Unorganised workers left in the lurch

Tourism Sector during #COVID-19 lockdown

Street vendors, photographers, hawkers, trinket sellers, unregistered local guides and others in the sector have been left with no jobs, no health benefits, no social security cover amidst Covid-19 lockdown.

Ratna* (35) lives in a roadside juggy in Khajuraho with her four children and ailing mother. Her day begins at five in the morning and ends closer to midnight, and a large chunk of it, from eight in the morning till nine in the night, is spent selling bangles to tourists who visit Khajuraho. Her average daily income during the tourist season from October to March every year is Rs 400 - 450.

But this year things changed since February 29 when with the conclusion of the Khajuraho Dance Festival the local administration imposed restrictions on tourist arrivals. Ratna’s daily income dropped by half but somehow her family managed. Then on March 14 the temple was closed for visitors and things changed drastically for Ratna and her family. Her income became almost nil. Since March 18 there has been a lockdown in Khajuraho as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with all tours cancelled for domestic as well as foreign tourists, and Ratna’s footpath shop has since remained closed.

Today Ratna has no money to buy medicines for her ailing mother, no stock of food grains at home to survive the lockdown, and her children are starving. In Ratna’s words, “We have been left to die.” This is the story of most unorganised workers and small entrepreneurs who add up to a few lakh families dotting tourist destinations across the country. They include street vendors, shopkeepers, photographers, hawkers, trinket sellers, beach vendors, local transporters and unregistered local guides.

For unorganised tourism workers, the work from home concept, physical distancing and handwashing are not feasible options. Their social and economic conditions do not allow them this privilege. Therefore, a comprehensive response to the pandemic is an absolute necessity that takes into consideration increased social protection and economic support to workers.

The presence of unorganised workers in tourist locations is a reality – they often come from neighbouring areas and states, having migrated to the tourist destination in the hope of a better income opportunity and a decent living standard. The COVID-19 advisories have left them with utter uncertainty – no jobs, no opportunities to earn a livelihood, no health benefits, no social security cover, no safe space to live that can protect them from being infected. They are not recognised by the tourism industry as service providers in the said locations nor does the government recognise them as the unorganised sector with labour rights and rights to be protected with adequate medical and social benefits from such disasters.

The debates and discourses on the economic slowdown and impact of COVID-19 is only focused on the formal tourism industry – the hospitality sector and the airlines. It does not recognise the impact of a lockdown on the unorganised sector – the loss of pay for the daily wage labourers/ workers, their survival, and the vulnerability of not being covered under social security and medical benefits.

It is surprising that the tourism industry with its own supply chain that is a mix of organised and unorganised sector has not recognised the need to respond to this crisis with economic and social solutions to uphold the rights of the unorganised sector workers. Isn’t this the opportune time to recognise their rights and provide them with much-needed social security along with compensation for the economic loss to overcome such disasters?

If we really want to survive this disaster without a complete breakdown of our economy, there needs to be drastic and immediate support for the unorganised sector by the government as well as by the tourism industry as the unorganised sector forms an integral part of their supply chain. The unorganised sector forms the backward and forward linkages for the formal sector, so ignoring their survival will have far-reaching unpredictable repercussions on the local and global economy.

A worker from the restaurant sector states that he normally feeds people and today he is waiting for hours to get two rotis (Source: Karwaan-e-mohabaat).

In the words of Mariamma from Karwar, “Just because we don’t have work does not mean that my house rent does not have to be paid, or the medical bills for my ailing children will be free, or food will be provided for my family – I need to ensure that the family runs as usual – otherwise we have to be on the streets.” It is another matter that there is no help on the streets, only policing.

Rama (65) from Puri fears a bleak future. Section 144 has been imposed from March 18 onwards in the town. Rama says, “Even if we survive this disaster, we will not survive the post-disaster situations. I have experienced the famine of 1970 and I fear that history will repeat itself – the excessive stockpiling along with nefarious activities of hoarders will hit us hard. All of us are not covered by the public distribution system and thus will die of sheer hunger.”

We hope the voices of Rama, Mariamma and Ratna are heard by the concerned government officials and leaders of the tourism industry. That they will respond to put in place social security measures that will bring some relief to the unorganised sector during and after the COVID-19 crisis. Some states like Kerala have taken the lead; others will hopefully take the cue.

To provide support to unorganised workers in tourist locations, contact our collaborators: Spandan (Odisha):; Khajuraho:

For more information on other tourist locations, contact: Anita Cheria is a member of EQUATIONS’s Managing Committee and a social activist. Joyatri Ray is the Director of EQUATIONS.

* Names changed