The spread of the virus across the globe has caused immense loss to all the sections of the society, both on the social as well as economic front. However, the situation has enabled to present a crystal-clear picture of the widening gap between the haves and have nots. With the people being mandated to stay at their place of residence due to the ensuing lockdown, it has brought their work to an unprecedented halt. In such a situation, the workers working in the informal sector of the society have received the short end of the straw. This article attempts to understand and analyse the problems faced by the workers of the informal sector and the potential violation of their human rights in the pandemic.
An Overview of the Plight of Informal Workers during the Pandemic
Informal workers refer to that section of the working class, which is a largely unregulated portion of the market economy and produces goods and services for sale for some or other forms of remuneration. The informal economy is characterised by workers from low-income groups, including migrant workers, who often survive on a hand-to-mouth basis and do not have access to privileged resources. Due to the prevalence of the pandemic, millions of workers, from both the formal and informal sectors, have been affected. However, the grim reality is that the livelihood of thousands of daily wage earners and factory workers has been threatened.
In March 2020, before the beginning of lockdown in the country, the unemployment rate was 8.75% whereas, in the subsequent month of April, it skyrocketed to 23.52%. The workforces forming the major share in this figure were the informal workers who operate without any job security and stability. With limited access to proper housing, affordable health care, and social protection, the daily wage earners are the most vulnerable group who will suffer even in the aftermath since they would have already lost their jobs, income as well as livelihoods. These workers had survived solely on meagre savings before the governments had shut down entire economies to curb the contagion.
This has led to many anti-lockdown protests across the world where the lockdown imposed by the governments has become a necessary evil for these people. They have to choose between becoming a victim either to the pandemic or to the situation arising from their worsening economic condition. Informal workers in Africa have refused to accept the lockdown citing that “we would die of corona than hunger”. Similarly, in India, thousands of migrant workers had protested against the extended lockdown in April since no resources for survival were available to them.
The Third World Countries, which are often characterized by more dependence on the service sector, high levels of informality, weaker safeguards against termination, and labour market volatilities, are more vulnerable to job losses and family burdens. However, other than ensuring adequate working conditions, it is also necessary that proper health care facilities are made available to the workers. These workers are more prone to be affected since they reside in close quarters.
The UN has declared the Right to Health as a human right regardless of age, gender, or socio-economic condition. Article 25 of UDHR also recognizes health as an important element to achieve adequate living standards which are not the case for the informal workers since the ensuing pandemic deteriorates their living conditions and subsequently compromises their health. Similarly, Article 7 of ICESCR mandates that safe employment conditions must be provided to the workers so that their health is not endangered. Both proper employment conditions and health care facilities are inherent human rights of these workers and are most prone to be violated during the pandemic.
Healthcare Facilities during COVID-19: A Pipe Dream of Workers
In the absence of any social safety nets and adequate income support, it is necessary to strengthen occupational safety and health, prevent discrimination and exclusion, and provide access to health care. Women, people with disabilities, indigenous peoples, migrant workers, and those in the informal economy are among those who are already at a disadvantageous position in the society and risk being further injured in the pandemic and its aftermath. This is because of the disruption that the pandemic has caused not only to their dwindling financial stability but also their inability to access health care resources. Furthermore, the crisis has the potential to exacerbate unacceptable forms of work, such as child labour and forced labour.
In overcrowded and unsanitary urban areas, the workers and their families are exposed to the virus, which makes physical distancing nearly impossible. Lack of access to running water forces women to line up for water, thereby endangering themselves and their community. Informal economy workers, particularly in rural areas, are poorly informed about the virus, its symptoms, and preventive measures such as physical distancing. Guaranteeing affordable and effective access to health care for workers in the informal economy is essential for addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is necessary to ensure the availability of quality health services and to increase the capacity and accessibility of health-care facilities, especially in rural areas, and remove other financial, geographical, or administrative barriers. Seasonal migrant workers in agricultural sectors affected by the lockdown and the undocumented workers face worsened working conditions and more difficulty in mitigating health and safety risks. Those in rural areas with limited access to relevant information and medical treatment face catastrophic consequences for their lives and livelihoods.
International Labour Organisation (“ILO”) has stressed the policy responses to ensure that health protection measures should be taken by the governments alongside providing economic support to the workers. One of its pillars to fight COVID-19 based on International Labour Standards is to provide health access to all. The Constitution of India under Article 21 guarantees the Right to Life to all, which includes the right to access to healthcare facilities.
Substandard Employment Conditions as Workers’ Reality
Most migrant workers are concentrated in sectors of the economy with high levels of temporary, informal, or unprotected work, which includes low wages and lack of social protection. Many governments have begun to establish more comprehensive measures to support informal workers who have experienced significant income losses during the pandemic. For instance, New Zealand has made its Wage Subsidy Scheme available to migrants to ensure that a steady flow of income is available with them.
Informal employment represents 90% of total employment in low-income countries, 67% in middle-income countries, and 18% in high-income countries. This shows that special attention needs to be given to informal economy workers such as casual and temporary workers, workers in new forms of employment, refugees and migrant workers, etc. The workers who are engaged in domestic work, construction work, manufacturing, and agriculture or are self-employed may be disproportionately affected since they are less resilient.
The crisis has laid bare the inequalities in labour and social protection that result from workers’ contractual status. With the spread of the pandemic, many informal workers have found themselves out of jobs. This has led to a staggering decrease in the family income of many households. The workers have been concerned about finding employment in the aftermath. With no constant source of income, mobile vendors have been the worst hit during the pandemic and will continue to, even in the post-pandemic world. Even the MGNREGA funds provided to the struggling families have started to dwindle.
ILO has provided specific guidelines to ensure decent work as a measure of crisis response. The organisation has evolved a multi-phased approach, which not only aims to create new employment opportunities thereby promoting economic recovery, but also focuses on social protection. The post-lockdown labour laws have been eased in India for faster upliftment of the economy. Several state governments have taken measures such as extending working shifts, suspension of guaranteed minimum wages and formation of labour unions, etc. Social security benefits have also been waived.
Although these measures were taken for the faster recovery of the economy, it has led to a more rigorous and vulnerable livelihood of the informal workers who can be harassed by the employers with inadequate remunerations.
The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc in the lives of people all across the globe. The losses faced by the governments and citizens alike have been insurmountable. However, even then, the most vulnerable group of society is the destitute workers who survived on a daily wage basis. With dwindling resources and increasing vulnerability, these workers have been largely ignored by the government in the redressal of their problems. Since the informal economy works on a contractual basis, it is largely unregulated. The post lockdown amendments in labour laws by states have aimed at faster recovery of the economy; however, it has exposed workers to potential exploitation. Violation of human rights, in the form of lack of healthcare facilities and employment opportunities, has further degraded the lifestyle and living conditions of the workers of the informal sector of the economy.
Title image source: Economics Times
This article has been written by Kanishka Iyer who is a third year law student at Gujarat National Law University. Kanishka is a staunch believer of equity over equality and of objectivity over generality. The rights of downtrodden, especially women, have always stirred a string within her.