COVID-19 and labour rights in India

On 22nd May, a nationwide labour rights strike was held in India. However, the absence of media attention on the strike is a loud reminder of the condition of workers in the country. The workers are being blamed and demonised for their poverty and numbers. Branded as COVID-19 carriers, our system finds it easier to criminalise them than to address their needs.
Anita Cheria, NHRF's local consultant in India (Photo: Mónica Orjuela/NHRF).

This is despite the government actively forcing them into this condition of helplessness by systematically supporting the informalisation of worker contracts, lowering wages and diluting worker rights under the pretext of reform for several years now. Even as workers are left with nothing, the government is going ahead with more of these policies to "combat COVID-19". P. Manivannan, the Principal Secretary to the Department of Labour, who actively reached out to labour issues and labour unions in the south Indian state of Karnataka, was transferred overnight after his actions were criticised by corporates and politicians alike.

Demanding governmental action

The nationwide labour strike in India on 22nd of May was held on the call of ten Central Trade Unions (CTUs). It was joined by several other trade unions active at a national and state level. A joint petition by the CTUs was submitted to the Prime Minister via e-mail. This petition was simultaneously released all over India by the participating leaders and activists. The petition included demands such as:

  • Give immediate relief to stranded workers so that they can reach back to their homes.
  • The trade unions have demanded a minimum cash transfer of Rs 7,500 a month for the next five to six months to tide over the crisis for all non-income taxpayers so that they can subsist.
  • Universalisation of ration so that any person in need of subsidised cereal, pulses or sugar can access it.
  • Increase in the money directly transferred to Jan Dhan accounts.
  • Repeal of ordinances that annul hard-fought rights of labour.
  • Strengthening the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Act of 1979, to ensure compulsory registration of migrant workers ensuring with adequate protective provisions on wages, social security, accommodation and welfare needs with a strong and accountable enforcement mechanism.
Above: The Garment Labour Union (GLU) protesting during the nationwide labour strike on 22nd of May. Main photo: From the protest organised by the Domestic Workers Rights Union, Bruhat Bangalore Gruhakarmika Sangha and Manegelasa Kaarmikara Union on 15th of June (Photo: Domestic Workers Rights Union).

The strike took several forms to combat the situation of “no dissidents” that has been followed by the government under the pretext of COVID-19 safety measures: From lunch-hour protest meetings to hunger strikes and solidarity actions by wearing black badges. Workers from coal unions, banks and industrial workers from several states participated. In Tamil Nadu, the protest was organized in 10 000 places with more than 200 000 people, and in Kerala they were organized in 5000 places with participation of more than 100 000 persons. In several locations, district-level protests were held and memorandums were submitted to the district collectors in Haryana and Punjab.

“We held our protest in front of the Labour Department Office. The demand was protection of garment workers in the context of the lockdown being misused by companies for non-payment of wages and suspension of workers. We also won’t tolerate the dilution of labour rights by the central and state governments as a strategy to support corporate interests ignoring the plight of workers.” Rukmini Ramesh, leader of the Garment Labour Union.

Some of the protesting leaders were arrested and detained in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. In Bangalore, the Joint Committee of Trade Unions in India held the protest at the Anand Rao circle. They had to shift the protest and reduce numbers to just about 200 representatives as the police kept harassing them. Only three representatives were allowed to meet the governor of the state. They decided to follow up with more protests, as it was critical to keep raising attention to serious labour right violations, particularly the unorganized daily wage workers’ concerns, as they are forced into a “do or die” situation by the government. On 29th of May, the Garment Labour Union decided to hold a protest outside the Labour Department and follow up with gate meetings outside factories, in order to reach out to workers and involve them in taking up their cause.

The NHRF invites different actors within the human rights field to contribute on this blog. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors.

In May 2020, a survey was sent out to more than 2500 domestic workers in Bangalore, Karnataka, by the Domestic Workers Rights Union, Bruhat Bangalore Gruhakarmika Sangha and Manegelasa Kaarmikara Union. Some of the findings show that:

  • 87% of the workers has since the lockdown began in March, been told to not come to work, and were not sure when they would be called back to work again.
  • 50 % of the workers above the age of 50 had lost their jobs during the lockdown.
  • 91 % of the workers lost their salary for the month of April.

The three unions organised a protest on 15th of June – the eve of the International Domestic Workers Day – to demand the securing of the rights of domestic workers all over India. The findings of the report were, along with the demands, submitted to the Labour Commissioner. Their demands were directed to the government Resident Welfare Associations and employers of domestic workers.