Self Employed Women’s Association: COVID-19 has set in motion “a spiral descent into starker poverty”
The COVID-19 pandemic has already taken a toll on vulnerable populations in India, however, millions of people can be permanently pushed into poverty unless swift action is taken, Reema Nanavaty, Director of India’s Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) warned in a recent interview.
SEWA, which received the 1984 Right Livelihood Award, is a trade union that has advocated since 1972 for the rights of poor, self-employed female workers, who are often unprotected by India’s labour laws.
As a large majority of India’s workforce is employed in the informal sector, the lockdown due to COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on already vulnerable populations, pushing them inescapably towards poverty, Nanavaty said.
During the past two months, SEWA has conducted three rounds of surveys with the participation of 1,500 of its members to better understand the full scale of the impact the pandemic has had on them. The studies found that more than 71 per cent of workers have lost their livelihoods, while 68 per cent of households did not have enough money to buy even one week’s worth of groceries.
“The results of these surveys are very depressing,” Nanavaty said. “They clearly show that the issues and challenges of the informal workers have magnified over the past two months.”
The situation of these workers will continue to worsen unless the Indian government – and governments around the world – take swift action to slow the spread of the virus, assist people who are in poverty and help workers find employment. These steps require a bottom-up approach with a strong focus on the most vulnerable individuals, Nanavaty noted.
“Pandemics and economic crises like this set in motion a spiral descent into starker poverty,” she said. “It is the need of the hour for countries of the world to adopt a nurturing and caring approach towards the poor tiny micro-entrepreneurs and their micro-enterprises – so that we can reduce the inequalities and ensure sustainable growth.”
The pandemic has also exacerbated gender inequality as women have been under increased pressure due to the lockdown: their economic activities have slowed down, domestic violence has increased, women have borne the brunt of taking care of family members who are now all at home, while in some cases, they have had no access to basic necessities.
“Women in India generally eat after the men and children in the family,” Nanavaty said. “However, due to low income, there is a shortage of food, and often there is hardly any food left for women – adversely impacting the health of women workers.”
To address problems faced by poor workers due to COVID-19, SEWA has several action plans in place: the organisation has a hot-line for victims of domestic abuse and is in the process of setting up virtual educational platforms to help people adapt to the emerging job market. The organisation is also establishing an integrated financing framework to help informal workers and rural communities access capital.
Nanavaty is also hopeful that the vulnerabilities in local and global economies exposed by the pandemic might lead to more robust protections for workers all over the world.
“Time has come for Universal Social Protection for not some but all informal-sector workers in our economies,” she said.