Over three-fourth of workers lost their livelihoods since lockdown, finds ActionAid India's national survey of informal labourers

Over three-fourth of workers lost their livelihoods since lockdown, finds ActionAid India's national survey of informal labourers

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published Published on Aug 28, 2020   modified Modified on May 15, 2021

ActionAid Association's (AAA) national level survey among people dependent on the informal economy during the third phase of the national lockdown towards the end of May 2020 (i.e. between May 14th and May 22nd, 2020) has documented the "nature and extent of the transitions in the lives and livelihoods of informal workers, including migrant workers, during the pandemic and provide[s] an insight into the precarity they experience and the coping mechanisms they adopt." Entitled Workers in the Times of COVID-19, the first round of the survey-based study reveals that more than three-fourth of 11,537 respondents in the sample had lost their livelihoods since the imposition of the COVID-19 lockdown.

In the report, it has been mentioned that ActionAid India will conduct multiple rounds of surveys to track the same sample of informal workers for capturing aspects of their incomes, asset ownership, indebtedness and savings, living and working conditions, labour relations, nature of migration, access to entitlements, and social security over time.

Among other things, the report by ActionAid India shows that roughly half of the respondents interviewed had not received any income after the implementation of the lockdown, and almost 17 percent had received only partial wages. Please note that on March 29th, 2020, government directives were issued for all employers/ contractors that no worker be dismissed from their employment, but that decree failed miserably. In his article, Gautam Bhatia has explained how the Supreme Court of India passed a series of orders after the imposition of COVID-19 lockdown that actually decided in favour of the employers/ contractors, and against the working classes, but without explicitly doing so.

The first round of survey by ActionAid India finds that over half of the respondents (i.e. 53 percent) had incurred additional debt during the lockdown. Over half of the respondents, who were migrants, were stranded for more than a month. The lockdown adversely impacted people’s access to essential services. Although 83 percent of the respondents believed that their food consumption was 'sufficient' prior to the imposition of lockdown, only one-sixth of them said that their food consumption was ‘sufficient’ following the lockdown. A drop in the frequency of food consumption was noticed by the first round of ActionAid India survey. Before the lockdown was imposed, 93 percent of respondents were eating two meals a day. After the lockdown was imposed, it was found that only 63 percent of respondents were eating two meals a day. Access to healthcare was also affected due to the lockdown. About three-fourths of the respondents in the survey said that they could not access healthcare when they needed to during the lockdown.

In its survey, ActionAid India interviewed more than 11,530 workers across 20 states and one Union Territory (UT) through a network of more than 270 partners and volunteers. The first round of survey covered 293 source and 393 destination districts. The states/ UTS covered in the survey included Rajasthan, Gujarat, Odisha, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Goa, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and West Bengal. Out of the respondents interviewed in the survey, 72 percent were males, 28 percent were females, and 0.01 percent identified themselves with other gender identities. Two-third of the respondents in the sample were in rural areas, while one-third were in urban areas. Almost two-third of the respondents reported having migrated for employment, while one-third of respondents identified as ‘in-situ’ workers. Besides phone interviews, some respondents were also interviewed in person when ActionAid India and its partners were carrying out relief work.

The key findings of the report entitled Workers in the Times of COVID-19 (first round) by ActionAid India are as follows:

Widespread loss of livelihoods and wages: Over 78 percent of respondents reported a loss of livelihood and there was major reduction in the intensity of work. Before the lockdown, the vast majority worked above 40 hours a week, and a third of workers in all sectors (agriculture, manufacturing, construction, and service) worked over 50 hours a week. After the lockdown was imposed, over two-thirds of the respondents reported working zero hours a week. Over 48 percent of respondents did not receive any wages after the lockdown and 17 percent received partial wages.

Heterogeneity in migration patterns: Almost 57 percent of respondents said that they migrate once a year and 43 percent migrate multiple times a year. Those who migrate only once a year mostly migrate to the same town or city, while a large percentage of those who migrate multiple times a year move to multiple cities and towns. This is both a result of and has implications for the worker’s employment stability and the ability to develop social networks. Around 44 percent of the workers migrate with family, which adds to their vulnerability in the destination state because of the higher number of dependents. Conversely, the fact that 56 percent of migrants do not migrate with family is indicative of the poor living and working conditions in their destination states and their desire to maximise their savings and remittances.

Persistence of social stratifications: In the study sample of informal workers, around 63 percent have migrated for employment. The social composition of the total respondents shows that 15 percent of them belong to Scheduled Tribes and 39 percent are Scheduled Castes which is higher than their proportion in the composition of the country’s population. Labour market segmentation is, therefore, reinforcing employment of marginalized communities in low wage low productivity sectors and constraining the prospects of marginalized communities for upward mobility.

Precarious status of housing: Only around 13 percent of workers in the sample reported that they have a rent agreement, and merely 8 percent have patta. Most migrant workers live in rented accommodations (55 percent), while nine percent were given housing by their employer and eight percent lived in some form of community housing. Most workers lived with six to 10 people and shared one toilet and one room. This density is a major health concern. Around 60 percent of migrants said they had to vacate their housing after the lockdown. They were forced to vacate their housing because of a loss of livelihood (44 percent), inability to pay rent (19 percent), closure of factories (18 percent), and eviction by landlords or employers (5 percent).

Low savings and high debts: Roughly 55 percent of respondents already had outstanding debts before the lockdown that further increased during the lockdown. Out of them, 83 percent lost their livelihoods after the lockdown, adding to the precarity of their situation. Around 60 percent of respondents borrowed money to meet living costs and expenses such as family emergencies and healthcare during the lockdown. 95 percent of respondents said that their savings are barely sufficient or not sufficient.

Reduction in consumption: Food and water insecurity emerged as two major problems during the lockdown. Only around 18.5 percent of respondents said that their food consumption was sufficient. While 63 percent of respondents were eating two meals a day, 34 percent said that they could eat only once a day and 3 percent reported eating only once in two days. Around 38 percent of respondents said that their access to water was insufficient or barely sufficient.

Lack of assistance: Most respondents received no cash, transport, food or shelter assistance from any source during the lockdown. Approximately 79 percent received no cash assistance, 44 percent received no food assistance, and 85 percent did not receive any shelter assistance. More than 50 percent migrants reported that they were stranded for over a month, yet more than 70 percent migrants said that they did not receive any transport assistance.

Varied sources of assistance: Of all sources, the government was the single largest provider of assistance in each category (food, shelter, cash, transport). However, if one compares the overall percentage of workers who received assistance from non-governmental sources including NGOs, self-help groups, trade unions and employers with the percentage of workers who received assistance from the government for each category, then the percentage of workers who received assistance from non-governmental sources is higher. NGOs seemed to have much higher penetration in urban areas than in rural areas.

Invisibility of informal workers in labour legislation: As high as 90 percent of respondents do not have a written employment contract in the survey, which makes it extremely difficult to enforce any labour laws. This lack of legal recognition deprives millions of workers of their entitlements and rights.

Enrolment and Access to Entitlements: Enrolment was low across schemes such as Antodaya Anna Yojana (27 percent), PM Kisan Samridhi (5 percent), ICDS (7 percent), Jan Dhan Yojana (23 percent), Ujjwala Yojana (23 percent), and pension schemes (6 percent). The level of enrolment in PDS was the highest (53 percent). Access to schemes for beneficiaries was quite varied. While 52 percent of respondents were able to access PDS, 50 percent could access Antodaya Anna Yojana, 52 percent were able to access PM KISAN, about 24 percent were able to access ICDS, 60 percent were able to access Jan Dhan Yojana, 70 percent were able to access Ujjwala Yojana, and about 58 percent were able to access pension.

Low access to healthcare: Only 28 percent of workers were able to access public healthcare during the lockdown. Accessibility was slightly higher in rural areas. The major reasons for being unable to access healthcare included restrictions on movement due to the lockdown, unavailability of transport, distance to the hospital, closing down of OPDs, and refusal to admit people without COVID-19 test certificates.

Mixed perceptions for the future: More than 56 percent of people who migrate for work said that they want to return to their destination state when economic activity resumes, while 44 percent wished to remain in their source district. Most believe that a full recovery of their sectors will only happen in the long-term but are optimistic that their own livelihoods will recover in the short-term.


Workers in the Times of COVID-19, Round-I of the National Study of Informal Workers, ActionAid Association (India), please click here to access

Over three-fourth of workers lost livelihoods since lockdown, finds a national survey of informal workers conducted by ActionAid India, Press release by ActionAid India dated 13th August, 2020, please click here to access

How the Supreme Court let down poor workers during the pandemic -Gautam Bhatia, Hindustan Times, 17 August, 2020, please click here to access


Image Courtesy: ActionAid India

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