India’s Informal Workers Demand Better Working Conditions

Government schemes

A few months after the first lockdown of 2020, the government started a rural public works scheme, known as the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan. This scheme was implemented in six states to provide income to unemployed citizens. However, it was only accessible in certain districts where state or district government reported numbers of returning migrants effectively, and failed to reach areas where administration didn’t gather this data.

Agriculture and farm wage employment

One would assume that farming was the obvious fallback option for migrants who returned to rural homes. However, this was not universally true. This avenue was only available for those whose families had agricultural land; many who didn’t had to find other alternatives.

Local industries

Pre-COVID, TRIF organised skilling programmes and placement services. They would train applicants to take up vocations ranging from front desk management and housekeeping to healthcare provision. These jobs were predominantly available in cities such as Hyderabad, Pune, and Kolkata. The interest in this programme has declined, even for the few jobs that are available in rural areas. This could be attributed to the fact that people no longer want to travel to distant cities lest another lockdown upturns their lives again.

Alternatives and recourses

Ashif observes that a noteworthy feature in migrants’ aspirations after the pandemic is that they seek dignity in their places of work. They are willing to overcome language barriers if they are treated with respect and find comfortable working conditions for themselves and safe living conditions for their families.

1. Better wage rates

The stark difference in the minimum daily wages between states such as MP (INR 193) and say, Haryana (INR 350) for unskilled work must be corrected. A short-term solution would be ensuring timely payment of wages, for which funds would need to be transferred from the central to state governments with more regularity.

2. Asset creation

Anish notes that for some people working for a wage isn’t an attractive option when it involves creating public assets. If schemes such as MGNREGA were linked with creating individual assets, they may gain more popularity. The government has taken cognizance of this, having set up guidelines for women’s federations to invest in Individual Beneficiary Schemes. MGNREGA also has a provision for the creation of individual assets. It could, for example be used to create individual rainwater harvesting structures, which would enable farming households to meet their irrigation requirements. This is turn would ensure better incomes for these households.

3. Small enterprise

A small number of people — who neither wish to return to the cities nor explore agriculture locally — have shown interest in small enterprises. There has been a slight increase in those wanting to set up their own small businesses, ranging from grocery stores to packaged drinking water enterprises.

4. Fisheries and dairies

For those looking for alternative livelihoods, starting or diversification into fisheries, dairy, poultry farming, goat rearing or a combination of these — depending on the location and its demand — may be a viable option. Anish states from experience that that there is an unmet need in fisheries, dairy, off-farm, or farm-allied activities. While the overall economy is not doing well at present, it is likely to pick up in the coming years, and these sectors have scope for growth. Looking at future demand estimates, he predicts that a combination of homestead and off-farm work in the rural areas could be carried out at scale.

5. Service industry around infrastructure

The government has started largescale programmes such as the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, and the other rural infrastructure schemes. These programmes rely on newer forms of technology, creating an opportunity to build a service industry around the use and maintenance of this infrastructure and train people for a new set of requirements. The use of IoT devices, for instance, creates new employment avenues. IoT finds application in the electrification of villages and where tap water has been made available in homes, and this generates a work opportunity in meter reading. These require people with digital proficiency and a different set of skills, which, according to Anish, can be acquired locally. He states that the existing skilling ecosystem could be modified to equip a rural workforce to deliver services that are located in rural India.

6. Accountability from government and industry

Ashif observes that in the aftermath of the pandemic, many employers, particularly those who employ informal labour, now seem to prefer younger workers (18–40 years old), and are reluctant to hire women and people over the age of 40. However, to generate more and better livelihood opportunities for informal workers, the government and industries must collaborate and commit to employ a certain percentage of workers from ‘vulnerable groups’, including migrants, women, and people with disabilities.

Building sustainable livelihoods

The planning commission’s State Development Report for MP notes that the employment challenge facing the state does not just involve creating new jobs, but is also to ‘make existing livelihoods stronger and sustainable’. Agriculture, manufacturing, and services are the primary livelihood generating sectors in the state, which has seen low per capita income and economic growth over the years. While the presence of heavy industries attracts migrants from other states, the rate of out-migration is low. This means that more rural residents here are not equipped to move out for work, in spite of various socioeconomic difficulties at home.

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