Coronavirus: the labor shortage is hampering the recovery in India

Coronavirus: la pénurie de main d'œuvre entrave la reprise en Inde

Mumbai | in Spite of the promises of increase, indian companies are struggling to make back the millions of migrant workers who have fled the cities in the beginning of the epidemic, and fear, always the coronavirus, which hampers the recovery of the economy.

Employees in all sectors of activity, from the building to the textile, these workers come from the poorest regions of the country constitute the backbone of the third largest economy in Asia.

The confinement ordered at the end of march to stem the pandemic has thrown on the roads, crowds of these workers, who, while deprived of work, had no other choice than to return to their villages with their families. An exodus that has left many dead.

The skyscrapers of Mumbai, for example, have been built by workers from much poorer countries, such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Odisha, which provide also normally an abundant workforce of security guards, cooks or maids.

The authorities of the State of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, estimate that 80% of workers in the CONSTRUCTION industry have left the capital and financial when the construction sites are stopped at the spring.

Four months later, as the restrictions start to be lifted, some workers have returned, but more than 10 000 sites remain quasi-stationary, due to lack of manpower.

Free airline tickets

“We will do our best to make the return of migrant workers, including giving them plane tickets, health insurance against the COVID-19 (…), medical consultations weekly,” says AFP Rajesh Prajapati, a real estate developer.

“But this has so far changed nothing.”

The group Hiranandani, a giant of the real estate, continued to pay its workers during the containment – which is rare – and had a bit more success to keep its workforce.

But he managed to convince them that about 30% of its 4500 workers stay on construction sites.

“We take care of them, we take care of their food, their safety, provide them with sanitary facilities. We even have cribs mobiles for the children”, told AFP the co-founder of the group, the billionaire Niranjan Hiranandani.

In the Face of the nosedive of the economy, prime minister Narendra Modi moved quickly to remove restrictions for business, even as the epidemic accelerates in India, with nearly a million and a half cases.

More than 31 000 people have succumbed to the COVID-19 in the country, the sixth sheet the highest in the world. Many experts also believe these figures under-valued.

In spite of the relaxation of restrictions, the economists are pessimistic for the indian companies, faced with financial difficulties, to stop projects, and so the shortage of labor.

Orders textile deferred

Demand for real estate collapsed by nearly 90 % in Mumbai.

“The sector is doubly penalized, first by the decline in demand, and the other by the shortage of workers”, explains to the AFP Pankaj Kapoor, managing director of the consultancy firm based in Bombay Liases Foras.

And it fears a worsening of the crisis, noting that the slowdown in construction sites and sales also has an impact on the credits that are not granted by the lenders.

The prospects are no better in other sectors.

Aseem Kumar, secretary general of the Association of exporters of textile of Rajasthan, described to AFP one sector “in shambles”.

His organization represents 300 workshops exporting garments to Europe, the United States or Japan. Many companies have promised their workers housing, insurance, or an increase of 20 % to convince them to return to work, but without much success.

“Most of the orders have been carried forward to the next season because there is more labor available,” he says.

The chaos in transport in addition, as many workers who are ready to return to work despite the fear of contamination – and they are many – can’t do it.

Shambu, a construction worker back in the State of Odisha, says to AFP that his family is at the edge of the abyss since he fled Bombay, forced to live with 200 rupees (2.20 euros) per week.

“Half of the people I know are ready to return to work if the trains begin to move,” says this worker, 27-year-old who, like many Indians has only one name.

“It is better to go work in a big city than to die of hunger with nothing to do in his village.”

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