SEWA is working to alleviate devastating impact of COVID 19 on informal and migrant workers in India

Tuesday, 14 April 2020

In India, SEWA (Self Employed Women Association) reports that the Coronavirus pandemic is having devastating effects on the lower income population and, in particular, migrant workers.

Mirai Chatterjee, Board Member at ICMIF member, VimoSEWA (the insurance arm of SEWA) says: “The impact on informal and migrant workers has been devastating. Migrants who have no food and no money are trudging more than 500 Km to their home villages as there is no transport. It has become a huge humanitarian crisis here in India - the pandemic and the huge disruption and loss of livelihoods. We are saddened and moved to act.“

The informal sector, despite being a huge contributor to India’s GDP, is often neglected when it comes to supportive policies especially in times of crises says SEWA. Currently, with the spread of the COVID-19 virus, there is significant rallying by governments, policymakers and health professionals for ‘social distancing’ and maintenance of proper hygiene. This implies minimising contact with the outside world and taking precautionary personal hygiene measures such as frequent use of hand sanitisers, wearing masks when ill and other such measures.

While these advisories may seem simple enough to carry out for a large proportion of the formal sector workforce, SEWA points out that they are exclusionary towards the informal sector workers as it is impossible for them to observe these measures due to the nature of their livelihood and their socio-economic standing. For instance, a very quick study of informal sector workers across certain Indian states and trades revealed unique challenges being facing in combating this pandemic. SEWA is a central trade union that works with women in the informal sector. SEWA interviewed members and workers from 20 different trades across 11 states who were asked about their awareness of COVID, how it was already impacting their income and their families, their access to clean water, and medical services.

SEWA is undertaking a number of measures to help their members and also the wider informal economy workers through the following measures:

  • Advocacy efforts
  • Establishing links between SEWA production units which can make face masks and social enterprises which can distribute them
  • Producing sanitisers and handwash at fair prices through one of its cooperatives
  • Awareness campaigns – including videos, voice messages and WhatsApp messaging
  • Ensuring timely access to its mobile bank
  • Promoting savings and credit across various states in India including Bihar, Delhi, Uttarakhand and Gujarat
  • Continuing to provide relief and assistance for the victims of riots in Delhi earlier in 2020

SEWA is active in a number of states across India and in Gujarat for example, SEWA says, the lives of its members- informal women workers, are characterised by insecurity of work and income, and food, as well as limited or no access to social security. At this stage of the pandemic in India, the required social distancing will likely worsen the situation for members. Therefore, the need for immediate intervention is particularly crucial to ensure income, social protection and health security to members.

SEWA Federation has adopted a three-fold strategy:

  • Safeguarding health
  • Livelihood restoration
  • Extending social protection and food security

SEWA’s immediate response involved the distribution of food. Despite the government’s announcement, SEWA’s experience suggests that there will be those left out - those without ration cards, migrant workers whose ration cards are from their home states and may not allow them to access food in Gujarat. There is also the possibility of insufficient stock and also in inadequate quantities given varying household sizes.

Health kits:

Due to small homes with many members, social distancing will be difficult for many. To prevent the spread of the virus, SEWA is distributing five 2-layered, washable cloth face masks to each household. They will also distribute hand sanitiser or neem soap.

Cash transfer for sustenance:

The COVID outbreak and the lockdown measures have imposed restriction on scale of production and activities, impacting revenue for many enterprises. This has a direct impact on SEWA’s members. Therefore, to ease the inevitable economic pressure, SEWA proposed a direct cash transfer. The long-term response is working towards the development of a health cadre equipped to respond to a crisis and a livelihood restoration fund for cooperative recovery.

Meanwhile, in Kerala, the local branch of SEWA runs a canteen in a local hospital and SEWA workers stayed at the hospital in order to provide food to the healthcare workers there round the clock. This effectively meant that the SEWA workers had quarantined themselves in the hospital in order to support those looking after patients.  

As part of its advocacy work on behalf of members and the informal workers, SEWA submitted an appeal to the Minister of State (IC) for Labour and Employment & Union Minister of Finance in March this year asking them to help informal sector workers during the COVID 19 crisis. In India, there are 500 million poor and vulnerable informal workers who are daily wagers like contractual workers, casual workers, construction workers, agriculture workers, home- based workers especially in textile and garment manufacturing, beedi workers, self-employed workers including street vendors, waste recyclers, hand cart pullers, auto rickshaw drivers and many more who are struggling daily to meet their minimum basic necessities through their daily labour. The Corona Virus badly hit their daily earning and therefore their income to sustain themselves. In such conditions, SEWA on behalf of its 1.7 million women workers in 18 States of India, urged the Government to declare;

  • Income support to all the families of the informal economy workers to tide over this crisis, so that they are able to sustain their basic needs.
  • Issue a Circular to all the States directing Building and other Construction Workers Welfare Board and other existing Labour Welfare Boards to declare a compensatory package of Rs 5,000/- per month to all the registered workers to tide over crisis.
  • Free Public Distribution System for Ration supply as long as the crisis last.
  • Six months amortization on repayment of all loans.