The Moving Curve: Episode 38

Hello and welcome to The Moving Curve. I’m Rukmini, a data journalist based in Chennai. Every night on this mini-cast, I consider one question around the novel coronavirus epidemic in India. This Labour Day I’m asking this question — what is the future for work and workers?

The vast majority of Indians have no job security or benefits:

Nor is there much in the bank to rely on as a buffer. The median rural family had under Rs 4 lakh in total assets, while the median urban family had under Rs 6 lakh in total assets, including all their household possessions. All of these numbers are particularly true for the most marginalised communities including dalits and adivasis:

The crisis is also likely to affect women disproportionately. Academics, who have studied past pandemics, including Ebola, Zika, SARS, swine flu and bird flu, report their deep and persistent effects on gender equality, Anupama Mehta of the National Council of Applied Economic Research wrote in an article in The Pioneer recently. According to Julia Smith, a health policy researcher at the Simon Fraser University, these outbreaks affected everyone’s incomes but “men’s income returned to what they had made pre-outbreak faster than women’s income.” This outcome is compounded by the already-existing wage discrimination in many sectors.

What could longer term support look like? One suggestion is a basic income transfer, but there is the issue of cash transfers actually reaching people. According to the World Bank’s Global Findex Database 2017 , while 80% of adults had a bank account in 2017, just 43% of them had made a withdrawal in the past year

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which has been allowed to restart if work sites follow social distancing norms, could also be an important pillar. Writing in the Indian Express today, Nikhil Dey and Aruna Roy, two labour stalwarts of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, recommend that the scheme be expanded to offer any adult as many days of guaranteed work as she requires at minimum wage, and also be extended to urban areas.

What definitely should not happen is the crisis becoming an opportunity to squeeze labour further in the recovery process. Several state governments have amended laws — and in some cases, not even spelt out which laws they are working under — to increase the number of weekly working hours for labour to 72 to aid in the recovery process. While some will pay overtime for the excess hours, others will pay desperate workers regular wages for inhumanly long work hours. In a fascinating Twitter thread, Business Standard journalist Somesh Jha notes that the struggle for decent hours is the origin story of May Day, and in India, Ambedkar championed the 8 hour work day.

As the novel coronavirus rampages across the country, it shouldn’t in its wake leave our basic human rights in ruins.

Thank you for listening. This episode was edited by Anand Krishnamoorthi. Tomorrow — a new question.

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I am a data journalist based in Chennai, India.

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