Reflecting on the plight of migrant workers and COVID-19 in India (part 2)

This two-part blog from the GLOW Hub in India which is currently undertaking a project that examines private sector contribution to the SDGs[1] in India, reflects on the ongoing coronavirus crisis and the situation of migrant labour in India. The first part of the blog draw attention to the everyday challenges brought upon by the lockdown in the lives of migrant workers, while the second part reflects on what these challenges mean, significance of the idea of Living Wage and the role activists and research(ers) can play.

Humanising Work(ers) in Supply Chains

Authored by Divya Jyoti and Bimal Arora, Aston University, UK

The COVID-19 crisis has essentially laid bare and exaggerated all that is problematic with traditional business models and approaches to work as we know it. It has highlighted the stark structural inequalities exacerbated through public policies and the pervasive ideal of economic growth. Generally, outsourcing and offshoring of production operations by multinational and large corporations are carried out with the intention of maximising gains by outsourcing risks. Located at one extreme end of the supply chain, with limited negotiating power and ability, it is the workers in farms and factories who are bearing the brunt of the unforeseen and unprecedented risks of the coronavirus and the induced lockdown. To save costs, reduce losses and stay afloat, brands, retailers, and other multinational firms are shutting stores, services and factories, cancelling orders and reducing operations. While employees everywhere are affected, as the first part of this blog highlighted, it is particularly these workers, with little to nil shock absorption capacities (in terms of low wages, informal contracts, lack of social security, proper housing, and support systems in host communities), who are evidently amongst the worst-hit.

When the industry and various regional state governments in India realised that workers are losing trust and patience under the lockdown conditions and wish to go back to their homes in states and locations far from cities and their workplaces, they began yet another crackdown – to prevent workers to return as there is worry about who will run the operations in factories when they reopen. A news report labelled migrant workers as ‘assets’ who cannot be let go, and therefore should not be allowed to go back to their homes[2]. A news report highlights that Chief Ministers of several states are urging migrants to stay back, and trains ferrying them back home are being cancelled, while in some states there are also reports of police resorting to force on people trying to leave for their home states. If indeed, migrant workers are so crucial to the economy, then what they deserve is a better recognition of what they offer and do. Determining, defining and outlining the nature, value and scope of such a recognition presents a research and action agenda for the GLOW community in particular and the business and management scholars in general. The plight of migrant workers in India offers crucial takeaways for the GLOW members and research(ers).

The first is the need for humanising work(ers). Thus far workers have been largely viewed as a ‘resource’ in both management theory and practice. In managing the migrant workers crisis, businesses, government, NGOs and celebrities have joined hands with citizens to pitch in and mitigate the adverse impacts on worker communities. However, this collaboration is also working against the workers – businesses need workers to run the factories, and governments are now issuing appeals that they stay back. While unions are questioning and moving to courts with a petition, these behaviours underline the implicit assumption – workers as a resource that is needed to keep the business and factories running and to keep making profits, ultimately widening inequalities. COVID-19 has exposed these beliefs and underlined the need to humanise both work as well as workers – market mechanisms alone cannot be left in-charge of the choices that affect us and our communities most deeply. Highlighting this point, a group of researchers have launched a manifesto for work post the corona crisis, emphasising the need to Democratise, Decommodify, Remediate[3] work. For the GLOW community of practitioners and researchers questioning work as usual and undertaking research on how workplaces can be democratised, and the extent, nature, role of decommodification of work, are areas that require urgent attention. These could offer potent perspectives for the impending reorganisation of the world of work. 

Connected to this is the need to reiterate the importance of a living wage like never before. The prospects that some savings available with the migrant workers and the urban poor in India and beyond could have offered in the wake of COVID-19, can hardly be overstated. The call for living wage for all, and specifically for supply chain workers of international businesses has never been more urgent. There is a need for the GLOW community to expand and grow like never before – to examine, analyse and underline the potential, prospects, possibility for a humane life that a living wage can offer and to liaison, lobby and demand a wage that protects rather than exploits. For instance, the Government of India is currently busy putting together financial packages for industry sectors – to what extent do these packages incorporate or reflect on the concerns of workers, particularly migrant workers? Are these packages reiterating business as usual? Should they instead consider scope for increasing wages and offering living wages? These are some of the issues for the research and practice community to reflect on, question and raise.

Finally, there is a need for collaborations across organisations, sectors and locations. The volatile situation could perhaps benefit from cross-country/sector learnings that can be identified and shared through research collaborations.




The full text of the Manifesto is published here

You can also contact Divya Jyoti: 

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