Work from home, no panacea for the pandemic

Remote working a remote concept for over 90 pc Indian workers


July 28, 2020

/ By / New Delhi

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Health personals and those in allied services cannot be remote workers (MIG photos/Varsha Singh)

Over the past four months, Indian government, ably assisted by several corporate leaders, has falsely been projecting work from home as the panacea for dealing with coronavirus pandemic. A very large majority of Indians cannot work from home and have been left behind.

Lalban, 46, and Baisakhu, 48, are from Umaria district on the eastern fringes of Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India. Earlier this year, they both left their village to work in Pune. However, barely a few weeks after they had begun working on a road project in the city, the lockdown was announced and it brought the road construction, like practically every other activity in the country, to a complete halt.

“When the work came to a halt, we asked our employer what was to be done. He asked us to wait for a few weeks as the lockdown was meant to be only for three weeks. However, it got extended and we waited in the rented room in Pune for over a month. But by then all our earnings from Pune had gotten over and we were left with no choice but to hit the road and try to walk back to our village, even though it is over 1200 km from Pune,’’ they say.

In India, there were tens of millions of workers like Lalban and Baisakhu who had to leave their jobs and head back to their village once the lockdown was announced and their workplaces shut down. Talk of work from home is a cruel joke to the hundreds of millions of Indian workers who have been terribly impacted by the lockdown and the subsequent meltdown of the Indian economy as it continues its downward slide without respite.

Unfortunately for workers like Lalban and Baisakhu, work from home has been marketed as a panacea and the only solution by the government for curbing the pandemic from spreading. They were soon joined in the chorus by leading industry associations and several business leaders. Indeed, in the first few weeks following the lockdown, several studies were published citing the varied benefits of working from home. People saving hours on daily commute which they would gainfully spend with their families and thus restoring the work-life balance. Since transportation is one of the biggest causes of pollution and global warming, work from home was good not just for humans, but also for the planet.

Work from home is not a new concept. From the pre-industrial period to the modern day, there have been millions of people gainfully employed at their own homes, involved in small entrepreneurial activities like stitching or embroidery, or artisans making handicrafts, among others. However, for over two centuries a large part of the world was involved in activities that made work from home an impossibility as work could only be done from the workplace.

But in today’s India, the number of people who could work remotely is a fraction of the total workforce. The Indian economy depends largely on the unorganised sector. However, as it turns out it is the most neglected one. According to labour ministry’s data 437 million of a total workforce of 465 million, or an overwhelming 94 pc, are in the unorganised sector.

These workers are the most vulnerable one’s who have little or no legal protection, jobs or social security. The unorganised sector is defined as enterprises with less than 10 workers, owned by individuals or self-employed; unorganised workers are home-based, self-employed or a daily wage worker in the unorganised sector and includes those in the organised sector but not covered under the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947.

The slums in the metros are dominated by workers in the informal economy

Thus only 6 pc of Indian workers are in the organised sector. But even for this segment of 6 pc, work from home is not feasible for all. The sectors that are ideal for telework are financial services as well as ITES, besides a few occupations like law or architects. Beyond that, workers in most of the organised economy companies face difficulties in working from home as they lack software for implementing telework. A report by Gartner, a leading IT service management company, says that 54 pc of the companies in India do not have enough technology and resources for employees to be able to work from home.

Despite possessing all the tools for ensuring that their employees are effective in work from home, the ITES firms have been pressuring the government to allow their employees to come to work. The pressure worked and the government allowed nearly half the workers of ITES firms to resume working from the office.

Tens of millions of Indians in varied professions such as MSME, hospitality, food services or even domestic maids need to be physically present at their workplace to be able to work. And most of them are on contractual work or daily wages and don’t get paid anything if they can’t work.

This is primarily the reason that over 120 million workers had lost their jobs by April, says a survey by CMIE, pointing that the pandemic’s full-blown impact on the economy was yet to be felt and that the situation has deteriorated significantly. No reliable estimates for the actual situation today are available, but the pandemic is certain to reverse the impressive gains that India had registered in the decade from 2005-2015 to lift over 270 million people out of poverty, the biggest ever mass of people that managed to escape poverty in the world. However, tens of millions have certainly slipped back into poverty in the four months of an ill-managed pandemic by a government that remains clueless on dealing with the crisis except for coming up with ridiculous ideas like applauding ‘coronawarriors’ or lighting lamps to drive away the virus.

Way back in April, Oxfam had warned that unless governments in developing countries intervened immediately, over 500 million people in the developing world could be pushed into poverty, undoing the gains of the past two decades. Work from home is just not working out for them as it is but a buzzword and fantasy for them.

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