Stranded daily-wage workers must not be treated like bonded labour!

When the Union government decided to partially relax the lockdown to resume economic activities in parts of the country from 20 April, it issued a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on 19 April for lakhs of workers stranded all over the country. The SOP read, “Due to the spread of COVID-19 virus, workers employed in industry, agriculture, construction and other sectors have moved from their respective places of work, and are housed in relief/shelter camps being run by State/ UT governments. Since additional new activities outside the containment zones have been permitted as per the consolidated revised guidelines with effect from 20th April 2020, these workers could be engaged in industrial, manufacturing, construction, farming and MNREGA works.”  The SOP laid down guidelines to be followed “to facilitate their movement within the State/UT.”

The attitude of the Union government towards stranded workers reflected in the above order is highly condemnable. Workers staying in these camps have been waiting for the lifting of the lockdown to go their home towns/villages. No choice is now being given to these workers by the government. They are not being asked if they wish to return home or return to their old place of work or take up work near their relief camps. They are being treated like bonded labour and forced to work by the government to provide labour power to capitalists for the resumption of factories and construction activities.

The order allows their movement only within the state and thus stops them from taking up work near their home towns/villages in other states. The Union government later clarified that inter-state movement of workers will be permitted only if they wish to return to their place of work. So, it is clear that the government is using all its powers to stop workers from returning to their home towns/villages to help capitalists.

The nationwide lockdown of 3 weeks announced by the Prime Minister on 24 March 2020 with a notice of 4 hours had created a panic among crores of workers staying away from home. They were left with no work to support themselves in cities to which they had come in search of livelihoods. They wanted to return to their villages and be with their families when the whole country was concerned about personal health. However, the suspension of all train and bus services stranded them. When many of them decided to walk hundreds of kilometers, they were stopped at various state borders and forced to stay in camps set up by the government. Inter-state movement was banned and the state boundaries were sealed. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, as on 10 April 2020, 14.3 lakh workers were housed in 37,978 camps all over the country.

The guideline asks state governments to map the workers’ skills and deploy them accordingly. However, knowing their circumstances, there is little doubt that workers from shelter camps will be paid the lowest wages and will face extreme exploitation by capitalists.

The government’s actions are a gross violation of the right of workers to choose the place of work and for whom to work. A worker in the capitalist system only has his labour power to sell but can choose whom to sell it to. They cannot and must not be treated as bonded labourers. Stranded workers must be asked if they wish to return to their home town or village, or to their former place of work.  Arrangements must be made for their safe transportation.

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