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The State of Employment and Livelihoods in India: Trade Union Perspectives and the Way Forward amidst Coronavirus Pandemic


Arjun Kumar, Anshula Mehta, Sunidhi Agarwal, Ritika Gupta, Mahima Kapoor, Swati Solanki

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The issue of unemployment is of great relevance and it is also a matter of urgency in the present situation. Noting the significance of trade unions in propelling change with respect to employment, the Center for Work and Welfare (CWW), IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi and Counterview organized a debate on The State of Employment and Livelihoods in India: Trade Union Perspectives and the Way Forward amidst Coronavirus Pandemic under the State of Employment and Livelihood series – #Employment Debate.


Fr. Dr Denzil Fernandes, Executive Director of Indian Social Institute (ISI), New Delhi, started the discussion by speaking about people’s suffering during the pandemic due to rampant unemployment and other issues. He mentioned that the negotiating powers of the trade unions have diminished, rendering them weak. Listening to the trade union perspectives is of utmost importance as the road ahead looks difficult as far as bargaining is concerned.

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Amarjeet Kaur, General Secretary of All India Trade Union Congress, as the speaker of the discussion, specified the nature of the COVID-19 lockdown that took everyone by surprise. As the majority of the economy was put on hold, a huge number of workers in the construction, agriculture, tourism and domestic sectors lost their sources of income.

“In April 2020, every hour, 1,70,000 people were losing jobs.”

The speaker said that more than 40 crore people lost their livelihoods. The entire supply chain was also disrupted. The official reports for the ongoing year are said to be underestimated. Amarjeet Kaur says that these reports portray the unemployment rates as 9.78 per cent in rural areas and 7.13 per cent. in urban areas. Further studies in April 2021 state that 75 lakh people lost their jobs. Even after the economy opened up, people did not get jobs.

Job losses of women were relatively higher and they were major sufferers in the economy. Poverty and hunger have been increasing in the nation with soaring prices and this is reflected in the fact that India ranks 102nd out of 117 nations in the Hunger Index. Moreover, she says that changes in labour laws were made without consideration of the labourers’ situation.

In the current scenario, the skilled workers are taking up semi-skilled jobs and semi-skilled workers are taking up unskilled jobs. In addition to this, perks and benefits of workers are also being obliterated. The speaker mentioned that money was taken away from the poor and middle class and concessions were being provided to the corporate sector. Speaking of child labour, the report of UNICEF and ILO on 12th June 2021, stated that 4.9 crore children will be added to the number of child labourers. When the workers were stranded during the initial lockdown, people did not have access to enough food.

Amarjeet Kaur said “In the surveys, 96 per cent of the workers said that they did not get any ration.”

Apart from this, inequalities have risen during the pandemic due to the government’s inaction and neglect according to the speaker. She paid her homage to all the people who lost their lives and the downtrodden whose voices have been shut down. The gap between the rich and the poor has also been rising. She believes that major investments have to be made for generating employment and livelihood.

Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises have to be revived for employment opportunities to increase in the future. The minimum wages need to be protected for all workers and the workers should not be exposed to wage cuts. Universal social security and public distribution system are also pivotal for all the workers. Government should be accountable for the stability of prices and people should be guaranteed a decent standard of living. From the view of trade unions, unemployment has to be addressed so that jobs are created and money is put into the hands of the people.

Inactive Workers

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Prof K R Shyam Sundar addressed the urgency to discuss employment during the pandemic.

“The COVID crisis has intensified and broadened the various dimensions of labour market impoverishments.”

Prof K R Shyam Sundar

The crisis highlighted returnee unemployment and forced idealness of even regulated workers in multi-national enterprises. The dimension of underemployment is also prominent where many workers, called “inactive workers” by ILO, were pushed outside the labour market. He also pointed to the fact that the proportion of poverty is more among the employed than the unemployed. Before the pandemic, the labour market was flexible where unemployment was already increasing. He drew attention to the fact that the employment generation has not been mainstreamed in the economic growth and development discourses.

His central argument was that the role of the state needs to be interrogated much more severely due to the governance, policy and labour law failures. Most importantly, he disagreed with the philosophy of the government that sought to use flexible labour laws for employment generation which diluted labour rights. He calls for the co-existence of employment generation and labour rights.

Informal Workers

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Dr Sonia George said that the nation lacked a system for measuring the informality in the workforce. This aspect is thus not reflected in governance, policies or laws. Problematizing the situation of the informal workers is necessary because most frameworks are only applicable to the comparatively smaller formal sector. To deconstruct the process of informalisation, we may have to develop new narratives for the majority of the workers, some of the marginalized. To think about a single worker or a sector as a representation of the entire population erases the reality of the multiplicity of the workers’ identities.

“The role of the trade unions is to start addressing the complex issues.”

Dr Sonia George

Technology & Labour

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Prof Swarna Sadasivam Vepa addressed the disappearance of middle-level jobs at a rapid rate and she attributed this to the up-gradation of technology.

“Instead of up-gradation of the workers, there is a down gradation of workers.” Prof Swarna Sadasivam Vepa

With most middle-level jobs removed, most jobs that remain are low-paying ones. Polarization of the labour market resulted in further reduction of employment opportunities as some people learn and popularize machine learning, replacing the work done by people. In the current pandemic situation, even the jobs that require lower skills are lost. She states that the government shows progress in terms of profits and not what the common people have gained.

The Way Forward

Amarjeet Kaur responded to some questions and mentioned that occupational safety and health should be a fundamental right. She said that the plan for social security is uncertain as the budgeting and implementation of the rules are vague. Moreover, she calls for the support of the farmers to repeal the agricultural laws. The urban employment guarantee act as a demand-based act should be promulgated.

Unity and developing a strong movement to change the development paradigm is crucial.

Amarjeet Kaur

Prof K R Shyam Sundar said that the trade unions must demand the government to implement all the policies that are in accordance with ILO’s labour standards. Secondly, he said that millions of workers who are suffering have to become visible and the dichotomy of registered and unregistered workers must perish.

Labour rights cannot be seen in isolation from human rights.

Prof K R Shyam Sundar

Prof Swarna Sadasivam Vepa mentioned that improper and irregular collection and publication of employment data will lead society into darkness. Fr. Dr Denzil Fernandes concluded by stating that the nation is at a critical stage as far as employment is concerned but the positive side is that resistance is emerging to drive changes in society. Finally, Dr Arjun Kumar proposed the vote of thanks and ended the discussion.

Acknowledgement: Ritheka Sundar is a research intern at IMPRI.

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