A crisis of capital: Why migrant workers can’t be ‘managed’ with food and money

The media deprives migrant workers of agency while the Indian state uses them to ‘manage’ the middle class.

The Covid-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on migrant workers. Perhaps never before in recent history have they received so much media coverage.

The mainstream media, which has often ignored migrants as “invisible” workers, has seemingly turned a leaf and published a barrage of reports on the problems they are facing during the lockdown, from having to walk home to conditions in relief camps to the lack of shelter and food.

At other times, the media rarely pays attention to workers’ problems. Even strikes by workers are reported as a “traffic nuisance” or “mob violence” that needs to be curbed. Of course, with the emergence and growth of the public-paid, subscription-driven independent media, things have taken a slight turn.

If we look at the recent coverage of migrant workers, certain patterns emerge.

Most reports highlight “migrant workers” as a homogenous group of victims. Almost all the coverage of the current situation attempts to evoke “sympathy” towards the workers, and appeals for support. It often works: various NGOs and concerned individuals on social media have raised donations and organised resources to feed migrant workers.

However, no one points out that capitalism continues to keep migrant workers in their constant “hand to mouth” state of existence so that their labour power can continue to be exploited for profit.

Second, almost all the coverage – even reports by “progressive” outlets that claim to make the invisible “visible” — continue to cover migrant workers as if they have no capacity to think or resist on their own. It suggests that an “outer agency” needs to come and tell the workers what to do. This portrays migrant workers as mere receivers and consumers of information, with little or no capacity to act on their own.

For instance, in case of the gathering of workers in Bandra, the first question asked by the mainstream media was: “who provoked the migrant workers to come to the bus depot?” There were suggestions that the media and the administration had failed in not “managing” the workers.

These speculations and conspiracy theories constantly flood primetime debates and news reports. Almost all “solidarity” actions focus on the bare minimum, such as food being distributed to the workers. However, migrant workers have defied these approaches, as evidenced by them flooding the streets of Surat, or coming out in Bandra or Ghaziabad, demanding they be sent home.

Media reports also tend to see the current crisis as “temporary” — something that should be managed in the short term. None of them see it as a crisis of capital and the system.

Even the demands raised by activists and the media – for food rations, or cash disbursals – highlight this short-term thought process. Instead, as this piecepoints out, “Economists and social activists had been demanding a universal income support of Rs 7,000 per household per month for at least two months for the bottom 80 percent households, to tide over the crisis. Similar demands had been made by trade unions, women’s organisations and many political parties.”

What many fail to realise is that the Covid-19 pandemic is just a manifestation of a capitalist crisis. It had laid bare the unpreparedness of the capitalist system and the Indian state to deal with such a crisis.

Some reports are cautious and warn the Indian state that the migrant workers might not return to cities to work, which will have disastrous consequences on the Indian economy. This clearly highlights that managing the crisis is not for the sake of the migrant workers, but to sustain the system that brought forth the crisis in the first place.

Putting the wage issue at the centre

The Covid-19 crisis has brought the issues of migrant workers to the forefront. The pandemic has made it evident that we need a fundamental reorganisation of the system and how the world of work is organised. Instead of temporary, superficial solutions, greater attention must be paid to creating a robust system of safety nets, decent wages, and better working conditions.

Migrant workers in India are among the most exploited. In India, the minimum wage averages about Rs 178 a day. The majority of the workers don’t receive even that. This enables the system to constantly create and sustain a pool of labour reserve that will have to continue to work for sustenance wages.

Almost 85 percent of the economy comprises the informal sector, with little or no social safety net. The bare minimum that they earn is not enough to have a decent living. Thus, questions should be raised on why the migrant workers continue to get exploited. Demands should be made for the formalisation of informal labour, better wages, and social security, so the workers have resources to fall back on in times of crisis.

In India, the whole economy is built on “cheap labour”. The differences in class, the presence of cheap migrant labour to deliver essential services, and so on enables the Indian state to manage a crisis like Covid-19. For example, if there was no migrant worker to deliver groceries needed by the middle class, then the middle class would erupt in anger, leading to an unmanageable situation.

Needless to say, this is why the media has been calling for urgently “managing” the migrant worker crisis. Perhaps, they know that if not “managed” well, the workers will erupt in anger – as they did recently – potentially disrupting the status quo of privilege.

Projecting migrant workers as victims not only soothes the neoliberal philanthropic sense of the elite, but also arms the state to control situations. The workers are manageable only as victims. If not treated as victims, they are projected as crude bombs ready to explode, albeit erratically.

There needs to be a fundamental shift from “victimhood” in order to demonstrate the agency of labour and relate it to the crisis of capital. The questions of “decent wage” and “structural questions” should be put at the centre of this discourse.

(This piece was published as an opinion piece in Newslaundry here. )

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