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Two migrant workers share their COVID-19 stories

By May 16, 2020December 23rd, 2023No Comments

Let’s listen to the voices that matter

Puneet Verma, a street vendor from Khanda Colony, Panvel, and Usha Dhaware, a domestic worker and street vendor from Belapur in Navi Mumbai recently spoke to us about the impact of COVID-19 on their everyday lives. Their stories gave us deeper insight into the challenges and hopes of migrant workers living in the city. While speaking to us, Puneet and Usha focused on the following issues:

Living without a Safe and Secure Home during the Pandemic

Puneet lives in Mata Ramai Nagar in a slum settlement that was forcibly evicted in January 2020. Since then, he told us that ‘nearly fifty families’ continue to scramble for ways to cope with the denial of their housing rights. Puneet’s family was already at the peak of housing insecurity when the lockdown began.

‘All of our challenges increased immensely after the lockdown’, he said. He talked about how the community ‘collectively helped each other to survive’ and said that he is staying at home during this difficult time even though ‘in reality, (he) doesn’t even have anything to call a home’.

Meanwhile, Usha lives in Tatanagar, another informal slum settlement in Navi Mumbai, where she shares a small room with ‘8–9 family members’, with no scope to practice social distancing.

The Value of Informal Work

Puneet values the experience of being a part of the larger community of informal labourers. He discussed how International Labour Day is always a time to celebrate and commemorate their hard work and spirit of togetherness. This year, though the whole community couldn’t come together during the lockdown, he told us that they ‘celebrated in their own way with their families at home’. While sharing his views on the significance of their labour, Puneet emphasised the crucial role that informal labourers play in enabling the city to function.

The feeling of her work being recognised by her employer was of special importance to Usha who discussed how she has stopped going to all 7 domestic work jobs because of the lockdown. She said to us, ‘Madam couldn’t even make a cup of chai for herself, and I used to serve her in bed. But now she is making whole meals for herself. This made her realise how much I work and she praised my work a lot! She told me that I work too hard and now, I should use this time to get rest’.

Loss of Livelihoods

Puneet highlighted how this pandemic is much more than a global health crisis. ‘People are as scared of economic and financial insecurity as they are of the COVID-19 disease. This is also because the relief and basic services that are meant to support them haven’t reached many people in need’. Puneet migrated with his family to Mumbai from the Fatehpur region of Uttar Pradesh in search of a means to earn a better living. The lockdown severely impacted his scope to earn money for food and basic essentials, leaving his family to face unprecedented economic challenges. Puneet also pointed to the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on migrant workers in the city by stating that the ‘most severe challenges’ are not posed to ‘the rich people’ but instead to the ‘working class’ or informal labourers, who are left to face the brutal consequences of COVID-19 even though the rural and urban poor ‘play the most important role of enabling the nation’s progress’. He made it clear that the impact of COVID-19 lies in the sudden loss of income and the inequalities experienced by the most marginalised sections of society.

Street vending — a livelihood that faces precariousness and uncertainty

Even as Usha noted her employer’s appreciation for her labour, she went on to say, ‘Though my madam gave me one month’s salary, that money is not enough. Everything gets spent on water, milk and basic essentials. For this month, it’s still okay. But we live a hand-to-mouth existence. We can only buy food and feed ourselves when we work hard and earn money’. For Usha, having multiple jobs and continuing her work as a street vendor is the only means by which she can run her household and feed her family. She expressed concern about how she would make ends meet if the lockdown continues and her funds run out.

Usha recently resumed her work as a street vendor. However, she continues to experience extreme precariousness and uncertainty. Both Puneet and Usha highlighted the challenges that they faced while trying to support their families after a major decline in their earnings and said that sometimes, they didn’t have enough money to buy food. As explained by Usha, ‘It costs a minimum of Rs. 200 on a daily basis to make sure that we have everything we need. Everything is very expensive’. She also went on to highlight how the lack of certainty regarding when the lockdown will end leads her to feel even more fearful and vulnerable.

Leaving the City to go Home without Access to Transportation

Puneet told us that the heightened vulnerabilities of migrant workers living in informal housing settlements pushed them to migrate back to their villages. He said, ‘Some of my own friends called me and told me they weren’t able to stay back here because the condition has deteriorated due to the lockdown. They decided to go back home to their villages. My own relatives who live in Bhiwandi, have gone back to their villages like this. Some went on a cycle and some went back walking’. He pointed out the vulnerabilities of migrant labourers who embarked upon long journeys to reach their final destination. ‘I don’t know if they have reached or not reached. Anything could happen to them, even on the way it can be dangerous’.

There are many examples now of people who haven’t been able to go back all the way. They died on their way before they could reach home… All of the people traveling back, whether they are workers, women, children or anyone — their future is endangered and uncertain right now and they are dealing with immense fear.

Further, Usha told us about how her nephew ‘walked for 3 days with no water or food; with just some rest stops along the way. When he reached his village, he wasn’t even allowed to enter. The police were there and they drove him away by hitting him with their sticks. He spent the night in a settlement right outside the village and on the next morning, he left to return back to Mumbai’. Usha highlighted the desperation and uncertainties of migrant labourers when she said, ‘They try to go back to their village in any way possible. Some even went back to Satara, Kolhapur and such places by getting on milk vans that were headed there’.

Photos of migrant workers, trying to make it home at any cost

It is also important to note that Usha didn’t stay back in Belapur because of a sense of security in the city. When her friends were going back to the village, she also considered leaving with them. But this was prior to the lockdown, right before the Janta curfew. At that time, she said she had stayed back because she ‘didn’t think (her) work would stop and planned to resume work after that Sunday when everyone had to stay home’. This points to how the lack of notice for migrant communities to prepare for the lockdown robbed them of their agency to make decisions about their own health and safety.

Food Insecurity and Ineffective Promises of the State

Puneet supported the need to enforce strict laws to curb the spread of COVID-19. However, he highlighted how the worsening financial condition of people as a result of the lockdown is also leading to widespread problems of hunger and thirst.

He alluded to the role that civil society organisations are playing towards providing food for people who are not receiving support from the State. ‘There are some places where people can get cooked meals. Many people are taking their families and children there and eating whatever they get. I don’t know if that food is nutritious. But at this point, they are eating what they get just to make sure they don’t remain hungry’. Acknowledging the role of nonprofits in addressing immediate needs related to hunger, he said ‘We are getting assistance — YUVA and other organisations are doing a lot and reaching people with rations. But given the lockdown, our condition has become very devastating’.

Puneet also said, ‘The state makes many promises. That we will support everyone. We will be with everyone. No one needs to worry. That the government will help them reach their homes. Or that the government will make sure to give people basic services, wherever they are. None of these services have been made available to people’.

Both Puneet and Usha stated that even when they have had the money to buy essential foods, the goods were not accessible in stores.

Usha shed light on the inadequacies of state-led relief programmes that aim to address food insecurity. She said, ‘For many days, we ate roti and chutney and somehow got through those days’. Further, she went on to say, ‘The state helped — they helped by giving us 5 kgs of rice. What happens with 5 kgs of rice? Tell me. 5 kgs of rice doesn’t even fully suffice for a week. Also, they only gave us rice. Nothing else with it. No oil, no sugar. They should even be giving us dal, salt and spices too. The government should be helping us as much as they can, and if they can’t help us then they should give us some access to other services so that we can survive these times’.

Call for Action to Secure Basic Rights and Dignity for All

Puneet demanded action from the government to reduce the unequal impact of this pandemic. ‘If the State and Centre work together to address our needs, then we will also feel valued and respected and continue working towards the progress of the nation’. He concluded his statement by appealing for collective action to prioritise migrant workers’ rights during this difficult period. ‘Whether it is the State or Central Government, they must make sure to take care of all the people who play an important role in the creation of this nation so their future is secure and so they can have a renewed sense of faith in the State, the people of the country and those around the world who will stand with them to make sure they don’t fall or have to bend. Together, they can support us and we can support them. This will be our duty to society’.

Usha asked the people of the country as well as the government to empathise with the daily vulnerabilities of informal workers and recognise their dignity of labour. She said, ‘We work in people’s homes; some people carry heavy weights on their heads doing construction work. Try carrying the weight that manual labourers carry. It is impossible, most people cannot. Think about that. Think about what it must be like to have the life of a labourer. My only appeal to everyone is for action to take care of the informal workforce. To make sure we survive’.

These conversations reiterate a devastating and unjust reality — the people who make our cities and nations thrive are struggling to survive. This paradox is not new to us. But instead of preemptively identifying ways to curb the exacerbation of these inequalities in the event of a global pandemic, the government’s responses to the struggles of migrant workers have remained largely inadequate.

YUVA has been working in close collaboration with several civil society organisations to strengthen advocacy for the dignity and basic rights of migrant workers in Maharashtra. You can learn more about our petition and support these efforts here.

In many ways, Puneet and Usha represent the unheard voices of millions of migrant workers and informal labourers who demonstrate a great deal of resilience as they seek justice during the ongoing global crisis. By learning from their lived experiences, we can work together to create alternative social and economic structures that prioritise equality, dignity and human rights for all.

This blog post is derived from excerpts of our conversations with Puneet and Usha during a webinar organised by YUVA on International Labour Day. To view the original webinar, click here.

Compiled from the original conversation by Sneha Tatapudy