Informal sector workers don’t have the privilege to stay at home & work online in the time of COVID-19
Tomas Pueyo, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, has recently become famous for his article entitled Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now (published on 10th March, 2020). His article has received more than 224K claps as on 18th March, 2020. Although he has asked employers and governments for ensuring 'work-from-home' with good intentions, most of his suggestions may fall flat against the Indian reality pertaining to the informal sector.
A city or town without labour chowks is unimaginable in this country. Vast pool of casual, daily-wage workers meet at such places early in the morning with the hope that they would be recruited by some contractor. Similarly, coolie labourers in the APMC mandis (i.e. Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee markets) are recruited informally (on a piece rate basis) to carry loads. Self-employed persons like waste collectors and rickshaw pullers too earn on a daily basis. Their daily hunt for casual jobs or work cannot be curbed so as to contain the spread of novel coronavirus disease, which has been declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 11th March, 2020. Otherwise, that would amount to livelihood insecurity for most informal and casual workers. Therefore, the Indian reality is significantly different from that of many advanced capitalist nations and even China—a communist country.
Informal labour market and casual workers: PLFS 2017-18
Official reports suggest that the majority of Indian workforce (even in the formal sector) lack labour rights. The Annual Report on Periodic Labour Force Survey (July 2017 - June 2018), which was released in May 2019, says that more than half of the regular wage/ salaried employees in the non-agricultural sector (i.e. 54.2 percent) were not eligible for paid leave. The corresponding figures were 55.2 percent among males and 50.4 percent among females.
The PLFS report, which has been prepared by the National Statistical Office (NSO), states that almost half of the regular wage/ salaried employees in the non-agricultural sector (i.e. 49.6 percent) were not eligible for any social security benefit in the crop year 2017-18. The corresponding figures were 49.0 percent among males and 51.8 percent among females.
A little less than three-fourth of the regular wage/ salaried employees in the non-agricultural sector (i.e. 71.1 percent) had no written job contract. The corresponding figures were 72.3 percent among males and 66.8 percent among females.
If the situation of regular wage/ salaried employees is so dismal, then one can imagine what has been happening to casual and self-employed workers. The report on PLFS shows that 68.4 percent of the workers in usual status (ps+ss) in non-agricultural and AGEGC [viz. (AG)ricultural sector (E)xcluding (G)rowing of (C)rops, plant propagation, combined production of crops and animals without a specialized production of crops or animals] sectors were engaged in informal sector. The share of informal sector among male workers was 71.1 percent and among female workers was roughly 54.8 percent in non-agricultural and AGEGC sectors.
The bulk of our workers sustain on the basis of wages earned by selling their labour power. They own little or no land apart from livestock. Only a miniscule proportion of informal workers (including migrant workers) enjoy social security or access social safety net programmes. Because of the privatisation of essential services like education, health and transport, the cost of living has become higher as compared to the daily earnings. States seldom ensure payment of minimum wages to workers in both formal and informal sectors. Take, for example, the earnings made by casual labour or workers. In rural areas, the average wage earnings per day by casual labour engaged in works other than public works ranged between Rs. 253 to Rs. 282 among males and almost Rs. 166 to Rs. 179 among females during July-September 2017, October-December 2017, January–March 2018 and April–June 2018.
On the contrary, in urban India, the average wage earnings per day by casual workers engaged in works other than public works ranged between Rs. 314 to Rs. 335 among males and nearly Rs. 186 to Rs. 201 among females during this period.
In the countryside, the average wage earnings per day by casual labour engaged in MGNREG (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment) public works ranged between Rs. 141 to Rs. 171 among males and about Rs. 131 to Rs. 165 among females during July–September 2017, October-December 2017, January–March 2018 and April–June 2018.
In rural India, a male casual labour engaged in public works other than MGNREG public works earned on an average nearly Rs. 138 to Rs. 158 per day, whereas a female casual worker engaged in public works other than MGNREG public works earned nearly Rs. 119 to Rs. 144 per day during July–September 2017, October-December 2017, January–March 2018 and April–June 2018.
The gender gap in wage earnings is quite stark in the country for all occupations in both formal and informal labour markets. In fact, there exists labour market segmentation along lines of caste, sex, ethnicity, language and region.
Please note that workers are further categorised as self-employed, regular wage/ salaried employee and casual labour in the NSO report on PLFS 2017-18. A person who was casually engaged in others' farm or non-farm enterprises (both household and non-household) and, in return, received wages according to the terms of the daily or periodic work contract, has been considered as a casual labour in the report from the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MoSPI).
However, regular wage/ salaried employees were persons who worked in others' farm or non-farm enterprises (both household and non-household) and, in return, received salary or wages on a regular basis (i.e. not on the basis of daily or periodic renewal of work contract). This category included not only persons getting time wage but also persons receiving piece wage or salary and paid apprentices, both full time and part-time.
According to the PLFS report 2017-18, informal employment (using 17th International Conference of Labour Statisticians-ICLS framework, November-December 2003) comprised jobs held by:
* own-account workers and employers who have their own informal sector enterprises;
* contributing family workers, irrespective of whether they work in formal or informal sector enterprises;
* employees who have informal jobs (for definition, see item (5) in paragraph 3 in Annexure-IV) whether employed by formal sector enterprises, informal sector enterprises, or as paid domestic workers by households;
* members of informal producers cooperatives; and
* persons engaged in the own-account production of goods exclusively for own final use by their household, such as subsistence farming or do-it-yourself construction of own dwellings.
Item (5) in paragraph 3 of Annexure-IV of the Annual Report on PLFS 2017-18 mentions that employees are considered to have informal jobs if their employment relationship is, in law or in practice, not subject to national labour legislation, income taxation, social protection or entitlement to certain employment benefits (advance notice of dismissal, severance pay, paid annual or sick leave, etc.). The reasons may be the following: non-declaration of the jobs or the employees; casual jobs or jobs of a limited short duration; jobs with hours of work or wages below a specified threshold (e.g. for social security contributions); employment by unincorporated enterprises or by persons in households; jobs where the employees' place of work is outside the premises of the employers' enterprise (e.g. outworkers without employment contract); or jobs, for which labour regulations are not applied, not enforced, or not complied with for any other reason. The report on PLFS 2017-18 also adds that the operational criteria for defining informal jobs of employees are to be determined in accordance with national circumstances and data availability.
Digital divide and work-from-home
The existing digital divide in the country will prevent a majority of the workers to work from home using digital devices (like computers, smart phones, tablets, etc.) and internet connectivity against the backdrop of COVID-19 outbreak.
The 75th round National Sample Survey (NSS) report on education finds that the overall proportion of households with computer access in the country was 10.7 percent in 2017-18. Roughly one-fourth of Indian households (i.e. 23.8 percent) had internet access.
The proportion of Indians of age 5 years and above who were able to operate a computer was 16.5 percent in 2017-18. The proportion of individuals of age 5 years and above who were able to use internet was 20.1 percent in 2017-18. The proportion of persons of age 5 years and above who used internet during the last 30 days was 17.6 percent in 2017-18.
For a more detailed analysis of digital divide in India, please check the news alert by Inclusive Media for Change titled 'Digital divide' persists despite country's desire to become a digital giant, dated 29th January, 2020.
NSS 75th Round Report: Key Indicators of Household Social Consumption on Education in India, July 2017 to June 2018, released on 23rd November 2019, please click here to access
Coronavirus disease (COVID-2019) situation reports, World Health Organisation (WHO), please click here to access
Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) news release, World Health Organisation (WHO), please click here to access
Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, World Health Organization (WHO), please click here to access
Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) Situation, World Health Organisation (WHO), Visualisation map, please click here to access
World Health Organisation Health Emergency Dashboard for Coronavirus (COVID-19), Visualisation map, https://extranet.who.int/publicemergency
Coronavirus Resource Center, John Hopkins University & Medicine, Visualisation map, please click here to access
Advisory on Social Distancing Measure in view of spread of COVID-19 disease, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, please click here to access
'Digital divide' persists despite country's desire to become a digital giant, News alert by Inclusive Media for Change dated 29 January, 2020, please click here to access
No change in MGNREGA wage rates observed between 2018-19 and 2019-20 for 4 states & 2 UTs, News alert by Inclusive Media for Change dated 16 April, 2019, please click here to access
Deflation in WPI of 8 kharif crops observed during 2016-17 to 2018-19, while their MSPs grew at a positive rate, News alert by Inclusive Media for Change dated 31 December, 2018, please click here to access
India’s Covid-19 worry: too few are being tested -Penny MacRae, The Telegraph, 18 March, 2020, please click here to read more
Runaway symptomatic Covid-19 patients pose serious threat -Manjeet Sehgal, India Today 17 March, 2020, please click here to access
India-Corona is already here, in the asymptomatic youth -Dr Vikram Jindal, Medium.com, 16 March, 2020, please click here to access
Super Exclusive: Tomas Pueyo, The Man Behind BIG Coronavirus Warning; His Caution Stunned The World, India Today, 16 March, 2020, please click here to access
Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now -Tomas Pueyo, 10 March, 2020, please click here to access
Are our labour markets less segmented now? -CP Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh, The Hindu Business Line, 3 February, 2014, please click here to access
Image Courtesy: UNDP India