Social Distancing, “Touch-Me-Not” and the Migrant Worker


As part of CRG’s publication on the Covid 19 pandemic and migrant workers, Ishita Dey writes about migrants who perform intimate labour, perceived as a threat, embodying fear of spreading contamination, facing new challenges of ostracization and social stigma.

Intimate labour and city’s service villages

Amidst the lockdown, India’s middle class woke up to images of lakhs of migrant workers walking along National Highways to fight their own battle against global pandemic–COVID -19. Newspaper reports told us that migrant workers were leaving for their homes. These images of migrant workers walking amidst government health advisories showedtheir lack of trust in the state.[i] Cities are built on the labour of the migrant informal workers. However, as CRG’s work on transit labour shows that the city is always comfortable with the transient nature of migrant labour and is comfortable with being ‘serviced’ by the migrant labour. Delhi and Kolkata have been no different. If modern satellite towns were built on the dispossession and displacement of peasants (case being Rajarhat adjacent to Kolkata), Rajarhat model of development also shows the state’s need to keep certain villages intact in the making of the city so that they could ‘service’ the city. The urban planners used an interesting term for the villages that were not to be uprooted. These were called ‘service villages’. These villages were kept in the urban planning so that the flat owners could have easy access to ‘intimate labour’ – a term I borrow from Eileen Boris and Rhacel Salzar Parreñas. “Intimate labour” refers to the work of forging, sustaining, nurturing, maintaining and managing interpersonal ties[ii]. It involves ‘touch’ between individuals and touch with contaminated objects and therefore social registers of stigma and contamination are part of daily experiences of domestic workers. Their work involves greasing, scrubbing and therefore they are perceived to be as ‘smelly, not clean’. In other words, there is a sensory surveillance on what they are allowed to touch and are not left with much choice as to what they come in contact in their daily life of work. For instance, during one of the interviews I conducted in 2019 for a project on smells one of the workers complained how her employer would hide stained bedsheets by soaking them in the bucket. She added, ‘By the time I would realise that those bedsheets are stained it would be too late. I might have started to scrub and clean…’. Though the workers are forced to negotiate terms of intimacy, employers maintain distancing practices through separate washrooms (if they are allowed to), utensils and avoidance of touch with objects they might clean (such as places of seating). In other words, given the existing practices of social codes of distancing due to existing structural inequalities produced by caste-class-gender how do we understand intimate labour in times of COVID. With lockdown, part time domestic workers are forced to remain confined in their transitory homes in cities – resettlement colonies, squatters, slums and rented accommodation and live-in domestic workers are forced to live a life of exile at their workplaces. Studies show that most part time domestic workers migrate as part of families migrating to cities in search of livelihood and better life. Often accompanying their husbands or parents to cities, they join this line of work as some of the skills are familiar in their domestic lives. Some of them are also trafficked into cities in lure of better livelihood. Various census records, National Sample Survey Data are testimony to the circular nature of the internal migration and reasons of migration which are never voluntary. ‘Forced’ migration and transient forms of labour are integral to the lives of migrant workers and the case of domestic workers is no different. COVID 2019 therefore remained a threat in the lives of these migrant domestic workers with no access to information about a disease which spreads through contact and touch.

Touch, contamination and lives of domestic workers

Since 2015, I am associated with Shehri Mahila Kamgar Union in Delhi. As its name suggests it is a union for women workers ‘servicing’ the city. On 26 March 2020,I received a call from Anita Kapoor (one of the main organisers of the union) that we need to organise something, else people will be on streets. She left another message, ‘Arrange something for union members, I am reaching out to others because there is a group of construction workers who need cooked food. Let me call others’.After a few WhatsApp messages, Instagram posts and some coordination with our volunteers we identified a local person who could receive money on his account, and till 5 April 2020, we have distributed dry ration to 150 women. Maintaining ‘social distance’ has been a challenge in lanes and bylanes of Gautampuri Resettlement Colony. At times volunteers have resorted to home delivery, at times they have distributed slips with time to collect ration from the designated shop. In a colony where at least five members stay in one room, social distancing is a nightmare. One of the members lamented, ‘Where is the space? How do we avoid each other in this tiny space?’ The local school where cooked food is being served is over-pouring with people. Volunteers struggle to feed and ensure ‘social distancing’ as migrant workers sit in rows waiting for their daily quota of cooked food. After initial reports of police beating they fear that local people are scared to go to the neighbouring school. Challenges of lockdown in this resettlement colony are multi-fold – one of them being who not to ‘touch’ and how to avoid ‘touch’.

Due to closing of interstate borders, after several failed attempts someone with a curfew pass manages to reach 50 odd families living in Gaddakhod, Faridabad (another area where the union works)– a settlement that is beyond the administrative landscape, yet its citizens do have the requisite identity documents that are required to show permanent address, complete police verification at gated colonies where they serve as security guards, caregivers and domestic workers. Prior to lockdown, the workers earned a source of living through ‘touch’ unaware of this deadly pandemic or travel histories of their employers. Their work included washing utensils, mopping, sweeping, dusting, cleaning toilets, scrubbing, washing clothes and ‘deep’ cleaning contaminated surfaces, objects, and human bodies with ‘bare’ hands and at times with ‘gloves’. While travel advisories were being issued to control, contain ‘touch’ from foreign lands, there were minimal attempts to reach out to scores of workers in this country whose work involves ‘touch’ with ‘contaminated’ surface and bodies.

Post lockdown, industries put the gaze and responsibility on the labouring body. One such example being the assurance on Zomato websites – regular temperature checks of workers, Rider Hand Wash, Well Sanitised Kitchen. The customers could opt for ‘contactless delivery’. Given the history of sanitation workers in this country and the long-standing battle to challenge social ostracization and stigma around ‘touch’, COVID -19 health advisory of ‘touch me not’ is an irony to the living testimonies of the migrant workers. As the lockdown deepened, police surveillance around their temporary homes was tightened to reinforce new rules of ‘touch’ and there were cases where people were sprayed with disinfectants so that they do not contaminate on their way back to homes. Given that the spread of the pandemic is centred around avoidance of ‘touch’ it becomes important to reflect on ‘materiality of touch’, and its ‘sociability’ in the context of COVID, migrant workers and health advisory of social distancing. For this, I turn your attention to Aniket Jaaware’s work.[iii]

‘Touch’, ‘Sociability’ and‘migrant body’ as contaminated

Ever since the health advisory of social distancing has been issued, there has been a concern about ‘materiality of touch’ – one of the primary elements being ‘contact’. Reducing human to human contact is at the centre of this health advisory, exceptions being those bodies that need medical attention and those who are the medical providers, and are part of essential services. An understanding of labour cannot be isolated from a study of the formation of senses and therefore it is important to remind ourselves of what Marx had commented on senses. In Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, Marx writes that‘the forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present’. Sensory studies scholar David Howes takes us back to Marx’s work to revisit the sensory deprivation that is necessary to the creation of the proletariat. It is through sensory deprivation that the worker finds herself reduced to fulfilling one need – hunger. David Howes feels that developing on Charles Fourier, Marx attributed ‘the alienation of senses in capitalist society’ on the demands for a need of private property.[iv] If we go back to the first thesis of formation of five senses as crucial to the experience of labour/ thereby work; it is important to study one of the senses that has come under surveillance in the light of COVID – touch.

One way of approaching the problem would be to offer an empirical reading of preparing a list of ‘whose ‘touch’ is dangerous – a measure that seems to have been taken in people with travel histories to certain countries, or people belonging to a certain faith being part of a certain gathering and state government/s successful and unsuccessful attempts to identify the list of people who came in contact with anyone who has been tested COVID positive. ‘Tracking’ seems to be the buzzword in the administration and medical fraternity as a preventive measure. It is here that an exposition of the sensorium of touching needs introspection.

Aniket Jawaare argues “touching”, like other senses – sight, smell and taste can be experienced on the outside. This is unlike hearing, which can be experienced inside. Touch can be felt and experienced through nerves. However social codes around touch often determine the relationship that bodies establish with the surfaces they come into contact. Sociality of touch is a relationship of inequality. However, for a moment let’s pause the question of‘who’ and dwell on‘how’ touch is ‘practised’. To draw from Jawaare, there can be many elements to touch, but there is only one form – contact. A social history of contact in India can be best found in critical studies on caste that has moved beyond the binaries of sacred/ profane, purity/ pollution, touchability/untouchability. However, all of these binaries can be associated with good touch and bad touch and there is an overarching emphasis of who is denied of touch rather than restoring the agential quality in touch. Every act of contact, good and bad touch, therefore, has a social context. The act of touching oneself is both good and bad depending not on the doer but the social reception of the act – in other words, ethics that govern the sociability of the touch.

Jawaare’s discussion on untouchability is illuminating. He argues that untouchability is practised not only by who touches you but who retains the agency to touch. He explains this by saying even if the Brahmin touches and one remains passive then that touch becomes contaminating. It is by ‘retaining the agency of social touch with oneself’ one retains one’s caste. Therefore, the above binaries fall short of understanding the experiences of migrant workers who were sprayed with disinfectants or the Indian State’s explanation to the Supreme Court that one third of the migrants are infected and therefore could be a threat to their villages.[v]Indian state is not only deciding ‘good’ and ‘bad’ touch but also restoring codes of ‘touch’ based on pre-existing social norms of exclusion. The challenge the state faces is that touch is subjective, experiential and therefore the only success stories of ‘touch-me-not’ are how drones are being used to spray disinfectants in public places.[vi] Despite promises, the state is struggling and fails to acknowledge already existing inequalities produced through a history of‘social’ distancing around touching and not touching existent in India.

Migrant workers rank at the bottom of existing social distancing and COVID health advisory has further distanced themselves in the name of ‘touch’ and fear of contamination. The images of the long walk, being hustled into buses for homes clearly show how the state does not want to restore the agential right of touch to the migrant. Metaphorical expressions around touch have always sat well in times of distress. Phrases like ‘touching lives’, ‘touch matters’, removing social stigma around touch has been central to campaigns around certain diseases, particularly HIV AIDS, and Tuberculosis. The fear of one-third migrants’ being a threat to their families reveals the sociability of migrant workers in today’s India. The migrant worker is an easy threat, and target of being contaminated because their sociability is guided by temporariness of livelihood, and life. I would not be so quick to argue of deprivation of senses; however, COVID 19 also shows how “touch” has reconfigured our sociability.


Perceived as a threat, fear of spreading contamination, migrant bodies face new challenges of ostracization and social stigma as new surveillance mechanisms are enforced. The gaze is on the ‘migrant’s body’ – the domestic worker, the vegetable vendor, the garbage collector, the caregiver and other service providers inherent to the life of the city. They stand at the risk of being contaminated as some of them are compelled to ‘risk’, ‘defy’ and stay in ‘touch’ amidst lockdown. Given the social history and stigma of ostracisation in India associated with certain forms of work especially work related to waste, ‘touch’ remains central to working lives in times of COVID. ‘Not touching’ is a distant metaphor in the lives of many migrant workers and their long walk shows how ‘touch’ has been normalised in the history of migrant labour in India. It also shows that through invisible measures of ‘touch’ the city has always failed the migrant and COVID 19 was no different.

About the author: Ishita Dey teaches Sociology at South Asian University, Delhi. She can be reached at 

This article is part of Calcutta Research Group’s collection of essays, Borders of an epidemic: Covid 19 and Migrant Workers. It can be downloaded here.


[i] See ParthaMukhopadhya, MuktaNaik “Migrant workers distrust a state that does not take them into account”, The Indian Express, 31 March 2020.(, Accessed on 1 April 2020)

[ii]See Eileen Boris and Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, ‘Introduction’ in Eileen Boris and Rhacel SalazarParreñas(eds), Intimate Labors: Cultures, Technologies and Politics of Care (Stanford, California :California University Press, 2010),pp. 1-12.

[iii] See Aniket Jawaare, Practicing Caste. On Touching and Non-touching (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019).

[iv]For details see David Howes, Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2003), Chapter 8.

[v] For details see ‘The Centre will stop migrant workers from returning to their homes since it is risky for them and for the people in the villages, solicitor general Tushar Mehta told the court in response to petitions seeking shelter, food and other facilities for the migrants—said to number more than half a million—walking home, often hundreds of miles away’.  JapnamBindra, Neetu Chandra Sharma. ‘Coronavirus: Govt tells SC one-third of migrant workers could be infected’, LiveMint, 1 April 2020.

(; Accessed on 4 April 2020).

[vi] For details see GarimaBora,‘Covid-19: In the times of ‘touch-me-not’ environment, drones are the new best friends’, Economic Times, 1 April 2020

(;Accessed on 5 April 2020)


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