Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXX No. 1, April16-30, 2020

Taking Care of Migrant Workers in the Time of Covid-19

by A Staff Correspondent

“We received a call from a migrant who asked for help to purchase baby formula for his three-month-old twins before the shops closed. We transferred the money in half-an-hour,” said Aruna Subramaniam of Bhoomika Trust, as she explained the plight of migrant workers stranded in the city.

“They are figuring out our helpline and reaching out to us. Our volunteer teams deliver ration kits to help them,” she said.

The unprecedented Covid-19 lockdown has left the city’s migrant worker population without safe access to essential supplies, even as they struggle with the resulting loss of livelihoods and funds. Most hail from West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Nepal, and are employed in blue-collar work that support local industries like manufacturing, textile and construction. They are unlikely to have a ration card, making it unable for them to access the relief package of supplies and money distributed by the government through the public system. While the administration races to put together a plan for this particularly vulnerable segment, NGOs like Bhoomika are coordinating with the government to provide timely support. Apart from donating provisions to government-run relief centres, they are also involved in direct outreach to migrant workers through the supply of ration kits.

“Our volunteers are identifying clusters of migrant workers across the city in places like OMR & ECR to deliver ration kits that should last them for ten days or so. For instance, our volunteers in Thiruvallur district have already reached out to around 4,000 migrants with the help of the local police department,” said Aruna. While the cluster approach is efficient in meeting the needs of a group of migrants, she worries about the individuals falling through the cracks. “We depend on our NGO peers in the field and the local communities to guide us to people in need so that we can help them,” she said.

The government’s Covid-19 Control Room refers help requests to Bhoomika as well, which is deploying its emergency corpus to fund its relief operations. When asked if the corpus was supported by government aid, she explained that it was donated by individuals, institutes and corporations.

Given that migrant workers form a significant chunk of the state’s labour force, it is fair to conclude that employers are obligated to see to their welfare during this crisis. For its part, the State has issued a directive mandating the timely payment of wages owed to them. However, with work having come to an abrupt halt, small workshops and units that employ migrant workers are finding themselves in a cash crunch of their own. With a recession looming over the horizon, there is an urgent need to find a sustainable way to improve liquidity in small business sectors.

Further, an increase in the number of positive Covid-19 cases has given rise to the conjecture that the lockdown may be extended for a few more weeks (it has – editor). “We’re mentally prepared for an extension of the lockdown,” Aruna said. Bhoomika is already ramping up resources so that they can continue to provide support for the migrants they have been assisting so far. Preparations are underway at the State level as well to swiftly integrate migrant workers into existing relief channels. Already, resources like the Amma canteens and government-run community centres are being leveraged to provide food and shelter for Chennai’s migrant workers. Tamil Nadu is also coordinating with other States to ensure that Tamil workers are being adequately taken care of as well.

Given the breadth and complexity of the problems faced by this demographic, it is clear that it is the Centre that must lead the way and provide much-needed support to the State to take care of the affected. However, it has so far allocated only Rs. 510 crores from the State Disaster Risk Management Fund (SDRMF) to Tamil Nadu, a sum lower than that apportioned to other States that have a comparatively lower number of Covid-19 cases. The Madras High Court has raised the issue with the Centre, urging it to consider increasing TN’s share.

While the powers that be negotiate and streamline their plans, it is worth reflecting that access to material supplies and funds is just one part of the story. Migrant workers are often the breadwinners of their families and their separation during such a crisis is putting them under immense anxiety and pressure. Many are concerned for their families and are desperate to return to their homes. It is up to local communities to offer them comfort and a helping hand where we can. After all, Chennai rose to the challenge during the 2015 floods. We are certainly capable of doing so once more.

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