Covid-19 and Women Migrant Workers: The Situation of the Most Vulnerable

The Covid-19 pandemic and the unprecedented months-long lockdown that followed in India had a shocking impact on every sector – particularly health and economy, which forced lawmakers and the average citizen to see the hidden realities of the workers who are mostly invisible in terms of their social presence while their contributions are not. Migration and the workers who undertake them became important subjects of study as a clear distinction was drawn between those who work in the formal and informal sector. Sukanya Bhattacharya writes about the situation of women migrant workers during the pandemic.

Due to the nature of the pandemic, migrant workers who work in the formal sector mostly managed to stay afloat as they had legally binding employment contracts and were allowed to work from home in a socially distanced way even if they were in a city that was not their own. It was the informal sector however that was affected the most and the migrant workers were suddenly left in a lurch without employment, wages and security.

The situation of these informal sector migrant workers probably stood out the most due to their unique plight which was not predicted by anybody. Even the Labour Ministry of India did not foresee the mass scale return migration of these workers back to their home through any desperate means possible even if it was life-threatening.

In the headlines and news clips however, only a certain kind of image is spread around through mass media that further reinforces the masculine image of a migrant worker. The stories mostly covered about these migrants are of young men who left their villages and their families to earn by working in a factory in the city to send money back home for his sister’s marriage and his parents’ subsistence. Through these images and stories, one cannot help but wonder where the women migrants are and if they are not facing the same plight, if not more?

One kind of women are captured in photographs, the “accompanying” wives of the migrant workers and the mothers of their children. They become the silent part of the total family – of which the husband is the primary earner, becoming the “…accompanying ‘other’ in an overwhelmingly male phenomenon of mobility.” [1]

To not classify these wives as migrant women workers as well would be to devalue the care work they do at home in the form of cooking, cleaning and looking after the children – focusing on the reproduction of labour if seen from a Marxist lens. Apart from that, these women also take up employment, often in the same site as the male members of their family – working in construction or brick-kilns as the piece-rate worker. They are also paid quite less than their male counterparts for the same work as they are still considered to be dependent on the male members of their family, hence their incomes become supplementary. [2]  

According to 2011 Census, out of around 45 million migrant workers, 7 million women migrant workers have migrated for work, employment, or business. Although, over the last few years, India has witnessed a decline in its female labour force participation. From 31.2 percent in 2011-12, the number stood at 23.3 percent in 2017-18, according to the National Sample Survey Office. Besides, 90 percent women are engaged in low-paying jobs in the country’s huge informal sector, without adequate coverage through labour legislations and access to social protection.

What the data clearly suggests but popular discourse does not take into account is the image of the single woman who has migrated to the urban area for opportunities of employment. As pointed out by Samantroy and Sarkar, “In urban areas, women are mostly shown as engaged in “other services” constitution 44.4%, followed by manufacturing (25.2%) and trade, and hotel and restaurant (13%). Within the regular wage salaried category, 66.8% females did not have regular job contracts in the wage salaried category, 50.4% women were not eligible for paid leave and 51.8% were not eligible for social security, as reported by the PLFS 2017–18.” [3]  

[‘Indian Migrants Walk Hundreds Of Miles To Return Home Amid COVID-19 Lockdown’. Source: Huffington Post, 1st April, 2020]

While married women migrate to work as a family unit, single women migrate to work in the newly created service opportunities that constitute an important part of urban areas – they work in beauty parlours, in restaurants and cafes and in the retail stores in shopping malls and multiplexes.

They also enter the care economy as domestic workers, the demand for which is rising following the closure of schools and offices. Most middle and upper class women cannot draw clear boundaries between their homes and offices anymore as the entire household work is falling upon them along with their office duties. They then relegate these tasks to the domestic workers even though during the first part of the lockdown, many of these workers were asked not to come due to the stigma and fear of them being unhygienic and becoming the potential carriers of virus. [4] Subsequently, they were often not paid either.

The women who work in these places often come from the same socioeconomic background as their male co-workers but are hardly ever taken into consideration when return migration is considered. This points to the question of what are the women migrant workers doing as their male counterparts are rushing home by any means possible? Do they have the security of staying in the city with enough financial savings to pay rent and other necessities? Can they negotiate the utterly masculinized public space of inter-state (or even inter-nation) transport and return home? We also need to ask if their employers are being helpful or not and if their families can survive without the remittances they send back home.

 An interview with women garment factory workers from Odisha who relocated to Bangalore was adequate to show how they were caught between a “state and employer nexus” which left them open to more exploitation as they could not return home but were forced to work at even lower wages than usual in the absence of a formal contract. [5]

The situation of sex-workers has also deteriorated a lot due to the intimate nature of their work (in stark contrast to the severe social distancing that the pandemic demands) and the existing stigma that they already face in society. [6] In the interview, many of the sex-workers admitted that their families were not aware of their profession but in absence of a steady stream of income, they might have to return back home. The constant harassment that they faced as a collective from the police also led to a decrease in their work.  

[‘Covid impact: Women workforce disappearing, most affected in urban India’. Source: Business Standard, 15th December, 2020.]

The circumstances of women migrant workers in East Asia who cross national boundaries for work has also been the same as they are not paid for months and have to live in cramped rooms with virtually no scope for distancing and protection against the virus. The travel restrictions make it difficult for them to return to their own nation while their families struggle to make ends meet due to financial constraints. [7]

According to the UN Women Guidance Report on the impact of Covid-19 on migrant women workers, these women are often excluded from accessing the COVID-19 measures implemented by the countries in which they work, including financial support packages, wage subsidies, income support and social protection. Along with that, they face vulnerability and insecurity in terms of their employment during and post-Covid and the xenophobic stigmatization in addition to socioeconomic and sexual exploitation. Their inaccessibility to health care and protection equipment like masks and sanitizers also makes them further vulnerable to the virus. [8]

The pandemic has brought on severe constraints upon these women in the informal sector as distress induced employment would lead them to accept lower wages, work longer hours with greater chances of sexual harassment. “A 2012 poll conducted by Oxfam India and Social and Rural Research Institute (PARI) found that the most vulnerable women to workplace harassment were construction workers (29%), domestic workers (23%) and workers at small-scale manufacturing units (16%) (Oxfam 2018). Some of the key reasons reported by the women informal workers for not reporting cases of harassment were fear of losing a job, absence of any complaints mechanism at the workplace, fear of getting stigmatised and lack of awareness about redressal mechanism”. [9]

[‘Indian Migrants Walk Hundreds Of Miles To Return Home Amid COVID-19 Lockdown’. Source: Huffington Post, 1st April, 2020]

The UN guidance report devises important solutions to address those problems – putting the responsibility upon the nation or the state which receives these migrant workers. At the very least, migrant women workers should have access to appropriate information about the virus, have access to free and safe healthcare and also be protected in a safe workplace and hygienic living conditions. The note also spoke of the women who might be returning to their countries of origin after being rendered jobless due to the crisis and advised the generation of employment for these women through Public Works Programmes which would guarantee some income security. [10]

As pointed out by the Guidance Report: “In 2019, half of an estimated 272 million migrants who live and work outside their countries of origin were women. Of these women, approximately 66.6million were migrant workers. The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on women migrant workers in situations of vulnerability are severe. COVID-19 could cause 25 million jobs to be lost globally, with women migrant workers particularly vulnerable. Due to the pandemic, 8.5 million women migrant domestic workers on insecure contracts are facing income loss and much greater risks of abuse and exploitation, particularly those who cannot return home owing to travel bans and border controls.” [11]

A migrant woman worker often suffers double discrimination: for being a woman and a migrant. The lack of discussion about these women workers is not surprising considering the general invisibility of women when it comes to their role in the economy. Their presence in public spaces are also ignored which results in a male-dominated imagery of migration and return migration. With the new studies that are being carried out on migrant workers, it is essential that the experiences of migrant women are not set aside as their unique vulnerabilities have to be recognized in order to understand their situation better. 

Sukanya Bhattacharya is a post graduate student in Women’s Studies at TISS, Mumbai. She can be reached at sukanya.mimi@gmail.com.

Cover image: The Week/ PTI.

References:

  1. Sapra, Ipsita. 2020. “Why Don’t We See the Women? The Untold Story of Covid-19 Migration.” The Indian Express. April 25, 2020. https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/why-dont-we-see-the-women-the-untold-story-of-covid-19-migration-6378557/.
  2. Samantroy, Dr Ellina. 2020. “Can Labour Reforms Help Women Migrant Workers During COVID-19?” TheQuint. June 5, 2020. https://www.thequint.com/voices/women/labour-reforms-help-women-migrant-workers-during-covid-19.
  3. Samantroy, Dr Ellina. 2020. “Can Labour Reforms Help Women Migrant Workers During COVID-19?” TheQuint. June 5, 2020. Swaminathan, Hema, and Rahul Lahoti. 2020. “The COVID-19 Lockdown Will Ravage Prospects for India’s Female Workforce.” The Wire. April 15, 2020. https://thewire.in/women/coronavirus-women-economy.
  4. Ghosh, Rakhi. 2020. “Covid-19: Odia Women Migrants Suffer Mental Stress, Feel No One Heeds To Their Plight.” https://Www.outlookindia.com/. outlookindia.com. May 21, 2020. https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/india-news-covid-19-odia-women-migrants-suffer-mental-stress-feel-nobody-heeds-to-their-plight/353325.
  5. Agarwal, Poonam. 2020. “’Who Will Give Us Jobs?’: Delhi’s Sex Workers Hit Hard By COVID-19.” TheQuint. July 14, 2020. https://www.thequint.com/news/india/coronavirus-covid-19-hit-sex-workers-jobs.
  6. Webinar from ‘Building and Woodworkers’ International’ (BWI), July 8th, 2020
  7. “Guidance Note: Addressing the Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Women Migrant Workers: Digital Library: Publications.” n.d. UN Women. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/04/guidance-note-addressing-the-impacts-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-women-migrant-workers.
  8. Samantroy, Dr Ellina. 2020. “Can Labour Reforms Help Women Migrant Workers During COVID-19?” TheQuint. June 5, 2020. https://www.thequint.com/voices/women/labour-reforms-help-women-migrant-workers-during-covid-19.
  9.  “Guidance Note: Addressing the Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Women Migrant Workers: Digital Library: Publications.” n.d. UN Women. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/04/guidance-note-addressing-the-impacts-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-women-migrant-workers.
  10. “Guidance Note: Addressing the Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Women Migrant Workers: Digital Library: Publications.” n.d. UN Women. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/04/guidance-note-addressing-the-impacts-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-women-migrant-workers.

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