Labour in the time of Covid–19: the intersecting struggles of India’s return migrants
Photo Credit: Sunil Kumar Aledia
Written by Avinash Kumar
Due to the global crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, almost every country in the world placed restrictions on economic activities and curbed the movement of people through the imposition of lockdowns. Migrant workers in the informal economy have faced immense challenges during this period of economic uncertainty and restricted mobility. What impact do job losses in the city have on their household incomes? What struggles do migrants face if they decide to return home? How do their households cope under these circumstances? This piece attempts to explore some of these questions drawing on interviews with return migrants across different states of India.
Perilous journeys to uncertain futures: migrant narratives
In India, a tragic situation arose during the first lockdown announced in March 2020. For internal migrant workers, many of whom are employed in the informal economy with no social security, lockdown implied immediate loss of jobs and shelter. Without access to proper transportation and resources, these workers were left with no choice but to return home on foot. The physical strain of these long journeys caused a huge loss of life among migrants and their families, including pregnant women, infants, and elderly people.
Recently, I conducted telephone interviews with ten returnee migrants based in different states in India with the aim of understanding how migrants manage their livelihoods after coming home from cities.[i] Many of the research participants discussed their treacherous journeys from cities to their homes. A resident of Uttar Pradesh described how he still feels the physical consequences of the journey. He said:
“Even after one year passed, I am still not well and there is a swelling in my leg because of the long journey on foot. I didn’t get food properly for 22 days while I was traveling. How do I work and feed my child and other members of my family? (March 28, 2021).
Others I spoke to mentioned that they have resumed agricultural work but are unable to make ends meet with such jobs. One said:
“The situation is getting worse because of unavailability of work. Sometimes I work as an agricultural laborer on someone else’s land and in return get Rs.60 a day which is not enough for survival with three children along with mother and wife” (May 17, 2021).
Many migrants informally employed in cities belong to Schedule Castes (SC), Schedule Tribes (ST), and Other Backward Classes (OBC)—groups with the least landed assets in the country. None of the return migrants I interviewed owned more than one acre of land, which is insufficient to produce the amount of grain needed to feed the family. A migrant, from Bihar said:
“I don’t have agricultural land so I work as a construction worker but work is not regularly available. It’s very difficult to manage the everyday household expenditure by working alone. Therefore, my wife also works on someone else’s land and in return gets some amount of grains” (March 15, 2021).
These narratives corroborate the fact that India faces a deep crisis in rural employment. Evidently, this crisis worsened during the pandemic in 2020. According to monthly Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy data, the rural unemployment rate in India shot up 7.69 percent in June 2019 to 21.11 percent in May 2020. This explains why most people I spoke to confirmed that they do not have any choice but to return to work in the cities.
Gendered impacts of reverse migration
The impact of reverse migration has notably affected the women of the household, their burden of housework and domestic violence has increased. The women I spoke with didn’t disclose their experiences of domestic violence[ii], but many spoke of an increased burden of housework. A woman resident of West Bengal explained,
“I am the only person who does all the household and agricultural work. I also have to take care of animals in the house. We have three children and mother in law to be taken care of” (May 17, 2021).
Another woman from Bihar working as a primary teacher in a government school explained that even though she is currently the sole-breadwinner in her family, providing unpaid reproductive labour is still expected of her.
“I am a school teacher but along with it, I also have to do all the household work. I have one child to be taken care of. My husband was working outside but he quit his job because of the covid crisis, no I am only earning member in my family. We cut our expenditure on food, traveling and clothes to manage the day-to-day household expenditure” (April 3, 2021).
Some women reflected upon the patriarchal norms that ensure that the burdens of day-to-day household work are not divided equally between women and men. A woman resident of Jharkhand argued:
“What does a man have to do? He only has to earn money. We have to do all the housework and look after the needs of the house. We also have taken care of our children” (May 18, 2021).
The difficulties faced by migrants and their households during the Covid-19 pandemic provide an opportunity for policymakers to refocus their attention towards the wellbeing of migrants. For socially disadvantaged communities, staying at home renders them more vulnerable due to the unavailability of employment and being landless. Most SCs, STS and OBCs suffer due to their economic and social conditions despite various affirmative action programs. The government needs to prioritise the provision of special protection to them through caste-based social security support within existing labour laws in India. Similarly, women in the household are also victims of patriarchal discrimination; they are considered as free labourers at home and paid less in the workplace. Special emphasis on social, economic, and legal protection for women through various social security measures are needed to curb domestic violence and economic dependency on male members of the family.
Avinash Kumar completed his master’s degree in Development Studies at Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University Delhi in July 2020. His master’s dissertation titled “Migration, informality, and conditions of existence: A focus on Delhi”, examines the participation of socially disadvantaged groups (SCs, STs and OBCs) in informal migrant work and to examine their housing and living conditions. Currently, he is applying for PhD programmes.
[i] This research was conducted as part of a pilot study for a planned research project involving WICID researchers and collaborators. I worked under the supervision of Saba Joshi. All research participants gave their consent for interviews to be digitally recorded and to be quoted in research outputs developed from the pilot study.
[ii] Being a male interviewer, I found that women respondents were hesitant to openly talk to me about issues such as domestic violence. Conducting interviews over the phone also hindered discussions on these topics because I could sense on many occasions that women’s’ husbands were also present when they spoke to me, making it harder for them to speak openly about conflicts within the family and gender-based violence.