Indian businesses stall as workers reluctant to return after lockdown ease

Millions of Indians left cities after lockdown was imposed, and many are not willing to return to work

Delhi-based entrepreneur Khurshid Alam has finally unlocked his footwear factory after nearly three months of lockdown, but two weeks into India’s coronavirus lockdown relaxation, he is struggling to gather employees to work in it.

India announced a nationwide lockdown in late March to battle the coronavirus pandemic, a move that drove thousands of domestic migrants from cities back to their rural homes as their opportunities to support themselves dwindled.

But as the country eased some lockdown restrictions this month in an attempt to revive its manufacturing sector, many casual workers are reluctant to return to work, citing unfair treatment and soaring virus numbers across cities.

“Workers are really scared to return after what happened in March. Only a handful of workers have returned and they too are worried about the growing coronavirus cases,” Mr Alam told The National.

Mr Alam said he failed to convince his staff to return despite assuring them financial security and a safe working environment.

“Because of the shortage of workers, production is hampered and I have already incurred losses of $15,000 since March,” he said, adding that like most employers he too was unable to pay his staff for the lockdown period.

Even if workers wanted to return, many of them are hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres away. Unemployment caused by the lockdown caused the swift exodus of up to 25 million migrant workers from cities, according to government figures.

Nearly 80 per cent of India’s 400 million blue collar workforce, mostly migrant workers, are employed in the country's informal sector that includes an estimated seven million small and micro industries or as domestic and construction workers.

Most of them earn meagre salaries of about $100-$150 a month with no job or social security and have savings that could only last 10 days, according to several independent surveys.

As businesses started laying off their staff in wake of the lockdown, many workers struggled to survive in costly cities, instead choosing to walk or pedal hundreds of miles in blistering heat, hitch rides on trucks or travel on specially laid on trains to return to their homes.

But as the cities and factories open up once more, the still rising case numbers in urban areas are holding them back from returning, despite being desperate to find work.

India is witnessing more than 14,000 daily positive cases and has passed 425,000 Covid-19 patients and 13,699 deaths amid government predictions that big cities like Mumbai and Delhi will see massive spikes in coming weeks.

Both the national and financial capitals have crossed 50,000 cases and in coming weeks could be overwhelmed by the growing coronavirus caseload.

Abdul Majid, a migrant worker from northern Uttar Pradesh state, worked at a yarn factory in Baroda in western state of Gujarat for three years and earned $160 a month before his mill was shut in March.

He, like scores of his colleagues, fled the city on a special migrant train in early May for his village after the factory refused to pay them salaries for the lockdown period, pushing them into penury.

But the 25-year-old is reluctant to return to work because of the fear of coronavirus despite surviving off government-funded ration along with his family of five.

“Our savings are drying out and we do not know how we will survive but my family is terrified with coronavirus cases and do not want me to go back to work. They fear I too will get infected,” Mr Majid told The National.

The situation is equally bad in mid-sized cities that host a variety of industrial units.

In Gujarat’s Surat city, known as the world’s diamond polishing capital, businesses are slowly reviving with just 40 per cent of its more than 1.5 million-strong workforce.

“Most labourers are from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and they are yet to return to work,” said Babubhai Kathiria, the President of Surat Diamond Association.

Some factory owners in northern Haryana state’s Karnal were offering air tickets to their staff to return to work, while others were paying exorbitant amounts for taxis and air conditioned? trains to woo them back as factories bleed in absence of skilled staff.

But many have vowed not to go back.

Om Babu was forced to flee Mumbai and return to his home in Bihar, where villagers “ostracised” him over fears that he could be carrying the virus.

The 29-year-old tailor had been working in the city for over four years and made $200 every month including overtime wages but his salary was stopped during the lockdown, forcing him to flee the megacity.

Mr Babu, who spent two weeks in quarantine, says that villagers have asked him to not venture out in fear of spreading the virus.

“I am under constant watch...they fear I am a suspected case,” he said.

Others feel jaded by their treatment at the hands of employers, who left them to fend for themselves during lockdown.

Shashi Kumar from eastern Bihar said his employer at a plastic manufacturing unit near Delhi asked him to leave the factory accommodation after denying him salary in April.

“We walked for six days to reach our village,” said Mr Kumar, who was summarily sacked after working for the company for over three-years.

“I am hurt by my employer's treatment. I will prefer to work in the village and never return to that job,” he added.

Updated: June 23, 2020 05:30 PM

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