a village in Poonch district depend on remittances from him, but Khalil no longer has any money to send home. “For now, my elder brother is able to take care of them. But had I known what lay ahead, I’d have rushed home and been near them.”

If he had managed to get back to his village, Khalil would have found some source of livelihood, he is sure. At least, he would be able to access the subsidised food the government is distributing. “Since women in our village have not really stepped out of their homes, they are shy of accessing these services. My wife, for example, would not be able to read an SMS or how to send her ID (identity) card number using the messaging service. So she will remain out of the loop of government help.”

Khalil’s employer has not offered any help, but he holds no grudge. “If we were just a handful, I’m sure he’d have supported us. But we are so many, it would be unfair to expect that from him.”
Nepal’s remittances crash

Om Thapa Magar returned from the UAE to the Makwanpur district of Nepal on March 18, a week before a national lockdown was declared.

“I used to work for a food supply service and came for two months but don’t know if I will be allowed to resume my work. My employer has said, ‘Let’s see how it goes’,” he told over the phone.

He immediately asked, “Do you think there will be any opportunity for people like me anywhere in Kathmandu?” As the only earning member of a family of five, the future looks bleak for him.

Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have returned to their homes from several countries in the Middle East, South Korea and India, among others. Thousands of would-be migrant workers are stranded as the government has stopped issuing labour permits.

In the last one decade, Nepal has issued labour permits to 3.5 million migrant workers to work in the Middle East and Malaysia as well as other countries. On an average day in the pre-Covid-19 era, 2,000 people flew out of the country for work that would feed their families back home. Remittances contribute about one third of Nepal’s NPR 1,300 billion (USD 11 billion) annual economy. In 2018, the country received NPR 879 billion (USD 7.14 billlion), out of which 15 percent was from India alone.

Thanks to remittances, Nepalis below the poverty line dropped from around 42pc in the 1990s to around 24pc in 2015. Now, media reports say this percentage is likely to increase if the lockdowns in various countries continue for the next few months. In 2015, Nepal set a target to reduce the number of people below the poverty line to 5pc by 2030, part of the country’s SDG plan. The economic havoc caused by Covid-19 is likely to hamper this.

In 2018, a status report on migrant workers prepared by The Asia Foundation said, “In a country like Nepal, crucially reliant on foreign earnings, a small decline in remittances can severely affect the nation’s economic health.” The Nepal government is yet to come up with any plan on how it will handle the economic fallout of the pandemic.

Within Nepal, about one million construction workers and two million workers in the fields of transportation and restaurants are jobless. The majority of them lived on daily wages. About 60pc of Nepal’s domestic economy relies on service sectors like tourism and transportation.

Some experts see a silver lining. “On average, 3,000 young people have returned from cities or abroad to each of the 753 local administrative agencies. They should be provided interest-free loans for farming, which will encourage them to stay back. It’s the right time to bring some innovation in agriculture and support young people,” said Govind Raj Pokharel, former vice chair of Nepal’s National Planning Commission.

But for almost all migrant labourers all over South Asia, it is the immediate loss of livelihood that is a catastrophe.

This article was first published by The Third Pole and has been reproduced with permission.


Source: Asia

Following union intervention, stranded migrant laborers in India to be transported home

The over 130,000 workers will be transported home in a safe manner ahead of the harvest season after the intervention of the Sugarcane Cutters and Transport Workers Union

April 20, 2020

by Pavan Kulkarni

Migrant workers India
Thousands of migrant sugarcane cutters are stranded due the nation-wide lockdown imposed in India since March 24. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Conceding to demands of the Sugarcane Cutters and Transport Workers Union, the government in Maharashtra, India, has issued an order directing sugar factories and quarantine centers in the State to arrange for the transport of nearly 131,000 stranded sugarcane cutters back to their native villages, following a medical examination. While the order provides respite to migrant workers within the State, those stuck in other States have not been included.

Thousands of sugarcane cutters are stranded due the nation-wide lockdown imposed in India since March 24. Maharashtra is among the worst COVID-19-affected States in the country.

The order was issued by the government’s disaster management department on April 17, instructing all sugar factories in the State to prepare a list of workers along with their native villages, to be submitted to the concerned district magistrates (DMs).

Factories have been asked to make travel arrangements for the workers after they have been medically examined for symptoms of pneumonia, cough and fever. While the DMs are instructed to initiate the process, the factories are to bear the cost of transportation, along with the food and water requirements through the journey.

Factories have also been directed to intimate the police and local district authorities of their movement in advance, in order to facilitate the passage of vehicles through curfewed streets.

It further instructs the village heads to permit the migrant workers’ entry and to keep an official record of the same. The village heads are also required to issue a receiving report, to be submitted by the factories to the DMs, confirming that the workers have been transported back to their native villages.

Part-time agricultural workers

A majority of the stranded migrant laborers are also part-time farmers owning small plots of land in their native villages which are mostly farmed through family labor. In the lean season – for four to six months a year, usually between October and March – they are employed through contractors by sugar factories to cut sugarcane in nearby farms and load them onto trucks for processing at the factories. They usually return to their villages in the last week of March or early April each year, in time for harvest.

However, due to the sudden imposition of the lockdown since March 24, around 131,000 sugarcane cutters have been unable to return to their villages for the harvest season. Most are living in makeshift settlements around the sugar factories or on nearby farms, without pay and adequate rations.

Dr D. L. Karad, president of the Sugarcane Cutters and Transport Workers Union and vice-president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU)-Maharashtra wing, to which the former is affiliated, has warned that without ensuring their speedy return, the workers’ families run the risk of losing this year’s harvest.

Many who have attempted to travel back on their own have been stopped en route by the police and placed in quarantine inside schools and other such public buildings that are not in use during the lockdown period.

Poor condition of quarantine centers

21-year-old Ravi, one such migrant worker, was put in quarantine with five others in a room inside a school on the outskirts of Beed district in central Maharashtra. The school reportedly has ten such rooms, each shared by six people, with only three washrooms.

“We have to wake up at four in the morning to line up in queue to get a chance to use them,” Ravi told Peoples Dispatch. Despite being in quarantine and advised physical distancing, crowding outside the washrooms becomes inevitable, he claims.

Ravi has been at this make-shift quarantine center for over two weeks since April 3, after a police vehicle intercepted him and tens of other migrant workers from his native village Majalgaon, in Beed district, on board a tempo traveller.

They had traveled almost 300 kilometers from Walwa district where they were employed at the Dr. Nagnath Naikwadi Sugar Factory, a well-known co-operative factory established in 1981. The factory paid Rs.230 for each ton of sugarcane cut and loaded onto trucks by the laborers. Ravi had earned Rs. 20,000 last month.

While the factory continued to operate till the beginning of April despite the lockdown, as per Ravi, a majority of the sugarcane cutters were not provided masks and sanitizers. Fearing contracting the virus, he and others from Majalgaon decided to head back to their native village and boarded a tempo traveler on the evening of April 2. After a 12-hour journey, with only 70 kilometers left to reach home, they were stopped by the police early next morning and placed in quarantine in the nearby school.

Ravi also complained of not being provided enough food at the facility. “Breakfast arrives at eight in the morning, but not every day. There is no consistency in the quantity of food provided for lunch, which on many days is the first meal of the day. Very often, the parcels are too small,” he said.

He further suspected that the food supply may not be from the government. “They’re some sort of social servants or NGO people, I think. They say this is their contribution to us, and have pictures of themselves clicked while distributing food,” he claimed.

Nevertheless, he expressed hope that his ordeal may come to an end following the government order instructing those in-charge of such quarantine centers to arrange for the return of sugarcane cutters.

Migrant workers in other States

However, there seems to be little hope yet for migrant labor stranded in other States. 26-year-old Santosh Rathod, also from Majalgaon, is stuck on a farm in Ariyalur district in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, along with 500 to 600 other sugarcane cutters from Maharashtra.

All of them had been working on the same farm for the Kothari Sugar Factory, located over 40 kilometers away in Kattur village of Thiruvallur district. On March 26, they finished this season’s work for the factory and were set to head back home.

However, with no transport available for the over 1,000 kilometers journey back home, they have been forced to take shelter in makeshift tents erected using tarpaulin sheets provided by the factory. The rations provided by the factory are scarce, leaving only a small portion for each worker, Rathod said.

“Can you communicate a request to the Tamil Nadu government on my behalf?,” he asks, “I want to request them to make arrangements to transport us to Maharashtra. We have sowed sugarcane, wheat and some vegetables which need to be harvested now. But both me and my brother are here, and my parents are too old and weak to harvest by themselves.”

He fears that all the labor spent in cultivating these crops will go to waste if he does not make it back soon in time for harvest.

Meanwhile, Dr. Karad has said that once the order is implemented in Maharashtra, he will reach out to unionists in CITU-Tamil Nadu to help bring these workers back home.