Labour shortage — one of the biggest collateral damage of lockdown in India
BL Soni

Mumbai: It took less than two days for the mass reverse migration of workers to happen, post the lockdown was announced. But it will take over three months for workers to be back, after the lockdown is lifted, stated an economist. Many sectors that are recognised as essential services are already witnessing a shortage in manpower.

Commenting on the manpower constraints, an economist said, “Due to the lockdown, the biggest collateral damage for India has been its labour. The biggest challenge for all the sectors would be getting back their manpower. It will take at least three months for the workers to be back.”

Commenting on the migrating workers, a social activist, Mukta Srivastava, said, “In most cases, once a worker migrates or goes back to his or her village, they usually are not back soon. This is the usual case. Adding to this is the present situation where lockdown is imposed; public transport is not functioning; many workers are still stranded in various locations (which is not their destination) and the fear about the pandemic itself. So, it will take some time for the daily wage earners or workers to be back.”

Despite coming under essential services, sectors like agriculture, pharmaceuticals and others, are unable to carry out their activity smoothly. The reason is when a portion of the supply chain is hit (labour in their case), it impacts the whole sector.

Labour-intensive sectors like agriculture, manufacturing, real estate and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise (MSME), will witness a huge challenge in terms of finding workers. A person familiar with the situation, said, “Along with getting a financial package ready, the government will have to look at sorting the labour issue before it is too late. Both should happen simultaneously.”

Look at some sectors

One cannot forget India has a population of 1.3 billion that has to be fed. And if the movement of migratory labour does not take place, a large portion of foodgrains and other produce will decay in the farm. “It is also the sowing period for many farmers, especially in the North. So, if the farmers don’t get access to seeds, then there will be a drop in agricultural production in the next cropping cycle,” revealed a person involved in the agriculture sector. This could give rise to the food shortage in the medium term.

While agriculture and allied activities have been exempted from lockdown, procurement of the crops and Agriculture Produces Market Committees (APMC) need some relaxation as well.

One of the last links in the supply chain of the agriculture sector is the retail and e-commerce sector, which is unable to take off due to labour reservation. Some state governments are talking about door-to-door services for essentials, but this needs human intervention.

At this time, when there is a need for pharmaceutical companies to function without any hurdle that is not happening. This is mainly because their supply chain is facing a shortage of labour.

In the case of MSMEs, labour is a double-edged sword. “While many MSMEs will lay-off their contractual or informal workers, there will be others who will not be able to operate in full capacity due to shortage or no staff situation.”

Between the Devil and the deep blue sea

India, like some other developing countries, has a large informal workforce. There are 92.4 per cent informal workers (with no written contract, paid leave and other benefits) in the economy, as per International Labour Organization (ILO) report. Of that around 9 per cent, informal workers are found in the organised sector.

According to another report by the United Nations Labour body, titled 'ILO Monitor 2nd edition: COVID-19 and the world of work', about 400 million workers in the informal economy are at risk of falling deeper into poverty due to the crisis. Even before the crisis, it was estimated that 60 per cent of India's informal workers faced greater in-work poverty risk than formal economy workers. Due to the crisis, the fear about the poverty risk will come true.

When asked if the fear of pandemic will stop the working class from coming to their jobs, Srivastava said, “I do not know if it is fear of pandemic or fear of hunger that overpowers their decision. But the need to migrate from the area of work to their villages was dominated with the fear of hunger. If you see, most workers moved in groups that showed the fear of pandemic did not overpower the fear of hunger.” Most migrants workers moved from one state to another or from one city to another, was mainly to avoid starvation.

Easing return of migrant labourers

According to an economist, the reverse movement of workers is bound to happen but the authorities will have to work towards reducing the time of their return.

In the case of China, the government authorities made sure that there are adequate facilities to get back the 291 million migrant workers once the lockdown was eased.

For most state governments in India that have been able to successfully establish contact with these migrant workers, it will be time they share that information with other ministries and help in mobilising these labourers. One should not forget no state wants to have a dependent population.

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