Shambhu Mahanto hails from Sitamarhi district in Bihar. He was at his native place for five straight months between May and October. However, with no work to be found, Shambhu returned to the work he was engaged with prior to the lockdown. He was back at the construction site of a small-time builder in Navi Mumbai's Kharghar area.
Shambhu is a bricklayer and he does the same work he did earlier. However, the amount he earns now is not the same. While he used to make Rs 370 a day prior to the pandemic, he makes Rs 300 per day now. “The contractor told me that there is no money. Either I choose to work for the same amount for some months or I wait, since there is no work. It is better to do something rather than nothing,” he said.
The lockdown disrupted already-slowing economic activity, especially in all the industrial towns of Maharashtra, which saw a complete shutdown for over two months. According to the state government’s Department of Labour, a total of 22 lakh labourers works in the real estate industry of Maharashtra, primarily in Mumbai and its eight surrounding municipalities and in Pune and Nashik. Out of those, 12 lakh are registered with the state's labour corporation. The rest are unregistered. As of now, the wages of workers in both the categories are down by at least Rs 30 to Rs 70 per day.
Gurunath Waghole has been working as a plumber in Thane for the past ten years. When there is no work with the builder he usually works for, he keeps an eye out for other gigs. Before March, he used to earn Rs 400 on an average per day. But these days, he is not even getting Rs 300 in a day. It is what the situation is like for skilled labourers like him.
"There is no work now. Very few projects have been restarted after the lockdown. Many labourers are also returning from their home states like Bihar and UP. So, the cost of labour has gone down. Everyone says that the situation will persist for at least six months,” said Gurunath. He is one of the 12 lakh labourers who received Rs 4,000 from the state government as relief, as he is registered with the state.
The situation is no different for rural, especially agricultural labourers. With harvesting underway, aside from those who cut cane, labourers have not been able to get more than what they got last year. Not even a minimal hike.
Ashok Shirole is a landless labourer from Radhanagari tehsil of Kolhapur. With no work in the city he returned to his village. He now works in a paddy field. “I get Rs 280 per day. No one has money. As a result, farm owners are asking us to work at low rates. The amount of work is the same but the payment is less,” said Shirole.
Senior journalist and agriculture expert, Pandurang Mhaske, said that the situation was worrisome for rural labour. “Look at the onion crop. Half of it was washed out due to unseasonal rain. As a result, there is less work for agricultural labourers in north Maharashtra. They are not skilled and do not have the same options as those from cities do. Limited opportunities and an unlimited labour force has brought down the rate of labour in rural areas,” he said.
Labour activists has been raising the issue of falling wages and have requested the state government to intervene. Uday Bhat, a trade unionist from the Shramik Sangh said that the unorganised sector has got a raw deal. “Nobody is willing to fight for them. It is why these reduced rates for labour have been pushed forcefully. In this situation, the role of state government is important. It should intervene and ask the labour lobby to maintain wages," said Bhat.
An ill-advised lockdown has already broken the back of labourers. However, the ‘Unlock’ phase has not been kind either.