Skill, Labour, Talent for MSMEs: The mass exodus of migrant labourers to their native towns and villages due to the pandemic last year had started to reverse late last year as a majority of them had started to move back to cities for work after months of job loss. As a result, businesses and factories had gradually managed to roll up their shutters and were crawling back to their pre-Covid performance before the second Covid wave struck the nation in March.
This time, the mutating virus is perhaps even more deadly taking a toll on the healthcare infrastructure. Until a complete nationwide lockdown is once again enforced, which would be the last resort for the government to arrest the deepening crisis, MSMEs and other businesses believe reverse migration in 2021 is unlikely to mirror that of 2020.
Multiple trade unions Financial Express Online spoke to opined that workers this time are planning to stick around their workplaces as businesses are less likely to shut down this time amid restricted lockdown vis-à-vis last year’s lockdown across the country.
“Many workers had last year returned to work. We had informed them that it is not just about inconvenience in commuting but also possible salary cuts they might have to face if they go back home. Moving back won’t immune them from Covid. Some factories had also paid more wages and commuting fare to bring them back last year. So, this time, we don’t see much reverse migration happening,” Hiranmay Pandya, National President, Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS) told Financial Express Online.
BMS is the largest central trade union in the country representing approximately over 2 crore workers across organised and unorganised parts of the sectors including MSMEs. Covid had exposed the vulnerability of urban casual workers, which accounted for 11.2 per cent of India’s urban workforce, as per the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) for January-March, 2020.
According to the survey, a significant proportion of the workers are “supposed” to be migrants who were impacted by the lockdown. To help migrant workers reach their native places, the government had last year launched Shramik Special trains through which around 63.19 lakh such workers travelled during May-August 2020.
However, the government had no official data on the loss of jobs and accommodation suffered by these workers. “With limited data available on inter-state migration and employment in informal sectors, it is difficult to figure the numbers of migrants who lost jobs and accommodation during the pandemic and returned home,” the Finance Ministry had said in a statement in January this year.
“There are labourers that are returning back home this year ever since the second wave struck. Many factories have been shut in Pune, Nagpur, Surat, etc., following a surge in Covid cases. However, the number of reverse migrants is less so far this year even as it might increase if Covid cases rise further,” Ramendra Kumar, President, All India Trade Union Congress told Financial Express Online. AITUC is the oldest trade union in India set up in 1920 by freedom fighters including Lala Lajpat Rai. Currently, it represents over 1 crore unorganised workers in MSME, construction, agriculture, and other sectors.
Currently, multiple states have already extended their lockdown restrictions amid rising cases. For instance, Maharashtra has extended restrictions till May 15 while lockdown in Delhi has been extended till May 10. Similarly, Kerala has strict restrictions on movement till May 9 while Odisha has enforced a two-week lockdown till May 19, and Tamil Nadu has put in place a night curfew along with a full lockdown on Sunday. Others such as Goa and Rajasthan have extended lockdown till May 10 and May 17 respectively while Haryana has enforced a seven-day lockdown till May 3.
If the situation worsens, MSMEs fear they would have to shut down temporarily or at least reduce the hours of operation that consequently might impact their workers. Importantly, the exodus from cities like Delhi and Mumbai recently has caught the government’s attention again.
“We are already not operating at our full capacity due to current restrictions as businesses have been disrupted since last year’s situation. If there is a complete nationwide lockdown ahead, we might have to shut down for now. We have around 25 workers at our two factories in Noida. We are managing somehow to pay their salaries but I’m confident that they would not move back to their hometown. They know going back would not bring any change to the situation. We will try to help them in all possible ways,” Noida-based Adarsh Parashar who manufactures corrugated boxes told Financial Express Online.
Last month, multiple state governments had informed the Centre that they are not expecting migrant workers’ exodus this time because of the partial and localised lockdowns and other restrictions.
“States have said that they are not facing any problem with regard to the migrant workers, as of now. They said that there has been no exodus, neither they are anticipating these workers to leave en masse in the coming days,” Union Labour Secretary Apurva Chandra, who chaired a meeting with his state counterparts last month had told Financial Express. Chandra had said that not just states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but ones like Maharashtra (where migrants move to) were sensing any problem.