No papers, no safety net: the informal army of Indian workers worst hit by COVID-19 lockdown
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By Roli Srivastava
MUMBAI, April 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - No food, no work and no clue when relief will come.
That's life now for millions of informal workers in India, starved of a way to feed themselves or get the help pledged by government to survive a three-week coronavirus lockdown.
Almost a week after the government announced billions in aid, nothing is yet disbursed in this vast and labyrinthine country, forcing many of India's poorest city workers to hit the roads and begin a hazardous walk home to their villages.
The dearth of state support and desperation on the streets has revealed the lack of security in India's job market, a problem that pervades life for the poorest right across Asia.
"I have heard about the money promised, but I have no idea how I will get it. We are about 150 workers here and have barely eaten in the last few days," Rahul Ahirwar said by phone from Delhi, where he has opted to stay put and ride out the crisis, sharing a tenement with his wife and parents.
The 26-year-old construction worker said he had called a government hotline for help but, like millions of others without paperwork or a stable job, had neither food nor fallback.
Coronavirus has infected more than 1,600 people and killed 38 in India, according to the government, since it escaped China and travelled the globe. Medics across India are struggling to curb the outbreak, saddled with a weak public healthcare system and intense overcrowding: perfect conditions for its spread.
Worst hit among the employed are the so-called daily wage workers, many of whom lack documentation to prove their eligibility for help in a country in thrall to bureaucracy. Other casual workers are cut off by lack of a bank account.
"I have been working for the last seven years but I didn't know about getting registered," Ahirwar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Wednesday, referring to a mandatory construction workers' welfare fund.
While Ahirwar opted to stay in the capital, millions more headed for home in an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
Crowds jam city bus depots and traipse along the national highways on foot, showing the lack of any safety net for more than 90% of India's nearly 450 million workers.
Nearly 2 billion people work informally globally, most of them in emerging and developing countries mainly in South Asia and South East Asia, according to a United Nations report.
Most lack social protection, rights at work and decent working conditions, the report says.
India has pledged a $23 billion stimulus to provide food and cash to millions of its poorest citizens, along with $4 billion drawn from the welfare fund for construction workers. It has also asked companies not to lay off workers or cut wages, desperate to bolster morale in the pandemic.
But how to help those without bank accounts or paperwork? "An increasing number of informal workers are migrant workers and there is no way they can establish their labour records," said economist Ravi Srivastava, director of the Centre for Employment Studies.
"When a pandemic hits, informal workers are laid off first."
A finance ministry official said all 28 states had money in their disaster response funds from the centre that would buy food, healthcare and shelter for migrants, wherever they were.
Many are self-employed: the workers who push carts, sell tea in kiosks, drive autorickshaws, work at home stitching garments or polish diamonds in tiny workshops.
The government says nearly 70% of workers outside of farming have no written job contracts, and about half are ineligible for paid leave or social security.
"All the government directives (issued in the crisis) apply to the formal sector enterprises that are registered and employ more than 10 workers," said economist Anoop Satpathy, who headed India's labour ministry's panel on minimum wages.
"What about those in non-registered firms, that employ less than 10 people. And will all the firms comply?"
India's construction industry, with its fivefold rise in workers in the last four decades, is a case in point.
The sector employs nearly 50 million people; only 35 million are registered with the welfare fund, the government says.
That leaves millions of casuals and those working in related sectors - India has some 12 million brick kiln workers - unregistered and beyond help.
"How will they deliver it to the millions of people who are not even aware how they can access the funds?" asked Ashaf Shaikh, director of Jan Sahas, a non-profit for worker rights.
For Ahirwar, the promise of state aid is no longer even on his mind. Survival is his only thought.
"Whatever little money we had is over now. There are small children here. All we need is food," he said. ($1 = 75.3500 Indian rupees) (Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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