Informal Migrant Workers’ Lives during COVID-19: A Report from India

By PRIA Gender (Participatory Research In Asia)

    Informal Migrant Workers’ Lives during COVID-19: A Report from India

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    PRIA Gender (Participatory Research In Asia)
    PRIA Team
    New Delhi, IN
    3 Articles Published
    PRIA Gender (Participatory Research In Asia)

    Established in 1982, PRIA (Participatory Research in Asia) is a global centre for participatory research and training based in New Delhi. PRIA’s work is focused on empowerment of the excluded through capacity building, knowledge building and policy advocacy. Over almost four decades, PRIA has promoted ‘participation as empowerment’, capacity building of community organisations, and people’s participation in governance. Initiatives are undertaken in the overall perspective of ‘making democracy work for all’ – in the political system; democratic culture in families, communities, and society; and participatory democracy with active citizenship. 

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    Project Summary
    This study attempts to understand the socio-economic, health and gender impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on migrant workers employed in informal work. The unaddressed anxieties and stress of job insecurity and the lack of food have forced workers to question their survival. The responses from migrant workers are analysed on the basis of the following objectives: (a) to understand the economic impact of the crisis on informal workers; (b) to assess their access to key resources; (c) to understand the degree to which informal migrant workers are able to engage in physical distancing in their urban informal settlements; and (d) to understand how pre-existing inequalities have deepened during the pandemic. The analysis takes into account the responses by Central and state governments: introducing hot cooked meals for migrant informal workers in schools, setting up institutional quarantine centres with lodging and food facilities, increasing the usual portions of rations, starting e-registration of ration cards (Haryana) for non-holders and providing e-coupons for Aadhar card holders (Delhi) to access rations. These responses are mapped against informal workers’ awareness of the same. The challenges informal workers have faced in accessing the Public Distribution System (PDS) and other government-sponsored schemes like Jan Dhan Yojana, are discussed in the study along with the workers’ awareness of precautionary measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

    Project Context
    The global spread of Coronavirus has affected the lives of hundreds of millions around the world. To limit its impact, India implemented a lockdown starting 25 March, 2020. With the economy paralysed since then, both formal and informal sector workers have had to contend with harsh realities. The impact has been disproportionately felt by informal migrant workers who have found themselves preoccupied with questions of survival and health. According to International Labor Organization (2019), India’s informal economy employs more than 90% of the country’s total workforce1, and approximately 94% of the total number of working women in India are engaged in informal work, with 20% located in urban centres2.  In other words, the brunt of an unplanned nationwide lockdown is being borne heavily by female informal workers, in the form of food shortages, health and safety concerns, job insecurity, due payments like rent and utilities, and fear of misinformation. Women employed as domestic workers, sanitation workers, sex workers, daily wage earners etc. are among the worst hit, for they are challenged not only with economic and social insecurities but also by a constant threat of violence.

    Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA) and the Martha Farrell Foundation (MFF) have been working with domestic workers in Delhi and Haryana over the past 3 years, collectivising them by strengthening their capacities around the issue of sexual harassment in their workplaces. The organisations’ efforts to mainstream the issue sharpened the focus on strengthening redressal mechanisms and preventive measures, resulting in close collaborations with district-level authorities, unions and civil society organizations. PRIA and MFF have since developed a support group of domestic workers in Gurgaon and Delhi, who have played an instrumental role in extending support to their communities, and in particular in assisting with access to the right information related to COVID-19, relief and ration providers, essential services like healthcare, legal and psycho-social support; and creating awareness regarding applying for e-ration coupons/cards.

    Informal Migrant Workers and the Pandemic Lockdown

    The Domestic Workers’ Action Network, created through the Dignity of My Labour Project, was supported by the Martha Farrell Foundation (MFF) to undertake a survey among informal workers. The Network carried out this survey among 146 informal migrant workers between April and May 2020, across 5 locations – Harijan Basti in Gurugram, Bapra colony and Loda basti in Samalkha, Khanpur and Andrews Ganj in Delhi and East Kolkata. 

    In response to requests for assistance from informal workers in Delhi and Haryana, Domestic Workers’ Action Network with the help of MFF started maintaining a detailed database of the challenges and experiences of informal migrant workers during the lockdown, to understand the gravity of their current situation and to provide them immediate help. Using telecommunication, the network branched out to villages and urban slums in other states, identifying newer pockets where no essential services had been established.

    Keeping the ethos of community-led participatory research in mind, the broad questions of the survey focused on the most common challenges faced by migrant workers who failed to return home before the lockdown. More specific follow-ups were then asked, over three rounds of telephonic conversation, to ascertain the impact of this lockdown on their mental and physical health, socio-economic wellbeing, gender roles at home and larger implications for women informal migrant workers, and the extent to which they are able to practice good hygiene. 

    In a way, the study broadens the definition of essential services to include access to technology and private toilets for all, and a basic universal income for salaried informal workers. The data was tabulated and then analysed on the basis of the above objectives. The findings have been presented below under three broad categories of impact – on economy, on food and health and on access to technology. 


    In anticipation of the lockdown, the Ministry of Labour and Employment on 23 March, 2020, sent out an advisory to formal sector employers not to lay off or cut wages of employees during the lockdown. However, the government did not make the advisory legally enforceable nor did they demand compliance. More importantly, the government did not include salaried informal workers in these advisories. Out of 146 workers surveyed, 111 were dependent on regular salaries including 92 women domestic workers. Although India accounts for more than 5 million domestic workers (–en/index.htm), there is no coverage for them under existing labour laws, making them further susceptible to exploitation and a humanitarian crisis during an economic lockdown. The economic impact of the lockdown has posed a series of challenges for informal workers in terms of paying rent, purchasing essentials and accessing health services. During the first phase of the lockdown, the March salary and savings provided a cushion, but come April, a majority of them stopped receiving advances or paid leaves, while some even lost their jobs.  

    Status of Salaries During Lockdown 

    • In March, 45 out of 111 workers (40.5%) received their full salary whereas 27 (24%) got nothing and 39 (35%) received only a partial salary i.e. for 15 days, 10 days or 21 days of work 
    • In April, the number reduced drastically to 5 (5%) of 111 workers receiving their salary or full advance, whereas 98 (88%) got no money at all and 8 (7%) workers received a partial amount 
    • 26 self-employed workers who had some savings spent it on rent and food expenses, but those funds were steadily dwindling in April due to the nature of their daily wage-earning work which was now absent. Some of those in the survey were unable to open their shops because of the lockdown and had resorted to taking loans from their relatives or credit from local shops. 

    Access to Direct Cash Transfers by Government

    On 26 April, 2020, in an attempt to financially support workers, the central government announced it would provide 20 crores (200 million) women with Jan Dhan bank accounts (under Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, PMJDY, national mission for financial inclusion to ensure access to financial services), women-pmjdy-account-holders-from-tomorrow-8220911.html, with a sum of Rupees (Rs.) 500 each per month, for three months. The Ministry of Finance further supported this by tweeting that Rs. 9930 crores has been disbursed to 19.86 crore women Jan Dhan account holders under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMJKY) ( However, despite a limited sample size, the data in the present study contradicts the government’s claim of covering the maximum Jan Dhan beneficiaries. 

    Statistics on Jan Dhan Beneficiaries

    • Out of 146 informal workers, only 30 have a Jan Dhan Account, 99 have normal bank accounts, and 17 workers have no account at all. 
    • Out of 30 workers having a Jan Dhan account, only 9 (30%) of them have received money, whereas 6 (20%) have not received money at all in their Jan Dhan accounts, and 15 (50%) don’t know whether they have received it either because they have not checked their accounts during the lockdown or because the bank refused to cooperate. 

    The large scale loss of jobs and wage cuts coupled with rapidly dwindling savings have further resulted in a massive food crisis among informal migrant workers. Despite schemes announcing free rations, cooked meals, and other facilities like shelter support for migrants with meals, and transport to return to their home states, factors like lack of availability of relevant documents (ration cards, Aadhaar cards) and smartphones (to file for e-coupons or book train tickets) have been overlooked. As a consequence, a majority of informal workers who participated in the study failed to access these benefits. Even those who had Aadhaar cards did not receive relief as promised, due to gross deficiencies in the Public Distribution System’s (PDS) disbursal mechanism. Communal tension in certain areas also made it difficult for religious minorities to approach ration distribution centres, despite having the identification documents necessary to demand said relief.

    Food and Heath

    Access to Rations and Other Resources 

    • Out of 146 workers surveyed, 119 have Aadhar cards, 25 have both Aadhaar as well as ration cards whereas, 2 have no Identity documents. 
    • Out of 119 Aadhaar card holders, a majority of 96 workers have not received rations from any government sources. Instead, they procured rations from other sources like NGOs and individual donors. 
    • Of the 25 workers with both identification documents to access rations, 3 were unable to access the rations, 12 received rations from other resources and 10 didn’t receive any kind of food relief. 

    Comments: “I am living alone with my three children. I am left with very less money therefore, to save it we have cut down our one-time meal and we adjust with tea and biscuits in one meal” (Shafiya Bibi, Gurgaon) “I went to the PDS centre for free rations and registered my name 4 times with my Aadhaar card but I received no response. When I went again to check they sent me back twice saying, they don’t have any rations right now.” (Joysree, Gurgaon) “Sometimes, we go to get cooked meals from the nearby schools, but the queue is so long that we have to wait for 4-5 hours under the sun” (Gulista, Delhi).

     Status of Water and Sanitary Conditions

    The impracticability of physical distancing for people sharing limited spaces in informal settlements has created a challenge in preventing transmission of COVID-19. Informal migrant workers who participated in the study live in densely populated urban slums and colonies where a majority share community toilets and access water from common taps or tankers, which increase the risk of exposure and transmission. For households that can afford it, bottles of drinking water are purchased, which too involves going out during the lockdown.

     Access to soap and sanitisers, availability of 24×7 running water and stored water, presence of unisex toilets were studied in each of the study sites. 

    • Out of 146 respondents, only 34 have personal toilets in their houses (23%) 
    • A majority of 101 (69%) share toilets with others in the community ( 
    • 11 (8%) workers openly defecate in the fields which also increases the risk of transmission. According to the WHO, there is some evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 (Coronavirus) may be present in faeces (
    • Out of 34 Workers having toilets at home, 29 (85%) of them are using soaps in their washrooms, whereas 5 (15%) don’t use soaps to wash hands due to lack of money or awareness.
    • Out of 34 personal toilet users, only 4 (12%) have access to running water throughout the day while 30 (88%) don’t (they have access to water once a day and they store it for future usage.) 

    Out of 101 workers using community (shared) toilets: 

    • 95 (94%) of them carry their own soaps and 6 (6%) do not either because they come back and wash their hands at home or they don’t have money to buy soaps. 
    • 65 (64%) claim to have 24×7 running water in the community toilets while 36 (36%) don’t, further raising concerns of hygiene. 
    • 69 (68%) of them carry their own water and 32 (32%) do not, in anticipation that they will get water in the toilets, or because they have very limited water stored at home 
    • 31 (31%) workers reported having separate toilets for men and women whereas 70 (69%) denied it, which intensifies the risk more. 

    When it comes to drinking water: 

    • Out of 146 informal workers surveyed, 67 (46%) access their drinking water from the community tanks, hand pumps, taps 
    • 48 (48%) of them purchase bottles while most informal workers from Gurgaon refill their bottles daily for Rs.30 from the nearby petrol pump as the water in their houses is muddy 
    • Only 31 (21%) have access to in-house drinking water  

    Access to Technology 

    The central and state governments announced relief packages that were designed to be available digitally (by filling online forms or applying for e-ration cards/coupons, or using Google for finding information regarding hunger or domestic violence helplines). According to a study by Statista, around half of India’s 1.37-billion-strong population has access to the internet in 2020 but they often lack the infrastructure (e.g. smartphones) or the digital literacy to utilise the access. Nearly 30% of the population lacks basic literacy, and it is thrice that figure when it comes to digital literacy, Moreover, online access also depends on various other factors like: internet connectivity and bandwidth. According to another study, there is also a persistent gender gap in this accessibility, especially in low- and middle-income countries, where 313 million fewer women use mobile internet than men, representing a gender gap of 23 percent, Women often don’t own a personal device, as households share a single smartphone that is mostly used by the children or men. 

    Status of Smartphone Access

    • Out of 146 workers 78 have smartphones, 61 have normal phones and 7 have no access to phones. 
    • Out of 78 smartphone users, only 2 knew the process of downloading the e-ration coupons or ration forms and even those were not successful in accessing the ration form. 
    • 76 workers don’t have the knowledge to access it. 

    Comments: “I tried registering online for e-coupons but the website got stuck and then the server was down.” (Krishna, Delhi); “I tried registering myself on the ration booth on the basis of my Aadhar card but they asked me to wait for one week as the web- site is not working” (Mitali, Gurgaon) 


    The above analysis reflects that informal migrant workers face challenges on the most basic level of survival, owing to the economic lockdown which has left them stranded with no income and little savings. Owing to this financial crisis, they are unable to fully comprehend the risks associated with COVID-19 infection. Even if they do, their socio-economic status bars them from safeguarding themselves as per health advisories advocating physical distancing. Statements such as “Hunger will kill us before Coronavirus does” exemplify that point. 

    The Multiple Challenges

    An acute food crisis and shortage of healthcare services and potable water has been created across urban informal settlements (the study sites) by multiple factors. Absence of identification documents is one, with most migrant workers having invalid/no ration cards, or the absence of hand-holding/support in applying for e-coupons. Some informal migrant workers are afraid to go out to schools serving hot meals or approach ration distribution centres, due to the stigma of being labelled “Corona Spreaders”, facing mobs and police brutality, and for fear of exposure and infection. In the disbursal of welfare packages like Jan Dhan and rations on the basis of Aadhaar cards too, huge blindspots were noted. An overwhelmingly large number of migrant informal workers in the study did not receive direct cash transfers or the rations as promised, despite having the documents and bank accounts in place. While most of the migrant workers were aware of these schemes, there was a considerable number of participants who lacked the knowledge of how to utilise their identification documents.

    Lack of Societal Preparation and the Plight of Women Domestic Workers

    All of this points to a lack of preparedness for the countrywide lockdown and an exclusionary response that did not take the most vulnerable populations into account. The present crisis, therefore, illustrates the importance of having a “One Nation, One Ration Card” orientation. Without access to money, food, medicines or water, informal workers are preoccupied with insecurities regarding their jobs, anxieties about paying rent and keeping up with monthly installments, and worries about continuing their children’s education. Women domestic workers, who are often the sole bread-winners in their households, reported that a Universal Basic Income for all would have made it easier for them to demand paid leaves or advances during the lockdown. The reality, however, is that they are hesitant to negotiate as it could put them out of work. They simply look forward to returning to work. Domestic pressure has increased for them, and there have been accounts of domestic violence, making home “not a safe space” for migrant women. Most psycho-social support helplines were propagated by the government via online channels, with complete disregard for women’s low digital literacy levels and limited access to phones.

    Population Density and Pandemics

    On the health front, living in densely populated settlements with no choice but to share rooms, toilets and hand pumps, has made it difficult for informal workers to practice social distancing and good personal hygiene. Although they are aware of the basic hygiene practices like washing hands and wearing masks, without access to personal toilets and running water, there remain huge gaps in safeguarding oneself from infection. This problem is further heightened because of the lockdown when all these resources are being shared by family members. A comprehensive overview of the economic, health and gendered implications of the lock down reveals the need for a more proactive and on-the-ground strategy to combat the crisis.

    Recommendations for Imminent Action

    The Domestic Workers’ Action Network offered some recommendations: (1) doubling down on the doorstep delivery service of essential items, tankers transporting clean drinking water to colonies, (2) direct money transfers in Jan Dhan accounts with a mechanism to monitor its implementation, (3) sanitary and spacious quarantine shelters with food so that slum-dwellers can practice physical distancing, (4) free travel on trains for migrant workers wishing to return home, (5) a stronger framework for monitoring (??) landowners evicting tenants, and (6) public information campaigns making sure that people know the risks posed by Coronavirus and how to lower the risks. 


    1 Mehrotra, S. (2019).Informal employment trends in the Indian economy: Persistent informality, but growing positive development. Employment Policy Department of International Labor Organization.

    Pandya, R., & Patel, S. (2010). Women in the unorganized sector of India. New Delhi: New Century Publications.

    To cite this work, please use the following reference:

    PRIA Gender Team. (2020, September 11). Informal Migrant Workers’ Lives during COVID-19: A Report from India.  Social publishers Foundation. 

    Copyrighted by Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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