Sunday, 19 September, 2021

Wage Earners’ Distress During Lockdown

Arju Dahal


The highly contagious coronavirus that has been spreading across countries has created fear among the people worldwide, infecting over 800 thousand people with rapid escalation in the number of deaths. Similarly, with five registered virus positive cases in Nepal, it has created fear among the people leading to a complete lockdown. To prevent the virus from transmitting, lockdown has become the most efficient tool for their safety. The lockdown does remain unbarred when it comes to access the essential goods but the wider concern of this lockdown, the slowdown in the economy, unfortunately has a direct bearing on the daily wage earners.
As more and more cities/towns get locked, daily wage workers have turned out the most vulnerable class falling prey to unemployment. A grim thought strikes that if not the virus, unemployment could turn out to be valid reason for many daily wage earners struggling for survival. As per the Nepal Labour Force Survey 2017/18, around 62.2 per cent are employed in the informal sectors. As the government shuts down the industries, markets, companies, the physical supply and demand chain has been largely impacted. It has left the economy in noticeable decline. Amidst this situation, the most impacted ones are the daily wage earners.
The government has made all the efforts to provide and make all the essential goods accessible for purchase and supplied without being obstructed by any means. Here the question of supply itself isn’t the primary question, it’s also the means to get the demand exhausted. If the daily wage earners are not earning any cash the mere supply of the essential goods cannot be purchased at all. As cash is already critical for every business right now, it is definite that this segment will be affected the most as the lockdown continues.
There are already questions that have come up after the lockdown. Would there be possibility of daily wage earners getting any work promptly? Would the prices be the same after the lockdown? Would the production and consumption be the same at it was previously? Would there be no price gouging?
Well, these are definitely not impromptu answer-seeking questions, but a thought oriented along with necessary planning by the government. The pandemic that has brought a grim sight in economy worldwide could take few months to get back to its normal status. Along with the economy, the daily wage earners could be suffering from another mass aggression and unrest if things go out of hand. As we already have an unaccredited number of daily wage earners, the government is already falling behind. If we are to assess the history of other pandemics, they do not show any positive signs of economic growth instantly; in fact, they have given rise to xenophobic, anti-Semitic attacks. The coronavirus is different from other diseases that occurred in past in terms of death surge, the number of days they lasted, etc. but all have something in common that is the economic fallout.
In Nepal, the street vendors, chatpate and panipuri sellers, the tempo drivers, bus drivers, workers working at construction sites, cobblers and many such workers are the daily wage earners. A bus driver would earn after driving the passengers, but now, there are no passengers; the regular chatpate and panipuri vendors earn based on their daily customers; a cobbler, if there were any torn shoes, but now there are no pedestrians. All of these daily wage earners have been impacted and it’s only been over a week since the lockdown began.
Amidst the extension of the shutdown, the grievances of the daily wage earners could be valid. Considering the situation of the daily wage earners, many governments worldwide have taken initiatives to address this problem and come up with various economic packages. In Pakistan, the government announced it would be disbursing 12,000 rupees to each low-income earning family. In the UK, the government announced 80 per cent pay to those unable to work during COVID-19 scare.
Similarly, Nepal government has also taken steps in this direction after a week-long lockdown. The government has started mobilising the local governments and announced policies to protect and address the problems of daily wage earners like requesting the house owners to not charge house rents and distributing essential goods. Despite these initiatives, there are complications in their implementation. For instance, who would guarantee that the low wage earners are waved off on their monthly house rents? These are also issues that need to be dealt with efficiently, otherwise this lockdown would be devastating for this segment of population.
For quick response to address these large groups of people, it would be appropriate if the government took into records the registered formal sector workers as well as Prime Minister’s Employment Programme that could help further support the information collection drive. Mere policy doesn’t address the grievances, what it demands is proper implementation. Therefore, it is important for the government to be proactive and address the problem properly.
It is not evident that after the uplift of the lockdown there would be no political turmoil in the country and among the people who suffer the most during this period; we can’t ignore that this scenario could arise if the vulnerable clusters aren’t provided for timely. With the fiscal year approaching its end, it won’t be wrong to say that if the period of lockdown continues, it will be difficult for the country to move up from the depressing period in the initial months of the next fiscal year.
We already have many big companies and groups helping the government to address the need of essential medical equipment. Along with that, the government also needs to think about other likely problems that could arise due to this lockdown. Safeguarding the people from virus transmission is surely the most important task at the moment, but negating other probabilities in the economic sector will only add burden to the government as well as the people once the virus scare is over.

(A paralegal, the author can be reached at