New Delhi: Labour Minister Santosh Kumar Gangwar has asked states to ensure timely payments of wages to migrant workers and daily-wage labourers, without any pay cuts, for the period of the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, irrespective of where they are — in cities, their villages, or wherever they’ve been stopped on their long walk home.
In an interview to ThePrint, the Union minister of state with independent charge said the labour ministry was helping out the states in ensuring proper shelters, food and quarantine facilities for unorganised migrant workers.
“On the first day of the lockdown, the problem of migrant workers came to the notice of the government. Immediately, necessary instructions were passed to the states. They were told to ensure wages to workers, whether they are working or not. If any case of non-payment comes to our notice, strict action will be taken,” Gangwar said.
“Migrant workers who are in transit will be quarantined at the district level. Every state government is cooperating in this; each state is required to maintain standard protocol. This way, we can restrict the movements of persons,” he said, adding that such quarantine centres are being established at transit points and on highways to segregate potential Covid-19 patients and contain the spread of the coronavirus.
“It will be the responsibility of district magistrates and state governments to ensure wages, food and shelter,” he said.
Insecurity behind migrant workers’ exodus
Gangwar said workers leave cities only when they feel insecure.
“A worker wants employment and security, and due to the lockdown, work opportunities have dried up. That’s why they want to return to their villages,” the minister said.
“We have released funds to states to help those migrant workers in this time of crisis. There should not be a problem of funds in giving assistance to such workers,” he said.
Gangwar explained that there is a welfare fund created by the central government, in which builders have to pay a cess for construction workers’ benefit. It has around 3.5 crore workers registered with it and Rs 31,000 crore in funds. He said the government has already sent an advisory to utilise these funds to transfer money to migrant workers’ accounts, or utilise in their welfare.
He also said that PM Narendra Modi’s earlier calls for everyone to open Jan Dhan bank accounts would prove crucial now, as these accounts will be instrumental in safeguarding people economically in the face of the coronavirus threat.
Under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan scheme, the package announced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on 26 March, 20 crore Jan Dhan accounts held by women will receive Rs 500 per month for the next three months.
However, the real problem, as pointed out by an Uttar Pradesh government official who refused to be identified, is with workers in the unorganised sector.
“Those who are registered under shops and established units can be assisted, but a large number of migrant workers are not registered,” the official said.
“There will be problems for shops and small units in paying salaries due to the lockdown. These small traders don’t have large buffer windows — they usually work on 5-7 days’ credit, and their cash buffer will not last,” the official said.
Gangwar said hospitals under the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation, a statutory body under the labour ministry, have 4,000 beds across the country, and 550 ICU beds have been earmarked for coronavirus patients.
“All ESIC hospitals have been instructed to treat coronavirus patients. We have 250 ventilators, and beds all across the country,” Gangwar said.
“One of our doctors in Karnataka got infected while treating patients, but I personally have spoken to every ESIC Hospital director to assist patients,” he said.