Ever since the first national lockdown to fight the battle with Coronavirus was imposed, starting March 25, 2020, questions over labour and labouring have been discussed and deliberated upon with an intensity hardly ever witnessed before in modern India. The trigger for it has been the hapless situation of migrant labour, the working poor and daily wage earners, evident across the country.
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This is an especially unique historical moment, because culturally speaking, we have never really valued labour or given it the dignity it deserves, even if we pay lip service to the same. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought us face to face, or rather mask to mask, with the realities of labour and labouring.
Our perceptions of labour are highly patriarchal and steeped in hierarchies of class and caste. As a society, we valorize ‘intellectual labour’ as worthy of superior reward and social esteem, while relegating hard ‘physical labour’ and those who perform such labour to the utterly fading margins of invisibility.
The same could be said of women’s labour, where even if social class plays a role in differentiating it, women’s labour in the household, on agricultural lands and in the ghettos of the informal sector remains largely unseen, unnoticed and undervalued. The formal sector fares only somewhat better in terms of gender and labour equity.
It bears repeating – we have no respect for labour. Neither as a society, nor as a state and nor as a culture. It seems like a sad caricature upon the working poor when, in this ghastly moment, celebrities continually post pictures of themselves cooking, or baking fancy desserts or whipping up gourmet dishes while doing domestic chores around their homes.
With every such bourgeoise angst about being locked up at home with no helpers, India falls even more haplessly and blindly in love with celebrity culture, even as the point is entirely missed: celebrities, or the well-to-do would almost never pick up a broom, mop or duster, were it not for the COVID crisis and the absence of domestic servants around the house.
It is quite ironic that the very same middle class India that is working from home today, and groaning under the dual burdens of managing home and office together, never showed nearly as much enthusiasm for domestic labour and tedious house jobs when housemaids and cooks stepped into their homes every single day, even multiple times in a day. Surely, we took their labour for granted, regularly treated them badly, and gave a pittance of an amount as a monthly salary – carefully deducting money for days when they took ‘leave’ or got sick and could not show up for work. Yes, it bears repeating, we have no respect for labour.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has simply shattered these languid and careless dispositions. India has come to a grinding halt, facing a grave and unprecedented economic crisis and rampant unemployment, in addition to the health crisis. It is unclear how to repair and mend the situation. In large part, this is because labour and labourers have been considered dispensable and valueless once more. Imposing a national lockdown at four hours notice underlines this with urgent clarity.
The situation of migrant and daily wage workers was absolutely nowhere on the map in state action, policy and words when the lockdown was put in place. It is only when the poignant human saga erupted in the face of the nation – hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, just walking hundreds of miles to reach home, with bare minimum belongings, no food, water, money or medicines to speak of, that labour really became visible in the body politic.
Frail bodies, hungry faces, newborns and small children in arms, there is literally no end to the gruesome scenarios that India saw and continues to see everyday as life turns more and more hellish for these communities. Picking fruits to eat from cremation sites, fighting with dogs for a share of spilled milk on roads, waiting for long hours in the hot sun to get a sponsored meal and finally, dying while trying to walk to a faraway home – there cannot be worse indignities to suffer for people who contribute a substantial portion to India’s GDP with their hard and unremitting labour.
We have sunk to subhuman levels in our response to these people, the dispensable and poor millions of India. They were never the object of policy attention, and their situation hardly improved with state-led welfarism. Now, their unruly presence is everywhere. It has ruptured India’s social canvas by pouring into streets, railway stations and bus stands, clamouring for home, making us all feel uncomfortable and guilty. As we grapple with the guilt, it is important to realize that the sad predicament of these workers is also a direct consequence of the development process.
With the second lockdown well underway now, one thing has become increasingly clear – there is no question of restarting the economy without the availability of labour. They will be the ones harvesting the crops, loading, unloading, packing, delivering at every juncture of supply chains, until the goods and services reach the consumers of India. Labour is needed in all the spectrums that have been granted limited functioning capacity – agriculture, construction, rural industries, e-commerce and others. Without labour and labourers, nothing can be restarted.
As Marx accurately explained in his writings – there is no capital without labour – and by extension, there is no capitalism without labourers. Our policy makers would be well served by realizing the significance of this simple but powerful statement. A strong economy cannot be built on weak foundations. Especially where human resources are concerned.
But as India struggles to stamp out the deathly dance of COVID-19, a fundamental question remains to be pondered over: will we have more respect and value for labour when the pandemic ends? If and when we return to normal life, how will we treat the ones who toil away at the bottom of the pyramid in India? How deep will our indifference run even then? Will the haunting memories and visuals of hunger, thirst and death by trying to walk home be simply forgotten, if and when we return to normal life? This is the question we need to think about.
A reinvigorated thought process on this must begin right away, since this is a potent, once in a lifetime kind of moment that might, one hopes, lead to a fundamental shift in attitudes towards labour at multiple levels. In a Gandhian spirit, we need nothing less than a profound moral transformation in our value systems when it comes to the poor and dispossessed.
Workers need much more tangible expressions of gratitude and gratefulness than we have ever shown them, but this needs to go beyond the spectrum of ‘charity’ or ‘giveaways’ – quite simply because workers make the economy and society productive and their labour contributes heavily to wealth accumulation. This is the bare truth we need to recognize and give due diligence to, whether it is the domestic worker, the labourer at the construction site, sanitation pit, agricultural farm, service delivery or the small factory or enterprise.
That our highest institutions have failed them in this regard became evident when India’s Supreme Court astoundingly questioned the provision of cash support in addition to support via meals. We need to realize that workers have a definitive right to life, just like any other citizen of India. They need a decent livelihood that can support them and their families.
Ironically, the Indian state and its vast bureaucratic infrastructure actually has the ability to reach out and improve the material conditions of life and livelihood, especially in emergencies like the current one – but unfortunately, the political will is missing. Quite surely, the government can ensure wage security, it can ensure that workers get paid for the entire period that they have lost work, even if it means that the government provides that money in their bank accounts if their employers throw in the towel on them.
It is very unclear why those who perform the hardest and most dangerous jobs in the informal economy have almost no legal protection and safeguards – all informal sector workers need constitutionally mandated life insurance, medical support and unemployment benefits. A country that aspires to become a five trillion dollar economy can show at least this much institutional gumption, and care for the people in whose name it always holds the reins of power.