With no safety net, unorganised sector workers are yet to recover

Domestic help, security guards, housekeeping staff, and street vendors among other workers fear a second wave

The national lockdown wrecked livelihoods of people, especially those working in the unorganised sector whose lives are yet to return to normal. “People working as security guards, drivers, and as housekeeping staff have been completely wiped out, as offices haven’t reopened fully yet,” said Gayathri Vasudevan, chairperson, LabourNet. The second wave of COVID-19 and fears of another lockdown will mean further delay in revival of these sectors.

Sadashiva, who used to work as a driver with a corporate firm but lost his job, first took to selling vegetables in an autorickshaw once lockdown restrictions were eased. But he returned to his village in Tumakuru district as he was unable to eke out a living in Bengaluru.

Shantha Kumari, a supervisor in a housekeeping firm, has the onerous task of letting people go. “We have had no business for a year. Our employer is forcing us to fire people working with us,” she said.

Unlike auto and taxi drivers, barbers and some others who received compensation from the government, people like Shantha Kumari and Sadashiva had no safety net.

Ruth Manorama of Karnataka Gruha Karmikara Sangha said the COVID-19 pandemic had hit domestic workers hard and exposed the heartlessness of their employers. “While families asked domestic workers not to come to work, they stopped paying them as well. Hopefully, that trend doesn’t start again with the second wave,” she said.

One sector where the damage to livelihood has been recorded – to an extent – is the garment sector. Labour Minister A. Shivaram Hebbar recently informed the Assembly that more than one lakh women workers previously employed in the garment sector ‘are yet to rejoin work’ after lockdown as several factories haven’t reopened yet.

Those that have opened are reportedly forcing employees to resign, according to a recent study by Garments and Textiles Workers’ Union.

Ms. Manorama observed that job loss among domestic workers, sex workers, garment workers and construction workers has only led to an increase in domestic violence against women and children.

A group that was severely hit by the pandemic was sex workers, who only recently staged a protest in Bengaluru against police brutality. Along with loss of livelihood, many faced abuse.

“We are essentially daily wage workers. The lockdown and the pandemic hit us really hard. The government did not give us any relief package. Our trade was slowly picking up, but the rise in cases has already hit us,” said Bharathi, a sex worker. She added that ‘police harassment hasn’t stopped, and we are now being blamed for spreading COVID-19’.

Meanwhile, street vendors face a peculiar problem. “Those who shifted to buying produce and staples online during the lockdown a year ago haven’t returned to us. Those who have come back to us drive a hard bargain expecting steep discounts as they are habituated to getting deals online,” said S. Babu, president, Federation of Bengaluru District Street Vendors’ Association.

One sector that bucked the trend was the home delivery sector, which saw a boom and rise in demand for delivery partners on apps. However, delivery partners complain of ‘insane work pressure and meagre incentives’.

“The delivery platforms are doing roaring business, but that has only translated into bad work conditions for us,” said Tejas Kumar, a food delivery partner in the city.

(This is the second of a series on how the pandemic has affected the lives of people across sectors a year after the lockdown)

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