The COVID pandemic in India and the lockdown imposed to curb its spread have brought to national and international focus, the figure of the Indian ‘migrant worker’. Faced with loss of livelihood, these workers—relying on short-term income and engaged in sectors like construction, security, recycling, taxi driving, rickshaw pulling, manufacturing, street vending, and domestic work—have been hit the hardest. As images of workers walking hundreds of kilometers to go back home hit the news, the focus of most of the media coverage lay on the ‘migrant’ in the migrant worker, particularly on their mass return migration to their home villages. This predicament was largely attributed to their highly mobile lifecycles that had been hit hard because of the lockdown restrictions. However, their vulnerable situation also stemmed from the fact that they were low-wage workers, working in informal, unsafe work conditions and without access to any social protection. When a crisis hit, without any reserves to fall back on, they sought to return back from cities, where they did not have access to basic civic provisions like subsidized food, water and sanitation, that is available to the more settled urban poor (Jan Sahas 2020).
This is because the official category of the worker continues to be focussed on fixity in space and time, and does not see mobility favourably. The understanding of ‘worker’ emerged from the context of large-scale factory work wherein being a worker was linked to the characteristic of settling down in the city, and of committing to work place discipline (Parpiani 2019). This does not include circular migrant workers who work and live in the city temporarily. Because of the exclusion of migrant workers from institutional categorization of labour and protective coverage, immediate relief operations had to be set up by the state for the distribution of food and dry ration during the lockdown. While many civil society organisations also started undertaking relief work, it was often difficult to reconcile the situation on the ground and the existing language of relief work.
For instance, in the initial weeks when the migrant worker had not as yet become visible as a particularly vulnerable workforce, most donors wanted to provide relief to poor households and asked for data on ‘beneficiary families’. Given that migrant work often entails the migration of one or two members of the family, who send remittances back to the rest of the family, their households did not directly qualify because of not being more settled in the city with a fixed address. Circular migrants often live within their worksites including construction sites, manufacturing units or brick kilns on the peripheries of the city. Even though it is mostly men who migrate, single women migration has also been widely observed in case of domestic work, wherein they either live with the employers in their homes or share small rented spaces with other domestic workers in the city (Banerjee and Govil 2018; Mazumdar 2014). Their different living arrangements notwithstanding, accessing a permanent and official home address is extremely challenging for most migrant workers. Due to this pervasive absence of the circular migrant in the policy and development imagination, workers living together in the same unit or room often had to be designated as a family in order to qualify as beneficiaries during lockdown relief efforts.
This description was not incorrect given that many of these workers’ groups often do affectively function as family units, sharing the intimate space of a small housing or work unit. Staying indoors however was not entirely safer for those, whose worksites double up as living spaces. Even before the pandemic, informal manufacturing units working at the end of long supply chains—making garments, electronic and metal spare parts— have been tinderboxes, with perpetual risk of accidents and fires for workers living within its small confines (Parpiani 2020). Now that going outside was equally dangerous, workers were forced to spend all their time within their worksite, and even cooking, with hazardous materials around them. ‘We take care’, said one worker, ‘That is the only way. We can only rely on our collective carefulness. Earlier we used to eat from the street vendors; now there are no vendors. We have been getting dry ration from the NGO, and we cook and eat together in the unit itself’.
As the lockdowns were extended, relief distribution increasingly became unsustainable as a viable solution. The demand was overwhelming and continuous, and the resources limited. As a more dignified and sustainable solution, some regional governments initiated schemes for cash transfers, transferring small amounts (INR 500 = USD 6.6) to those having bank accounts created under the Jan Dhan financial inclusion scheme initiated in 2014. These transfers were however not always easily and equally accessible to migrant families who live far apart, often sharing one family account. Take for instance the case of Mahesh, who was a daily wage worker in the construction sector, and shared a rented room with another migrant worker. When asked whether he had a bank account to avail of the cash transfer scheme, he replied that he did, but that he did not have his debit card with him. He had left it in the village with his son, who had been ill over the last three years and needed access to funds for his treatment.
Even though he was not able to work or send remittances anymore, Mahesh continued to care for his family—particularly his son—through the phone. He tried to get medicines and treatment for him on credit, all the while worrying about his phone balance running out and cutting off his last mode of communication with his family back home. In Mumbai, he was also taking care of his new family—the man with whom he shared his room—who was also alone in the city, and anxious about the pervasive uncertainty. They cooked all meals together with the ration received from non-profits, and helped each other survive the lockdown.
Such care work tends to be highly affective in nature, breaking boundaries between work and non-work (Boris and Parreñas 2010). Affective work has in fact become an important part of a range of professionals like nurses, flight attendants, and call center employees (Mankekar and Gupta 2016). Yet, this work has never been considered remunerative. The coronavirus situation has revealed a self-sustaining care economy that has been long operating in Mahesh’s world. Migrants, both female and male, are often forced to adopt the role of care workers (Elliott 2016) to overcome economic difficulties and loneliness in the city. Care work lies at the heart of their precarious working conditions, as through it they are expected to manage their ‘negative feelings’, which stem from uncertain, insecure, and poorly paid jobs and living conditions (Veldstra 2020).
The Indian government has, in turn, re-framed Mahesh’s work as a service to the nation. In a televised speech announcing the extension of the lockdown period by another two weeks until 3 May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi noted, ‘I am well aware of the problems you have faced—some for food, some for movement from place to place, and others for staying away from homes and families. You are fulfilling duties as disciplined soldiers for the sake of the nation’. He also urged the middle class to feed the poor and the needy. In this context, Mahesh’s care work is meant to not only compensate for the poor working conditions in the construction industry, but also fill in the gaps in the country’s effort to control a pandemic.
Special trains for migrant workers were announced on 29 April, after a month of lockdown. Workers scrambled to get medical certificates granting them as fit to travel, and get access to train tickets. However this facilitated return of migrants also created concerns within industry and employers organizations of the possibility of labour shortage. On 9 May, it was proposed by two regional states that India’s already circumscribed labor protections be suspended, with the objective of promoting greater flexibility to industry. Under these new norms, if successfully passed, all workers will work to up to 12 hours, with no guarantees of minimum wage, occupational safety, right to unionization or social protection.
As India heads into a post-lockdown phase of restarting economic activity, the state has a new message for migrant workers: they will now need to care for country as well. Even as migrant workers garnered widespread empathy during the lockdown, their jobs have been moved further out of the realm of manual or service ‘work’ per se. Instead of expanding and updating our understanding of the Indian worker, the categorization is being rendered completely meaningless. Manufacturing garments, doing constructing work, driving a taxi or vending on the street are now reframed as acts of courageous service for a nation in crisis, whose labor is its own reward.
Banerjee, Snigdha, and Dipti Govil. 2018. “Bengali Female Migrants: Domestic Workers in Mumbai.” ANTYAJAA: Indian Journal of Women and Social Change 3 (2): 194–206. https://doi.org/10.1177/2455632718798071.
Boris, Eileen, and Rhacel Salazar Parreñas. 2010. Intimate Labors: Cultures, Technologies, and the Politics of Care. Stanford: Stanford Social Sciences.
Elliott, Karla. 2016. “Caring Masculinities: Theorizing an Emerging Concept.” Men and Masculinities 9 (3): 240–59. https://doi.org/10.1177/1097184X15576203.
Jan Sahas. 2020. “Voices of the Invisible Citizens: A Rapid Assessment on the Impact of COVID-19 Lockdown on Internal Migrant Workers.” New Delhi: Jan Sahas.
Mankekar, Purnima, and Akhil Gupta. 2016. “Intimate Encounters: Affective Labor in Call Centers.” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 24 (1): 17–43. https://doi.org/10.1215/10679847-3320029
Mazumdar, Indrani. 2014. “Unfree Mobility: Adivasi Women’s Migration.” Occasional Paper 60. New Delhi” Centre for Women’s Development Studies.
Parpiani, Maansi. 2020. “Fighting Fires: Migrant Workers in Mumbai.” Economic and Political Weekly 55 (14): 13–15. https://www.epw.in/journal/2020/14/commentary/fighting-fires-migrant-workers-mumbai.html
Parpiani, Maansi. 2019. “Politics of Work: Locality, Migration and Precariousness in Mumbai.” Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Copenhagen.
Veldstra, Carolyn. 2020. “Bad Feeling at Work: Emotional Labour, Precarity, and the Affective Economy.” Cultural Studies 34 (1): 1–24. https://doi.org/10.1080/09502386.2018.1555269.
Tagged: #Borders #Class #Colonialism #Domesticity #Economy #Gender #Geopolitics of care #Health care #Housing #Migration #Mutual aid networks #Quarantine #Race #State power #State volunteer initiatives #Surveillance #Welfare state
Maansi Parpiani is a researcher working on questions of informal work, migration and working class identities in India. She completed her PhD from the University of Copenhagen in 2019. Currently, she is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Copenhagen, and Senior Consultant for Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit working for migrant workers in India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com