Fear grips India vast informal workforce as vaccines run low
By Anuradha Nagaraj, Roli Srivastava
CHENNAI/MUMBAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indian developer Satish Magar has managed to get 700 of his construction workers vaccinated against COVID-19 in the last month, and he hopes to do the same for another 2,000 in May.
Magar wants all his workers to have the vaccine as India grapples with a catastrophic surge in coronavirus cases that has overwhelmed hospitals and morgues, with oxygen in short supply.
“We have explained the importance of getting vaccinated to them,” said Magar, the national president of the Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Association of India (CREDAI).
“If they don’t get vaccinated, one infection can lead to an outbreak in labour camps,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Pune in western India, where he runs a construction business specialising in housing.
India’s vast army of informal workers was hit hard by a strict lockdown enforced last year that left many out of work and forced those who had migrated to cities for jobs to make long journeys home to their villages, often on foot.
As the country suffers a fresh wave they are again facing an impossible choice - go out to work and risk catching the disease, or stay home and lose their wage.
As most of India’s around 400 million informal workers are young, the majority have not yet been vaccinated - under-45s will only qualify from Saturday, when the government opens eligibility to all adults.
In all, only about 9% of a population of 1.4 billion have received a vaccine dose since January, and stocks in some states are already low. Authorities have said inoculation centres in the financial capital of Mumbai will shut for three days from Friday.
Some workers told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they were unsure whether they should be vaccinated, and many have expressed concerns about side-effects or loss of wages from time taken off work.
“It has not proven to be successful yet, so I have decided to wait,” said 43-year-old contractor Santosh Sahu. “There is no work in any case in the foreseeable future, what will I take the shot for?”
To counter the challenge, businesses are coordinating with government to run awareness programmes and mobile health vans, and organising vaccine tie-ups with private hospitals.
India’s chief labour commissioner D P S Negi said the country’s informal workers were a priority.
“I told all regional officers that all workers should be taken care of and vaccinated,” he said.
Ganga Sekar, a co-ordinator at labour rights organisation FEDINA, said the fear was “very palpable” at a workers’ meeting held on Wednesday.
“The vaccines are going to become mandatory for workers if they want to keep their jobs, but how they will get the shot is unclear,” she said.
“While managements have said they will organise vaccine camps at factories, workers over 45 years who have already been vaccinated were expected to return to work or lose wages if they took a day off to deal with side effects like fever.”
FEDINA has since launched a helpline to provide workers who have tested positive with basic information, connect them to doctors and provide oxymeters, thermometers and food.
Bharti, who works in a garment factory in the southern city of Bengaluru, stayed home in fear after falling sick with a fever earlier this month despite protecting herself on her commute to work with masks and hand sanitizer.
The 43-year-old, who asked to be identified only by her first name, has since recovered. But her daughter Pooja said she worried about how she would get the vaccine.
“We will be eligible for the shot from May 1, but we are yet to figure out how to register on the government app. We will take help from the union maybe,” said Pooja, 23.
The Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) has asked its more than 9,000 members to prioritise vaccination and health care for employees and their families.
“Everyone has learnt from last year’s experience,” said a senior member of the CII COVID-19 vaccination task force who asked not to be named.
“We are telling them (workers) to hang in there and let us take care of things. We are in talks with the government to ensure access to vaccines for workers.”