As migrant workers return home, lack of workforce hits businesses in Delhi
With a large number of migrant workers returning to their hometowns amid the ongoing nationwide lockdown, a massive workforce shortage has hit the operations in industrial, transport and other sectors, which reopened after an almost two-month hiatus, according to various trade associations.
Traders’ bodies estimate that nearly 60-70% of the labour force employed in Delhi left the city during the lockdown imposed to halt the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).
The Delhi government is likely to conduct a study on how many migrants have left the Capital and the impact of their exodus on different sectors.
The workers who have returned to their hometowns are from both skilled and unskilled sectors and include those engaged as machine operators in factories, loaders, drivers, housekeeping staff, as well as those involved in packaging, construction workers, hand-embroidery workers, salespersons and security guards, among others.
Business owners from the industrial, wholesale and retail, and transport sectors, and those who run small eateries and restaurants say that with a large chunk of workforce gone, the lockdown-hit business that was slowly picking up has been adversely affected.
“Over 70% of the total workforce has already left the city. Local workers and those who come from neighbouring NCR towns such as Sonepat, Ghaziabad, Ballabhgarh, and Noida account for just about 20% of the total workforce. Of the local workforce, many are facing movement issues given the restrictions on state borders and only 8-10% of the workforce has been able to rejoin work in the last few weeks. As a result, compared to pre-lockdown days, only 5-7% of the usual business activity has taken place given that there is already very low demand and supply,” Praveen Khandelwal, general secretary, Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), said.
He added that the government must conduct a study on this mass reverse migration and come up with a consolidated policy to ensure social security and health cover for migrant workers in the future. “We have written to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs to look into the impact of the workers’ exodus on the economy and find ways to stabilise it,” he said.
According to the data shared by the Delhi government, nearly three lakh migrant workers, who were stranded in the city after the nationwide lockdown came into force on March 25 rendering many jobless, have left Delhi in over 250 Shramik Special trains. According to government officials, at least 4.5 lakh people have requested the state government to send them back to their home towns and more trains are scheduled to leave Delhi in the next week.
Delhi has not seen such a large-scale exodus of migrant workers in the last few decades. Soon after the lockdown was announced, a large number of migrant workers had started walking towards the city borders and the bus terminals to go back to their home states — mostly Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, West Bengal, and Odisha, among others. While several workers set out on foot, undertaking long, arduous journeys over several hundred kilometres, the Central and state governments later made arrangements to ferry workers home in the special trains.
Due to the unprecedented manpower crunch, various factory units have also been hit. At Bawana industrial complex, around 6,000 factory units of the approximately 14,000 factories that are mostly involved in manufacturing plastic products, auto parts, and cardboard have resumed operations. “Earlier about 2 lakh people worked here. Now, there are only around 70,000 workers still around, which means that about 60% of workers have returned home. Our businesses have already been hit because of low demand, and not having enough people to work has just added to the challenge,” Rajeev Goyal, president, Bawana Manufacturers’ Industrial Welfare Association, said.
Wholesale markets such as Khari Baoli and Naya Bazar where food grains and spices are sold are also feeling the heat of the migrants’ exodus. Naresh Gupta, president, Delhi Grain Merchants’ Association, said that even though shops in such markets deal in essential commodities and were open throughout the lockdown period, over 70% of the workers here left. “On average, of the 10 workers employed at one unit, only two or three workers are still here. From the supervising and management staff to those engaged in loading and unloading products, there are just a few workers. Now it takes us two to three days to clean, segregate and load stacks of grains, which used to be a day’s job earlier. We have also started receiving some interstate orders now, but with limited people, it has only added to the work pressure,” Gupta added.
Daily operations at wholesale vegetable markets such as Azadpur Mandi have also suffered. Anil Malhotra, member, Agriculture Produce Market Committee, said most of the workers here left after some Covid-19 cases were reported at the mandi. “The workers were scared and left the city the first chance they got. Only about 35-40% of the workforce is left here now. Trucks stay lined up for hours as there are only a few men to unload the produce. This has added to the losses mounting already,” Malhotra said.
According to the Delhi government, at least 25 cases have been reported from the mandi so far.
Shop owners at retail markets are also trying to run their businesses smoothly even as many from the housekeeping staff, assisting salespersons, tailors, guards and even parking attendants have left town. “We will face a huge problem when more customers start pouring in. We haven’t been able to start proper parking arrangements at the market as there are no attendants, and hiring new people has also become difficult,” Ashwani Marwah, general secretary of traders’ association at Lajpat Nagar, said.
Even the transport sector is not untouched. Pradeep Singhal, chairman, All India Transporters’ Welfare Association, said the transport business has suffered huge losses because of the labour shortage. “Since the initial lockdown, we have been working on 40% efficiency, and now with most labourers gone, we have come down to 30% efficiency. At times, when trucks with goods are ready to leave, there are no drivers available to transport them. The limited staff ends up doing multiple shifts often,” Singhal said.
Brajesh Goyal, the convener of the traders and industries wing of the Aam Aadmi Party, confirmed that about 60%-70% of the total workforce has left the city. “The situation is becoming tough. Several migrants who remain in the city will also leave soon. We have been encouraging traders to ensure proper facilities for the available workers who are already demanding higher wages. The government is planning to set up a committee to address these issues.”
A Delhi government spokesperson said the workers’ exodus will adversely impact the economy, and the government will soon conduct an assessment for the same. “The process of migration is continuing, and the lockdown has just been lifted. It will take a while to assess the impact on different sectors. The government will be undertaking a study in the matter eventually,” the spokesperson said.
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