Migrant workers make up 60% of India's workforce. Image: REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri
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- The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the world to recognise the plight of migrant workers in India.
- The Migrants Resilience Collaborative, the largest such initiative in Asia, is showing how smart collaboration can deliver cost-effective and impactful support to millions of households.
- With the right support, the model has significant potential to be scaled up across the region to build greater long-term resilience in vulnerable communities.
After a year of no income and with mounting debts, tens of thousands of migrant workers in India had just returned to cities to seek work when the COVID-19 second wave hit.
It was a crisis on top of a crisis, says Sumit Singh, Communications Manager at social enterprise Jan Sahas. As migrants turned around and began the long journey home – often on foot – they were facing a worsening hunger crisis and now, additionally, a health crisis. Unlike in the first wave, the numbers of infections and deaths were skyrocketing – even in rural areas that had been spared the worst the first time around.
“Everyone was scared,” says Singh. “And everyone has lost someone in these past few months.”
A disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities
Jan Sahas, which translates literally as ‘people’s courage’, has worked with excluded social groups in India for more than two decades, focusing on safe migration and workers’ protection as well as the prevention of sexual violence against women and children. This means that it was well-positioned to mount a swift response in early 2020 – delivering food relief in the form of dry rations to more than a million migrant and other vulnerable communities in 15 states across the country, as well as providing cash support and mental health and legal support.
About 90% of migrants lost their jobs within the first three weeks of lockdown and the immediate need was acute. Many in the Jan Sahas team took personal action by donating 10% of their salaries to buy relief material, inspiring further private-sector support. The organisation also launched a toll-free helpline to reach out to the more than 140 million desperate migrant workers across the country.
“The COVID-19 crisis has consistently been worse for vulnerable communities,” comments Jan Sahas Founder and CEO, Ashif Shaikh. “As the pandemic worsened, we’ve seen more and more people forced to choose between safety and survival, which means they are taking far greater risks to find work.”
A shift of focus to building long-term resilience
When you are in the middle of fighting a crisis, it can be hard to think about the longer-term or even the medium term; nevertheless, says Shaikh, as the pandemic stretched into months, they knew they needed to shift their focus to address the underlying resilience of migrant families in preparation for the long road to economic recovery and the possibility of multiple waves of COVID.
Realising that it could not do this alone, Jan Sahas reached out to civil society, the private sector, and government as well as more than 50 CBOs, CSOs, and worker-led groups to launch the Migrants Resilience Collaborative (MRC). An unprecedented, grassroots-led, multi-stakeholder collaboration, that is now the largest such initiative dedicated to migrant workers and their families in the whole of Asia.
“The pandemic has forced us all to collaborate more effectively, we’ve learned valuable lessons which are at work now in the MRC. This is a remarkable, effective and cost-effective model with the potential to be scaled up in other regions,” says Shaikh.
Supporting 10 million migrant workers and their families for the next five years
Building on work started in the first wave to help migrants secure transport home and then to register for social security entitlements, the MRC will focus its support on 10 million migrant households in 100 districts and cities over the next five years. The details of these families have been gathered meticulously over the past eight months and compiled into a database that gives the MRC valuable, real-time data on which to base its responses as well as to track migration patterns, enabling it to focus on the most vulnerable first.
The primary aim of the programme is to continue to deliver social security entitlements, which deliver immediate and tangible relief to migrants and their families, with longer-term security built in. This, combined with the fact that much of its work is decentralised, carried out by a cadre of community volunteers, ensures that the costs of the programme are kept low - at less than $2.5 dollars per household.
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A second major benefit of the MRC is that it is not just focusing on social security, but looking far more broadly and systemically at worker’s rights. Specifically, it seeks to work with the private sector and investors to ensure responsible recruitment and strengthen worker protections, welfare and redressal.
As Shaikh points out, this approach is already incorporated into ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) compliance that is designed to guide responsible business, “but many employers seem to overlook the social aspect,” he says.
“Yet focusing on your people is good for business. We are trying to establish a norm where companies and regulatory bodies can focus on worker protection by first establishing a clear-cut case for business.”
Migrants are not beneficiaries but active and important players in the economy
A third and critical pillar of the MRC is that it seeks to reframe the role of migrant workers, not as beneficiaries of aid but as active participants in the economy. As such, they deserve to own the development process and the MRC seeks, wherever possible, to place migrants in a decision-making role.
“Migrant workers have built India’s economy,” says Shaikh. “They make up 60% of the workforce. Given this, they urgently need and deserve more support and recognition.
“The world watched in horror last year as tens of thousands of migrants were abandoned during lockdowns and left to walk long distances home. We can’t afford to look away any more. The time to scale up support for this vulnerable and essential community of workers is now.”
For more information or to support the work that the MRC is doing, visit www.jansahas.org/mrc
This is part of a series of articles published by the World Economic Forum’s COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs on the Indian response to the COVID-19 second wave. The Alliance is hosted by the Schwab Foundation and includes 86 leaders in social entrepreneurship, who collectively support an estimated 100,000 entrepreneurs like Jan Sahas.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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