It might not be a full lockdown yet, but the devastating surge in the COVID-19 cases nationwide—putting additional strain on the already dilapidated healthcare facilities in the country—has sent jitters to the industries, which have found themselves struggling once again to keep the assembly lines running.
As such, droves of workers employed in the manufacturing units have started leaving the industrial towns fearing a repeat of last year when restrictions on movement were imposed nationwide at a notice of not more than four hours.
The migrant workers’ community is nervous at the uncertainty, now more than ever, according to the trade unions. The unions blame the Narendra Modi – led central government for its “callous attitude” in combating the second wave of COVID-19 pandemic.
On Thursday, April 29, a glimpse of how the migrant workforce is responding to the recent developments was observed in Haryana’s Gurugram district, when visuals of labourers thronging bus stations were circulated on social media. In a particular news report posted by Workers Unity, a local media house, workers, mindful of their miseries last year, shared their concerns while boarding a bus back to their home towns.
Similar news also came from other parts of the country, particularly from Delhi, Mumbai, and most recently from Bengaluru where lockdown restrictions came into effect on Tuesday night.
As per latest reports, weekend lockdown have been imposed in nine districts in Haryana, including in Gurugram.
Manmohan Gaind, vice president of the Manesar Industrial Welfare Associations (MIWA) confirmed the reported incidents of reverse migration. He told NewsClick on Friday “almost half of the migrant workers” employed in Manesar, an automotive hub whose jurisdiction lies under Gurugram district, “have already left the industrial town this time around.”
“With infection cases rising exponentially in the past few days in and around Manesar and Gurugram industrial areas, many of the auto manufacturing units – especially the major ones – decided to shut down their operations for the time being. This has triggered an exodus of migrant workforce as the fear of last year’s lockdown still persists in their minds,” Gaind said. This is even more so as the interstate transport facilities are running as of now, he added.
Also see: Thousands of Migrant Workers Leave for Home, COVID-19 Update and More
On April 28, India’s largest carmaker Maruti Suzuki India Limited advanced its bi-annual maintenance shutdown of factories from June to May 1, which will last for nine days. According to a company statement, the decision was taken for all the manufacturing units in Haryana and Gujarat, to ensure the availability of oxygen for medical use.
Maruti Suzuki, as part of the car manufacturing process, reportedly uses a small amount of oxygen in its factories. However, much larger quantities are used by its component manufacturers.
Faced with an acute shortage of oxygen for the treatment of COVID-19 infected patients, the Centre had put a ban on use of liquid oxygen for industrial use earlier this month on April 25.
Similarly, the other major automobile companies in the region – Hero MotoCorp, Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India among others – have also announced their decision to shut down the manufacturing units.
Meanwhile, Kuldeep Jhangu, former office bearer of the workers’ union at Maruti Suzuki’s Manesar plant, claimed on Friday that the decision to prepone the maintenance shutdown was also taken in the backdrop of rising number of deaths of Maruti’s workers due to COVID-19 infection.
“Around 12 individuals that include both Maruti’s workers and their family members have lost their lives due to COVID-19 this month. The company was pressured from all the unions in their respective manufacturing units to halt production and ensure safety of the workers,” Jhangu claimed.
Also read: Bihar: Migrant Workers Returning Home Again in Fear of Likely Lockdown
NewsClick couldn’t independently verify the claims, but there are news reports with similar claim of deaths of workers due to COVID-19 in Maruti Suzuki’s Gurugram and Manesar factory units.
Ramesh Kundu, HR manager of the Bellsonica Auto Component Private Limited, a first-tier vendor of Maruti Suzuki, told NewsClick that the auto component manufacturer will also keep its Manesar plant shut for “maintenance purposes” in line with the decision of Maruti Suzuki. “It is also important to break the transmission chain of infection. Shutting down of operations will probably help in achieving that as well,” he said.
Ajit Singh, vice president of Bellsonica Employees Union, believes that the decision will lead to a “significant” section of company’s workforce – especially the non-permanent ones – to travel back to their home towns. This is despite the fact that the maintenance shutdowns doesn’t attract wage cuts.
“This time the workers are keen on leaving for their home towns not just because of job loss or the fear of being stranded away from their family – in case of a lockdown – but also due to the fact that the helplessness in arranging a hospital bed, oxygen, drugs among other things is all too well known to the labouring population,” Singh reasoned.
Satbir Singh of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) – Haryana unit agreed. Even trade unions are finding it difficult to step up their efforts in coming forward to alleviate the situation somewhat, he told NewsClick, adding, “because unlike last year it is not just unavailability of food rations or zero savings that is leading to migrant exodus”.
“The Modi government has completely failed in preparing for the second wave of COVID-19 infection. The healthcare infrastructure is in doldrums here. The migrants are not feeling safe in the city,” he rued.
Echoing similar concerns, Gaind of MIWA lamented that if the industry and the government fails to stop the reverse migration this time, then it would have long term consequences. “It will take a whole cycle of about two to three months to get the workers back,” he said.
Moreover, large number of workers would even choose to stay in their villages given their “dreadful experience in their work city in recent times, Gaind added.
On the other hand, the vaccination drive is also not proceeding as expected. Notably, the Centre has opened up COVID-19 vaccines for all adults, starting from May 1. However, unsure about the stocks, many states are coming out to announce that they won’t be able to start the drive.
“Many company managements are willing to vaccinate their workforce. But that is only possible when enough vaccines are available. Given the situation right now, as being reported by the media, I don’t think that any mass vaccination drive in at least Manesar is possible before June or July,” Gaind told NewsClick.
Over 5,000 new cases of COVID-19 infection were reported on Thursday, as per the official figures, taking the total active case load in Gurugram district to reach 33,893. Meanwhile, on the same day, 455 received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 1,053 received their second dose.
Also read: Modi Govt and Its Lack of Concern for the Working Class