The Urgent Need to Understand Urban Labour

As the number of COVID-19 cases spike up again, it’s important that we learn from last year, and build better support systems for urban workers to prevent the recurrence of a labour crisis.

Before the pandemic, when you asked young women from rural Karnataka what they were most anxious about before coming to Bengaluru for a job at a garment factory, they gave surprising answers. In addition to “safety”, they spoke about “big buildings” and “how to cross those huge roads”. And workers who quit within a few weeks of joining also gave some unexpected reasons: “the water here does not suit me”, “I keep falling sick”, or simply “just want to go back”.

Interactions with these workers have shown us that in addition to challenges in the workplace, the challenges of living in a city make it difficult for them to hold on to their jobs.

Similarly, around this time last year, when thousands of urban labourers walked, cycled and hitchhiked back to their villages, many of us could not fathom it. It also puzzled the central and state governments, who least expected it and were ill-equipped to handle it, as news about labourers being turned back at state borders, and being hosed with disinfectants, showed. All of this shows us how little we have understood our urban labourers, and their relationship with the city.

As the number of COVID-19 cases in Indian cities spike up again, it’s important that we learn from last year, and build better support systems for urban workers to prevent the recurrence of a labour crisis.

Migrants make a city

One of the primary reasons stated by urban economists for the existence of cities is that they allow for efficiency in terms of production. A city needs a large and constant supply of resources from elsewhere to develop and sustain. Governments play an important role in channelling these resources and surplus from other places to cities, to further attract firms and people. This is how urbanisation occurs, and migration is at the centre of it.

The urban labourer plays a key role in the development process. Almost every economic model of development has at its centre, the movement of labour from the rural or agricultural sector to the urban or industrial sector. During the 19th century, driven by industrialisation, cities in the West became centres of mass production and the huge demand for labour led people from rural areas to move to cities.

However, urbanisation in India was not because of labour-intensive industrialisation. It was natural growth and poverty-driven migration from rural area — a byproduct of uneven development and expansion.

According to the Periodic Labour Force Survey of 2017-18, the total urban labourers in the country were 129 million, forming around 30% of all workers in the country. Out of the urban labourers, the regular salaried workers were 47.6% and casual workers were 14.7%. The rest (37.7%) were self-employed.

Also read: Welfare Measures and Forced Evictions: How the Pandemic Uncovered the Paradox of Life for Delhi’s Marginal Urban Dwellers

Beyond just the welcome billboards

This helps us place the urban worker in the larger scheme of things – people forced to move due to poverty and lack of opportunities, people with aspirations, and a lot of needs, which, if met, could help them successfully contribute to the economy and benefit from it. But most of them continue to remain outsiders in our cities which fail to integrate them.

There is a need for securing their well-being inside as well as outside the workplace, so that they can stay on in the jobs they take up, and withstand temporary shocks.

Access to affordable accommodation and convenient commutes to work – things that simplify their everyday life – are necessary prerequisites. It is also important that this housing is within the city, close to the places of employment, and has tenured security. These will also ensure that the urban worker has time to relax and care for themselves, to spend with their family, and be active members of society.

We aspire for our cities to have ‘word-class’ aesthetics and focus on building tall towers, massive highways, exclusive shopping centres and gated communities. But the working-class are restricted to the city’s peripheries which have limited public infrastructure and facilities. Free to access parks, promenades, and non-gentrified marketplaces can ensure workers do not feel like outsiders in the cities they live in, and help build.

Well-being in the workplace

It is important that for the working class too, their work is beyond just a way to feed their family and pay rent. It should be a promise of economic independence, and allow them to support the elderly at home, to provide their children with a good quality education, and save for the future. They need access to affordable healthcare for themselves and their dependents, beyond the provision of employee’s health insurance that workers now have. Creating awareness on physical and mental health, and making health check-ups and counselling easily accessible will complement this.

Special care needs to be taken to make women-friendly workplaces. Economist Ashwini Deshpande stresses the importance of provision of clean bathrooms in the workplace, and having a harassment-free workplace in increasing the possibility of women continuing work. Availability of creches, provision of maternity as well as paternity leaves will go a long way in making it possible for women to take up paid work, and to stay in their jobs after marriage.

Women labourers work at the construction site of a road in Kolkata January 8, 2015. Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

However, in India, even after the government amended a law to double the leaves and mandated companies with over 50 employees to have creches, only two states in the country have notified the rules.

When it comes to providing opportunities for personal development of workers, there is already some effort underway by firms and NGOs to provide skills training to workers. The next step is to strengthen it, aimed towards career progression for the worker.

In addition to core competencies, training in soft skills and financial literacy are important to empower the worker and prepare them for upward mobility. In addition to this, having robust feedback and review systems and mentors will change their work from being seen as jobs to careers.

Also read: Rethinking Migration and the Informal Indian Economy in the Time of a Pandemic

Empowering workers the path forward

A well-integrated business and policy ecosystem can ensure the prioritisation and implementation of these goals. For formal workers, the private sector can play an important role in the provision of some of these services – such as counselling and additional educational support to children, improving living conditions for the workers, and take steps to prevent loneliness among new migrants. Some of these initiatives also increase retention and can reap business returns in addition to contributing to the wellbeing of workers.

Additionally, labourers, who form the backbone of our economy, must have the power to collectivise and bargain for their wages and rights so they cannot be treated like dispensable resources. Unionising has clearly been shown to increase worker well-being and it has proven to be effective in securing labour rights.

In February, a garment manufacturer in Karnataka was pressured to reinstate the 1200 workers that it laid off during the pandemic after prolonged protests by the workers, who were unionised.

But for the large portion of the urban workforce which is informal, the state needs to step in and make policies which are labour-centric. Professor Deshpande calls for support systems such as basic income and alternative work options that cushion urban workers from the ups and downs of the production cycle. And as urbanists have often pointed out, there is a need for redesigning our cities to be people-centric and inclusive, which do not cast aside its workers at the first sign of a crisis.

Eshan Fotedar is a research associate and Nirupama V. is a marketing associate at Good Business Lab.