'We Are in a Crisis': Fear of Uncertain Employment, Livelihood Grips Migrant and Sex Workers

“If they [sex workers] are ready to risk their lives by throwing social distancing to the wind and risk police beatings, does it not show how desperate they are for food?” said a sex worker.

New Delhi: “We cannot even complain against the violence that has been meted out against us,” said Rohini Chhari, an activist working with members of nomadic and denotified tribes in Morena, Madhya Pradesh. “Because the government is the perpetrator. People not getting access to food is a form of violence, is it not?”

One migrant worker from West Bengal, who works at a garment factory in Gurgaon, said he and his family of six were among 30 households in a slum cluster living on one meal a day. While an NGO has tried to provide them with cooked meals everyday, the uncertainty ahead is unnerving for him.

Like him, people from across the country shared their grievances and apprehensions, in the aftermath of the imposition of the nationwide lockdown, through a series of webinars in mid-April promoted by civil society organisations led by the Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices.

The experiences were varied. Some could access government relief or receive help from local NGOs, but that was barely enough.

Venilla, a garment worker in a village in Tamil Nadu’s Dindigul district, highlighted the problem inherent in borrowing money. “For the first few weeks, the rice we received from the ration shop was helpful. We are people who work everyday to make ends meet. We have many loans to pay off. If I don’t work for so many days, I don’t know how I will cope once the lockdown lifts.”

The situation is worse for people from the Nat, Bediya and Bachchda denotified tribes who work in the entertainment sector. A rapid study by researchers of the National Action Group for Denotified and Nomadic Tribes in five states – Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Delhi – found that of the 106 families interviewed, only four had received three meals a day. A majority of 61 had only two meals a day; 38 received one meal and three families had to go hungry.

The plight of interstate migrant workers is worse. “We got 10 kg of rice, some dal and oil from a school that my child attends,” said Rabin, a migrant from West Bengal stranded in Erode district of Tamil Nadu. He was already running out of supplies and wondered what his family would do over the next few days.

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“We have to purchase water at Rs 40 a day. This is at a time when we have received money only for the 17 days we worked in March. We have had to spend it on our rent and daily necessities.” He added that some of the families living in the cluster of 50 households in the area were having to manage with only one meal a day.

The families, from different states like Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, worked at a garment supply chain in Erode. They had not received any support from their respective state governments or from Tamil Nadu at the time of the webinar.

“When we asked our manager about pay for the lockdown days, he said the mill owner would decide after the lockdown. But we need support now. We are in a crisis now,” Rabin said.

For workers who returned home just before or during the lockdown, the primary concern is over the payment of wages. “We have not received our wages for the days worked. My employer owes me Rs 50,000 in salary for the last two months that I worked. I hope he will pay me. I have worked with him for 10 years and I trust him,” said Giri, a migrant worker from Bengal employed in construction work in Kerala.

On the one hand are people who have the luxury to self-isolate or stay at home with essential supplies home-delivered, while others have a one-room house where they are expected to self-quarantine with several other members of their families, including vulnerable senior citizens.

Ashis Behera of New Hope India NGO in Bhargarh said that the Odisha government had set aside Rs five lakh for one house in every panchayat to function as a back-up hospital and measures for isolation in Gram Panchayats. But there were no guidelines on where migrants were to be quarantined. Hence, returning migrant workers are afraid of exposing their families to the novel coronavirus.

A majority of the people in Giri’s village in the Sunderbans in South 24 Parganas in West Bengal migrate for work. While some, like him, go to Kerala to work in the construction sector, many others migrate locally to districts such as Burdwan to work in potato manufacturing units as head loaders for a daily wage.

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“There is a woman here whose husband and son are stuck in Burdwan. She is extremely worried about their well being and safe return and has been pleading for help in facilitating their return,” an NGO worker from the area said. Many of Giri’s colleagues are stranded in Kozhikode, Kerala. They have access to food but have to buy it. Given the meagre resources, this is proving to be increasingly difficult.

Interstate migrants from Bargarh in Odisha face similar problems. The difficult times of the present may pass, but the uncertainty of the future lingers. “We spoke to 22 people whose immediate relatives had migrated and were now asking them for money for survival. But when they are in such a desperate situation themselves, how will they be able to send any money?” Behera said.

“We are the ones who used to earn money and send it to our families back home in Cuttack. Now that we are out of a job, who will take care of them?” said Deepali Das, who works as a fabric finisher in Erode, Tamil Nadu.

Those who face the additional burden of stigma rue that they have always been at the receiving end of distress. “If Amitabh Bachhan or Deepika Padukone sent out a message [of distress], there would be crores of people behind them. But that is not the same with sex workers. These actors are celebrated, while these women are discriminated against. Aren’t both entertainment workers?” said Chhari.

The irony of the question is not lost upon those who have been plagued by the contrast in how disparate the effects of lockdown have been. While some are enjoying time with families, others are desperate to sustain their livelihood. Chhari pointed out that, during the initial days of the lockdown, 150 women from the red light area in Morena had marched to the district collectorate during the lockdown.

“If they are ready to risk their lives by throwing social distancing to the wind and risking police beatings to do that, does it not show how desperate they are for food?” Chhari said.

Distribution of relief supplies to Sabars in Purulia district. Photo: Author Provided

“Many sex workers do not have identity documents such as ration cards. The police target this community even on ordinary days. Now, during the lockdown, anybody who is seen on the street in these red-light areas is beaten without reason,” Mohammad Kalam, who works with women from the Nat community of traditional sex workers in Araria, Bihar, said.

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“The situation is bad for girls like me. The dance bars are closed. Where will I get money to buy medicines?” a bar dancer from Mumbai, who lives with her ailing mother, said. Kalam added that the Nats in Bihar have to face the added burden of Islamophobia that is currently rife in the country. “In towns and villages, barring a few people, most have no access to means of survival,” he said.

The future is bleak, said Prashanta Rakshit, who works with the Paschim Banga Kheria Sabar Samiti. “The Sabars will be forced to sell their land and livestock to make up for the income lost. We have worked hard for more than three decades to address the stigma that this community faces. But there are chances that this will return. The Sabars might be forced to brew illicit liquor to cope with hunger and earn a livelihood, but it will only end up stigmatising them further.”

Note: All interactions with the workers occurred through the COVID-19 Pandemic Voices from Margin Webinar series hosted by an NGO, Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices and in the run-up to it and a series of rapid surveys carried out by Praxis and its partner organisations. 

Anusha Chandrasekharan works with the development support organisation Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices. Views are personal.