In the context of immigration, the COVID-19 economic crisis could be long, deep, and pervasive. Across the globe, economic activities have been slowed by travel bans, lockdowns, and social strife. There are additional challenges for the host countries in many sectors such as health and agriculture that depend on the availability of migrant workers. In addition to the risk of contagion, migrants may lose their employment, wages, and health insurance coverage.
Despite all forms of transportation being suspended and interstate borders being sealed, migrant workers across India made their way back home during the Covid-19 lockdown announced in March. During the lockdown, migrant workers’ greatest suffering resulted from their inability to manage their finances. The critical role of wages is evident in the lives of migrants and their families during this period – without wages, they could not meet basic needs such as food, water, shelter, or healthcare, or send remittances to their rural households who depend on immigration income. It is important to note that wages played an important socioeconomic role during the crisis, determining the ability of workers and their households to survive. Over 139 million Indians are migrant workers, which constitutes nearly half of the nation’s 470 million workforce. Despite the extreme desperation facing the vast mobile workforce during the shutdown, the issue of migrant workers’ access to protected wages has remained unaddressed. A strict nationwide lockdown was rather viewed as an outcome of poor planning by governments, which failed to account for the large numbers of undocumented, rural-urban migrants.
Migrant workers’ plight was attributed solely to their mobility between states, without taking into account the nature of their employment in urban labor markets, including low wages and insecure jobs. India’s wage-dependent workforce is vexed by an ongoing debate about the state’s protection of living wages. Despite substantial evidence to the contrary, some have argued that raising wages will lead to the closure of businesses and the loss of jobs. Even government reports, such as the Economic Survey (2019), by the State Bank of India (2019), and by the Reserve Bank of India (2018), highlight the fact that stagnation in real wages has hurt the consumption capacity of the poor, causing the economy to slow down. However, the neo-liberal economic policy that encouraged economic growth by slashing the labor protection framework, especially that protecting workers’ wages, weakened labor regulations and grievance redress mechanisms, leaving them unable to handle the widespread wage violations experienced by workers.
Due to the economic crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic, experts suggest that measures to create disposable income, including raising wages, are a top priority in order to create economic revival. The post-lockdown period in India, however, has been marked by the dilution of the labor protection regime through the labor reform process, in order to facilitate economic revival rather than ensuring wage security for its migrant workers. Due to their alienation from the state machinery where they work, migrant workers cannot demand wages from their employers, and due to their lack of integration into trade unions at their destinations, in addition to their fragmentation by caste and region, they lack any collective bargaining platforms. It is critical that economic revival is imagined alternatively, and executed through a strong institutional framework, in order to prevent that economic expansion post-pandemic deepens the exploitation of and inequality faced by the country’s poorest wage, dependent populations.
Under such a framework, the state plays a crucial role in keeping wages protected by setting minimum wages at the level of living wages, allowing workers and their households to eat adequately to live a dignified life.