Remote work is not an option in India’s huge informal economy

At risk.
At risk.
Image: REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee
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In bright red text, an advisory on ‘Social Distancing’ began flashing on India’s health ministry website under ‘Novel Corona Virus’ on Monday evening, urging people to maintain a distance of one meter between customers and avoid non-essential travel. This measure, the document explains, is to “stop or slow down the rate and extent of” coronavirus transmission, which has so far infected at least 137 people in India and killed three that we know about.

Kalla Ram is 68. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment with his three sons in Delhi. There are hundreds of others who live like him in close quarters, no more than a few feet away. He leaves home early every morning on his rickshaw, and ferries passengers to and fro, interacting with at least two dozen of them and earning about Rs400-500 per day ($5.40-6.75). He’s the sole breadwinner in his household, even supporting extended family hundreds of miles away in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh in central India, where he grew up.

Remote work, which private Indian companies are promoting as a way to prevent community transmission of Covid-19, isn’t an option for him. “What will I eat if I sit at home?” he asks. Dressed in a green shirt and with a patchy stubble covering his wrinkled face, he added: “I have to pay rent and earn enough to take care of my children.”

The rent sets him back Rs2700 ($36) per month. The schools have been shut, but his children are receiving tuition at home. “I have to make sure I have money to pay for that as well,” he added.

90% of India’s workforce, millions of people like Ram, are in the informal sector—either self-employed or casual labor—with no minimum wages, no social security, and no option of missing work.

“The government advisories on social distancing assume white-collar middle-class workers, and within that, a subset that does not use public transport, which tends to be congested and usually overcrowded,” Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), told Quartz.

“We are talking about the majority of the population in most urban areas, not just a small section. And such people usually also provide essential services to the better off, so an inability to protect them will impact on everyone,” she added.

The country is currently in stage 2 (local transmission) of the coronavirus outbreak, according to Balram Bhargava, the director-general of the Indian Council of Medical Research. At a press conference on Tuesday, he urged private laboratories to offer Covid-19 testing free of cost and said symptomatic people who come in close contact with laboratory-confirmed coronavirus cases must be tested.

India is currently testing only those with symptoms who have recently travelled abroad or have come in contact with a “laboratory-confirmed positive case,” so there is no real evidence of how the country is performing in containing the virus.

Though the government has stepped up its awareness drive, advising citizens to frequently wash hands, cover their nose and mouth while sneezing and coughing, and avoid large gatherings, most people are living just as they did before the pandemic struck India.

“Look, everyone is just out and about, and so are we,” said 45-year-old Sunita Kanojia who has been running a roadside ironing stall in Delhi for 18 years. “God knows what this virus is,” she exclaimed when questioned about Covid-19, adding: “Some are saying it’s spread by air, some are asking to be careful of the water we drink. All I know is that all schools and some offices have been shut.”

As she presses a pink kurta, it is clear that Kanojia’s 17-year-old daughter knows hardly anything about the symptoms or the spread of the deadly respiratory disease, which has infected over168,000 people globally, wreaked havoc on economies, and forced several countries to shut borders. “They [the school authorities] just asked us to stop coming in,” she said, but was unsure of the exact reason for it. “So I’ve been helping out my mother with ironing.”

The government doesn’t say much about people like Ram or Kanojia in its advisories. ”Meetings, as far as feasible, shall be done through video conferences. Minimize or reschedule meetings involving a large number of people unless necessary,” reads one such instruction.

“It’s actually quite shocking to see the extreme upper-class/middle-class bias in the official advisories,” Ghosh said. “There’s absolutely nothing in there for a slum dweller who is engaged in manual work or basic services in a crowded location—yet these are the majority of urban workers.”

“There’s also nothing about how to deal with those who are more vulnerable—elderly people, those with disabilities or pre-existing conditions (asthma is common) etc.,— in congested locations. Surely public health officials need to visit such locations, experience the actual conditions and then advise about how to prevent or cope with the spread of the virus?”

When most people do not have any form of social protection to help them cope in material terms, “some income support is essential,” according to Ghosh. “This is the time for an immediate cash transfer to self-employed, casual and informal workers who are either laid off or cannot/should not expose themselves, to prevent further spread and to ensure their survival.”

Shahid Khan, a tailor, had a better grasp Covid-19 than the rickshaw driver and the garment presser. “We have to use a sanitiser, buy a hand wash, wear a mask, and maintain distance from someone who coughs or sneezes,” he narrated with a smile.

Dressed in a pink shirt and fawn pants, the 24-year-old sat operating his sewing machine by the side of the road, surrounded by kurtas and shirts waiting to be altered. A plastic box containing colored threads lay near his feet. He focused on cutting two inches off a pair of pants using a vintage instrument, which bore the name ‘Firoz.’ “It belongs to my father,” he explained. Hooking a black thread to the sewing needle, Khan brought his fingers closer to the metal plate and began moving the fabric forward, pausing occasionally to adjust the hand wheel. But knowing about the disease may not help him much.

“The kind of work that we do, we don’t have the option of staying at home,” he said, adding: “Those who work on their computer can do it, but we have to use this machinery and come here every day.”