Open Letter to Workers on COVID-19

On the Coercive Measures Taken by the Governments and Capitalists against Stranded Migrant Labour

coronavirus migration

Comrades and Friends,

The steps taken by the Central Government on the movement of stranded labour within the states and union territories by issuing a Standard Operating Protocol (SOP) is a death knell for the rights of workers. Let us unite against those taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to trap us workers more than ever before.

What is the circular about? This circular issued by the MHA on April 19 is making it legitimate that workers can be moved around within the state we are in for the production of the maaliks to continue. We are being told we can’t return to our own states. This circular means that we workers do not have any choice except for abiding by the orders of the government. Experience shows that we will be coerced to work with the maaliks getting the support of the local administration and police. And that coercion has already begun! Would it be wrong to say that the measures being taken against the Covid-19 pandemic is the beginning of slave labour in India?

Today people can’t move from one town to another be it from Mumbai to Pune, Ludhiana to Jallandar, Cuttack to Koraput or Coimbatore to Chennai.  But for the necessity of production and profit, workers are being forcibly moved.

The so-called proposed skill mapping, as mentioned in the circular, will push down workers wages or can even declare us ineligible for work. Is there any mechanism available for workers to defend themselves?  Indeed, this SOP is in violation of Article 23A of the Constitution. By forcing migrants to work based on skill mapping, the government is equating us with prisoners who are treated similarly.

They claim to provide work but what will be the wages and benefits? There is talk that workers will have to live inside the factories. Will our children and other family members in the relief camps be left to starve and die? Neither our families in the camps nor we in the work places will be free to leave because our  mobility is curbed anyway in the name of the corona virus. Today workers are being made into prisoners to continue production for the maaliks and made to bear greater hardships than ever before.

Workers cannot be forced to compulsorily work away from homes and families. In this lockdown period, capital and state are working hand-in-glove to command labour on their terms while also posing as messiahs! They know too well that migrants are the cheapest and most easily manipulated labour.

Where is the free choice for us workers? Let workers decide!

Comrades, already the mandatory 12-hours workday has been announced. We have seen what is called zero-employment growth in the last three decades. There’s increased use of mechanization and automation in many sectors, including construction and agriculture. Even before the Covid-19 crisis, the unemployment rate was at a 45-year high. With repeated lockdowns and uncertainty looming in the global scenario as well as Indian economy, this rate would have soared higher today. We would rather want a 6-hour day with 3 shifts a day so that there is employment for the majority of us.

The CMIE states that unemployment rate right now is 23.4%. Therefore we need a massive recruitment drive in different sections of the economy – food, water accessibility, public healthcare, public education, public transport, affordable housing, public sanitation and so on. This will increase the much-needed employment as well as make public services accessible to people.

The government has appealed' andurged’ the employers to not fire employees. That is not enough. The government has to both incentivize this and supplement with part-payment. Let the government announce punitive measures for employers who do not abide by this.

More importantly, we need money in the hands of all who have suffered the impact of the lockdown. This is a dire need not only because of justice and atonement for the injustice meted out to us but also from the point of view of the economy and the `market’.  Economists have pointed out before the Covid-19 crisis that the purchasing power of the poor and working classes has been severely compromised.

Where will the money come from? How about taxing the rich through property taxes, wealth tax, increasing corporate tax, environmental tax, increasing taxes on alcohol, cigarettes and other luxury items of the rich? How about the government recovering unpaid taxes? Let revenues be generated from those who have more than their means to pay at this crisis hour at least.

Indeed, the real reason of forcing migrant workers to stay back is not from health concerns. The government has ensured that pilgrims and students have been sent back with special arrangements, whereas migrant workers have faced police repression and humiliation. A class offensive from the ruling classes is going on with the sole interest of smooth operation of production, as and when required, by taking advantage of the crisis.

The handling of migrant workers, the proposal of having a 12-hour working day and the hurried passage of 3 labour codes via ordinance bypassing the Parliament, the proposal of GCCI (Gujarat Chamber of Commerce) to ban unions for one year, reduction and non-payment of salaries and making more use of the tactics of hire and fire is becoming the norm.

The  government makes no pretence that migrant workers are citizens with rights. The SOP openly says that the inmates of the camps are to be “skill mapped” for their suitability for various jobs. Then they will be screened and if found asymptomatic then they will be transported to different places of work. Are we workers expected to get into the buses like cattle or sheep and do their bidding? Isn’t this brazen abduction of workers into forced labour!

They have made sure that the majority of us do not have any proof that we are workers of a particular employer or contractor. So now there has to be a mechanism by the government whereby written contracts between worker and employer become mandatory for the employers on recruitment. The government must monitor and document the flow of willing workforce in production and ensure the strict compliance of labour laws regarding payment of wages, working conditions, transport, shelter and other facilities/benefits, and this information should be shared with unions and workers organizations as per demand. The government must provide special mechanism to swiftly settle the disputes/complains/queries of workers arising in this process.

Finally, all stranded workers should be given the option to return and stay in their respective villages and towns if they want to return. Arrangements should be made to return home and lessen their own mental tension. Just as workers are going to be medically checked up before being sent for work the same can be done before sending them to their villages and towns.

Let us work towards a greater unity and write a Workers’ Charter of Demands to send to Employers – big and small – and the Governments, to tell them what it is that workers want today!

Long Live the Unity of the Working Class!  Oppose Forced Labour in the Name of the Pandemic!! Fight for Workers’ Consent and Workers’ Demands!!


Migrant Workers Solidarity is a network for the rights of India’s migrant workers, presently engaged in providing relief and related updates to workers stranded in COVID-19 lockdown.

[email protected]




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