Livelihoods in the informal sector have taken a hit with many hotels downing shutters

Quite a few of his friends have gone back home in this past few days, with the COVID-19 scare in the air, but Madhab from Karbi Anglong in Assam has decided to stay back for now. He has been here for only less than a year, taking up odd jobs first and later settling for a job in a hotel. His meagre savings will take a hit if he goes back now.

“Many of them began returning home last week, as there was a lot of fear regarding the spread of the virus. When the city streets became empty last weekend, more people started leaving. Even though a few hotels have shut down now, some are still not sure whether to travel now as travelling such a long distance now is risky too,” he says.

Scaremongering

Most of the migrant workers have received one or the other scaremongering video on their phones, depending upon the WhatsApp group they are part of. Workers from the Northeast have received an old video clip shot elsewhere of police personnel publicly announcing to migrant workers to return to their homes due to the dangerous situation, says Ayaz Sait, who runs three restaurants in the city.

Fake news

Meanwhile, some of the workers from Tamil Nadu last week received messages claiming that all trains and buses to the State are about to be stopped.

Messages like these have led many migrant workers to go back home, crippling the hotel industry in the city. With a major depletion in staff strength, many popular restaurants have shut down in the past few days.

“Soon after the virus outbreak, we implemented all safety measures, including hand sanitising. But, we serve a large clientèle and the restaurant is always crowded during noon, with a lot of foreigners too visiting for the Kerala Sadya. Some of the workers too seemed to be scared in this situation. So, we decided to close down for a few days,” says Sanal.K.S., who runs a restaurant in the city.

B.Vijayakumar, district secretary of the Kerala Hotel and Restaurant Association, says around 30% of the restaurants in the city have closed down over the past few days. “Over the past 10-15 years, migrant workers have become the majority of the workforce in restaurants. So, when they leave en masse, it will be hard to keep the business running. Though they have been told about the safety measures taken, most of them leave when they get frequent calls from their family members back home. The restaurants that are running have cut down their menu by half, as the number of visitors have also dwindled. If this situation continues, the majority of the restaurants will have to be shut down temporarily,” he says.

Calm in construction sector

Considerably less number of migrant workers have left for home from the construction sector, with the work on apartment complexes progressing at almost the usual pace. Restrictions and precautionary measures have been put in place at work sites to reduce contact between workers and ensure sanitation, according to office-bearers of the Confederation of Real Estate Developers’ Associations.

Though labour and health officials have been carrying out checks in migrant workers’ camps and sites, with awareness campaigns in multiple languages, quite a few still remain out of the radar.

Markets and other public spaces, where migrant workers come together to unwind usually, have all been conspicuous by their absence in the past few days. As much as it is a blow to the industry, the COVID-19 scare has also pushed a large workforce of migrant workers into a period of uncertainty.

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