After Lockdown, Task of Marrying Industrial Operations and Social Distancing Begins

The Wire, May 10, 2020

By Pradeep S. Mehta, Sarthak Shukla and Trinayani Sen

What started as a health crisis is now turning into a ‘black swan’ event for the global economy and society. Staring at an uncertain future of work, the lockdown has rendered the workforce, in particular the vulnerable informal workers, stranded and without any stable source of income.

This crisis offers us an opportunity to think both short and long term to ensure that a resilient economy emerges which respects labour as a critical factor of production.

As per estimates by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), around 400 million informal workers are at a risk of falling into deeper poverty levels in India. In such a situation, how does India ensure that the drivers of its economy do not become collateral damage of a pandemic?

With the imposition of a sudden lockdown, there has been no effort by the state for the safe and smooth transit of migrant workers from their workplaces to their homes. At the same time, there is a lack of basic necessities in their workplaces or where they are stranded. As economic activities remain at a standstill, the workers are forced to be contained in an economic and emotional discomfort.

To add to that, already vulnerable workers are also victims of information asymmetry. The Bandra railway station incident in Mumbai in mid-April is a testimony to this.

On the industry front, imminent economic losses are instigating enterprises, large and small alike, to rework their business and work structure. This leaves the workers in an abyss of uncertainty regarding the future of their work. Further, the industry oriented COVID-19-induced relaxations in labour laws, that have been introduced in several states including Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab are likely to make working conditions harsher, lay-offs easier and monitoring less stringent.

This raises a pertinent question. How do we rapidly reinstate the informal workforce in a post-COVID-19 scenario and at the same time ensure sustainable economic well-being for them in order to build their resilience?

To tackle this situation, a multi-pronged solution can be thought of with immediate, short term and longer term manifestations. However, along with these structural interventions, immediate relief measures that are being provided by the state, such as direct cash transfers and food supplies need to be effectively and efficiently administered to ensure maximum coverage and optimum impact. The focus should be on containing the public health crisis while reducing the damage that it has caused to the economic fabric of the country.

How many workers are needed?

The first challenge will come in ensuring that factory and other labour-intensive operations perfectly implement social distancing principles. As an immediate measure, a strategy needs to be carefully planned for the institutionalisation of public health and other safety protocols before industrial operations resume.

In order to achieve this, the state, in consultation with experts and union representatives, can prepare the number of workers per unit area of factory floor required for safe operations at a given capacity, across different manufacturing sectors. Such a benchmark can help the state in assessing the optimal requirement of workers in different industries in the wake of social distancing and health standards. The nodal agency for preparing such a database can be the respective state’s industries and labour department, and its decentralised machinery in different districts and zones.

While business operations resume, simultaneously a database of workers needs to be created which will comprise information about the migrated workers including last-drawn wages, work experience, previous place of work, skill levels, training and educational qualifications and place of origin. This database should be created through a concerted effort of enterprises and the government, in particular the labour and skills department at the Central and state level. Also, necessary provisions should be made for self-enrolment of workers in the database.

To ensure transparency, continuity and efficiency in the process of database creation, technological resources can be leveraged. State resources such as existing databases and the Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile (JAM) trinity can also be roped in for this process. To undertake this exercise, the administrative capacity of the state can be enhanced by steering the local governments to the forefront and bringing on board grassroots volunteers including Common Service Centres. However, such an exercise would also require adequate data privacy safeguards to ensure protection of the workers’ data.

In the short term, the database so created can feed into an ‘employment exchange’ model for informal workers. Such a model will ensure a temporal match of enterprise’s demand for workers with supply of labour, with the state potentially assuming the role of a de facto contractor. In other words, if needed, the state could be empowered to execute the allocation of workplaces to enrolled workers.

Furthermore, the state can utilise this platform to ensure that certain conditions of work are being adhered to. For instance, the state can ensure that wages are fixed at pre-COVID-19 or minimum wage levels, provisions of necessary protective equipment are met and safety protocols are followed. Once these conditions are fulfilled, the state can allot a suitable working place for each of the enrolled workers. This exchange can be integrated with the ‘Digital India’ vision of the government of India by using ICT solutions as the means of implementation. The state can gradually transfer this exchange model to the market, where it can be facilitated through aggregator business models.

In the longer term, a much needed behavioural transformation should be brought about wherein the State adopts a hands-off approach while the industry treats its workforce as a ‘human asset’ rather than a ‘cost of production’. In order to facilitate this transformation and build workers’ resilience, there should be a focus on ensuring adequate social security and skill development for them through the exchange model.

Finally, to regain the trust of the workers, there should be an emphasis on elimination of fear and stigma from the minds of workers and their community members by using sensitisation and capacity-building measures. This may be facilitated through grassroots-level volunteers and civil society organisations at the source locations of the workers. Similarly, at the work destination, this can be ensured through effective implementation and monitoring of public health protocols at the enterprise level.

While such structural reforms in the informal labour realm have been in the pipeline for quite some time, it is a humanitarian crisis that has made it imperative for speedy and sustainable implementation of the much-needed reforms. After all, necessity supersedes idealism and the drivers of the Indian economy are no exceptions to this phenomenon.

Pradeep S. Mehta, Sarthak Shukla and Trinayani Sen work for CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group. Prashant Tak, Amol Kulkarni and Bipul Chatterjee of CUTS contributed to this article.

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