Citizens for Justice and Peace

Covid-19 and the egregious condition of the working class Dealing with starvation and the struggle for survival

17, Oct 2020 | Safiyat Naseem

The current unprecedented crisis of the Covid-19 epidemic is not only a medical emergency but also a crisis for economy and employment, where the worst hit are indubitably the vulnerable workers and laborers. The fortuitous are the ones that get the luxury to work from home, follow the norms of social distancing and are nonchalant to the cascading effects of the epidemic, where as it is enervating for the workers to constantly fight for their survival while getting exposed to either the virus or starvation.

The laws and policies made to assist the workers are dubious and not felicitous apropos the current pandemic, the workers are fighting constantly in order to perform due diligence with respect to the safety measures and to follow the nationwide lockdown in the current staggering situation, and this all reverts back to the mismanagement of the States that are undoubtedly oblivion to the misery of workers.

The Corona Virus that irrupted from Wuhan, China[1] and has spread to 213[2] countries and territories till now has changed the face of the earth. The virus that transmits from one infected person to other by air droplets has not only hit us hard on the respiratory system but also our realisation that the world is not ready for such pandemics. The disease itself isn’t the only problem that the states are dealing with, but the unemployment, economic loss and lack of education facilities, deficiency in the healthcare system, are some of the cascading effects. The crisis has affected the laborer and working class the most.

After the lockdown, many migrant labourers were forced to choose between two extremely difficult options; continue to stay in expensive cities where expenses kept mounting and income sources dried up, or go back home to their families in their villages, but face an uncertain economic future. While CJP has supplied rations and essentials to thousands of migrant labourers who both stayed on and some of those who left, our challenge is now, in a post lockdown solution, help find short and long term solutions, with them. Our series Migrant Diaries brings to you stories of the ordeals they were forced to face as they took an arduous journey back home, and some stories of those who stayed back. Please donate now to help our migrant brothers and sisters. CJP hopes to evolve collective solutions and programmes with them, in the coming weeks.


More than the disease itself, the hunger, unemployment and crushing of their Human Rights by a ruthless society have killed them. The government has failed to address their plight and to provide them with their basic needs.  According to a Smartphone location data analysed by The New York Times[3], many low wage workers can be seen moving around in the cities across America, while those with good incomes stay home and limit their exposure to the virus. The vulnerability faced by the sanitisation staff, the house service, the security guards, delivery man, etc, that come under “essential service providers” is more than ever. While the middle class stays home and maintains social distancing, the lower class doesn’t have the privilege of “work from home”. They are left with either exposing themselves to the deadly virus or dying from starvation; they are now stuck between, a well in front and a cliff behind. This doesn’t end here, the situation of unorganized sector is even worse, in India, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE)[4] survey data states that more than a hundred million workers have lost employment, with the loss of minimum wages, many of them have set out to go back to their hometowns with no money, empty bellies and on foot to walk thousands of kilometers, due to lockdown and no transportation.

A majority of India’s workers are classified as informal workers. These migrant laborers can be referred as “proletarians of the proletariats” because they are different from the formal working class and don’t have much recognition in the society. They don’t have basic security for food, shelter, incomes and rights as the elites, middle working class and salaried labor force. The working from home isn’t just an act to maintain social distancing to avoid the disease but also a luxury only available to the middle and upper class that comes with paid holidays and employment security.

Every natural disaster and Pandemics tend to irradiate and fortify the existing severance.  Peter Hall, a Government Professor at Harvard, remarked The division in our society between those of us who can keep our jobs and work from home and others who are losing their jobs or confronting the dangers of the virus … I think there’s a real chance that it could become more intense.[5] According to a survey data[6] released by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), out of all the countries surveyed, only 21% are providing sick leave to its workers, over 50% are regulating the spread of the disease with a National lockdown measures by shutting down maximum socializing areas like malls, markets, schools and essential businesses.

Deteriorating living conditions and employment

 The economic recession created by the pandemic is likely to continue even after the creation of vaccines. About fifty five percent of people all around the world, around 4 billion, do not have any social protection or job security; these are the ones most vulnerable to the effect of this deflation[7]. The lockdowns have seriously affected and incapacitated livelihoods for billions of people that don’t have shelter, living off the footpaths, spending their lives in slums, have informal accommodation and inadequate housing. The requirement for workers will keep reducing due to the collapse of equity capital and assets and business incompetency and will lead to negligible wages and job elimination[8]. The poverty rise resulting from this would be unavoidable. The number of people living in ultimate poverty this year alone could shoot up from 40 million to 60[9] million, compared to previous years[10]. According to a study the number of people in extreme poverty could raise up to 85 million, 180 and 420 million based on three situations i.e., global economic contractions of 5 percent, 10 percent and 20 percent respectively, as compared to 2018[11].

With the emerging poverty comes the increasing child labor as the family looks up to every means of survival. Results may vary in each country, but a general analysis indicates, to about 0.7% rise in child labor with every 1% rise in poverty[12].

As the world is witnessing an unprecedented crisis and the pandemic is causing an abnormal declining in the economic activity and working hours[13], it can lead to induction of children into hazardous work and their inevitable exploitation. People can be prompted into informal and exploitive work due to insufficient employment window and low wages; it will further lead to promote child labor.  Children in comparison to adults are more likely to accept hazardous work and accept suppressed wages. Businesses will take advantage of this vulnerability and will intentionally recruit children to cut cost and magnify income[14].

To soften the effect of Covid-19 and keeping in mind the health of public, many States have resorted to prominent safety measures like nationwide lockdown, quarantining, social distancing for emergency services and border closure. Unfortunately, the recent policies have been detrimental to laborer class as well as global economy, including direct disruption to supply chains, alarming drops in the requirement of imported goods and services, collapse in international tourism and business travel.

In India, around 90% of the workforce comes under informal sector, and without adequate job security, shelter and support from the Government, they are going to face much worse crisis than the pandemic itself. With ludicrous policies and measures taken by the Indian Government such as providing monetary support of merely INR 500 per month to each individual[15], that too by spending hours in queue without proper social distancing; the vulnerable and desperate labors have understood that they are alone in their sufferings.

As written by Shruti Rajgopalan and Alex Tabarrok in a policy brief to recommend steps for India to manage the pandemic, India’s Covid-19 stimulus and economic relief package is the smallest in the world, including among emerging economies, Both the Union and state governments need to announce direct cash transfers targeting a larger group.[16] The researchers at the Mercatus Centre at George Mason University in Virginia U.S, stated that India needs to increase its direct cash transfer to at least INR 3000 a month, in order to support the poor to comply with their basic needs[17].

19 years old Arif Ali, from India, who came to the Capital Delhi to work from his hometown says, “We will die of illness later, first we will die of hunger. And we won’t be dying alone. Our family back in villages will die before us…I came with a villager to Delhi to make some money. But the government should also think about us who earn day-t-day and eat day-to-day, those who work in offices will get their salary sitting at home. What will we get? Nothing…If we get nothing, then our families get nothing. It is not just the rich people who vote. We also cast votes. We also belong to this country. But nobody thinks about the poor. As if the poor don’t have dignity. We are not scared of the corona. We are scared of the government which is not helping the poor.

The increase in the number of working hours per worker and the number of workers in rural areas was noted in the Indonesian financial crisis.[18] That indicated that even with low wages and less job opportunities, the number of workers escalated, as they cannot get through this storm without income, however insignificant that may be. Amidst the crisis, the lockdown, the need for medical resources and economy loss; the cries of the poor are going unheard. Ranging from loss of income, jobs, starvation, and going back to their villages on foot to sending their children for labor, being aware of the exploitation they would face there, just to survive, the class that goes unnoticed is fighting with every threat that is possible that could lead to their extinction. The government not only needs to provide medical support to its citizens, but also provide the basic needs for the poor people. While the elite class is demanding for top-notch medical services, the poor people are just asking for basic needs necessary. The living conditions, during this pandemic are falling in even the developed countries.

As righty said by Plutarch[19], An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics”, the Government and society need to find a way to fill this gap and imbalance, now that it has widened more than the world has ever witnessed.

Every Nation is dealing with the catastrophe in its own way, with its own policies, laws and keeping in view of the available resources. Even the most developed countries like The United States of America and developing countries like India are amongst the top three worst hit countries with the highest number of cases of Covid-19[20]. It is evident in the various research data generated and even by just looking at the headlines of newspapers that the worst hit of this pandemic is always the working class regardless of the State in which they reside.

The current staggering situation and sub-par living conditions of the workers amidst the epidemic have substantiated the incapability of the States and labour laws to provide even the basic rights to the lower class. The workers are left to face the exposure to the virus alone and unfortunately the inability of the Government to fulfill even the foundational demands throws a spotlight on the question of readiness of the State in such pandemic and the efficiency of the legal system.

*The author is a Final Year, B.A.LLB (Hons) student from Jamia Millia Islamia University


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[1]World Health Organization, “COVID-19 is the infectious disease caused by the most recently discovered coronavirus. This new virus and disease were unknown before the outbreak began in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. COVID-19 is now a pandemic affecting many countries globally.”

[2] Countries where COVID-19 has spread as on July 25, 2020;

[3]Jennifer Valentino-DevriesDenise Lu and Gabriel J.X. Dance, Location Data Says It All: Staying at Home During Coronavirus Is a Luxury, The New York Times (July 25, 2020),

[4] The Wire, India’s Unemployment Rate May Have Shot Up to 23% After COVID-19 Lockdown: CMIE, (July 25, 2020);

[5] Olga Khazan, How the Coronavirus Could Create a New Working Class, The Atlantic (July 26, 2020);

[6] International Trade Union Confederation, ITUC Global COVID-19 Survey: Half of countries in lockdown as COVID-19 pandemic wreaks health and economic havoc on working people and their families;

[7]International Labor Organization, ‘Social Protection Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic in Developing Countries: Strengthening resilience by building universal social protection’, ILO, Geneva, May 2020.

[8] The World Bank expects a reduction in global remittances of 20 per cent. The World Bank, ‘World Bank Predicts Sharpest Decline in Remittances in Recent History’, Washington, DC, 22 April 2020.

[9]Laborde, D., W. Martin and R. Vos, ‘Poverty and Food Insecurity Could Grow Dramatically as COVID-19 Spreads’,‘Compared to a pre-pandemic counterfactual scenario’, IFPRI Blog: Research Post, International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC, 16 April 2020.

[10]Extreme poverty is defined as those living on less than $1.90 per day. The World Bank, ‘Poverty’, Washington, DC, 16 April 2020.

[11]United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research, ‘Estimates of the Impact of COVID-19 on Global Poverty’, UNU-WIDER, Helsinki, 2020.

[12] Some examples: -0.28 for economic activity in South Africa (Edmonds, E. V., ‘Child Labor and Schooling Responses to Anticipated Income in South Africa’, Journal of Development Economics, vol. 81, no. 2, 2006, pp. 386–414.), -0.72 for economic activity in a cross-country study (Edmonds, E. V., ‘Trade, Child Labor, and Schooling in Poor Countries’, Trade Adjustment Costs in Developing Countries: Impacts, determinants and policy responses, edited by G. Porto and B. M. Hoekman, International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank, Washington, DC, 2010).

[13]International Labor Organization, ‘ILO Monitor: COVID-19 and the World of Work’, third edition, ILO, Geneva, 29 April 2020.

[14]International Labor Organization, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, International Organization for Migration and United Nations Children’s Fund, ‘Ending Child Labor, Forced Labor and Human Trafficking in Global Supply Chains’, ILO, OECD, IOM and UNICEF, Geneva, 2019. Levison, D. ‘Is Child Labor Really Necessary in India’s Carpet Industry?’, vol. 15, Employment Department, International Labor Office, Geneva, 1996.

[15] Bloombergquint, ‘Not Rs 500, India’s Poor Need At Least Rs 3,000 A Month: George Mason University Researchers’, Quint (April 11, 2020)

[16] Id.

[17]Id at 35.

[18] Frankenberg, E., J. P. Smith and D. Thomas, ‘Economic Shocks, Wealth, and Welfare’, Journal of Human Resources, vol. 38, no. 2, 2003, pp. 280–321.

[19] Plutarch (ca. 45–120 CE) was a Greek Middle Platonist philosopher, biographer, essayist, and priest at the Temple of Apollo.

[20] World Health Organization, ‘WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard’, (as on 4th August, 2020).


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