Coronavirus lockdown: Labour pain- infection worry keeps attendance low across sectors

New Delhi | Bengaluru | Kolkata | Chandigarh | Pune: Lockdown — and labour is locked out. Businesses across sectors — ecommerce to retail, and mining to manufacturing — are facing serious or even crippling labour shortage, putting yet another question mark on how India’s supply chain will hold up.

Workers returning home or not showing up for work because of transport scarcity and police violence, have led to 80-90% labour shortage for many ecommerce firms. Retailers have been hit hard too. In some big mandis, worker shortage is around 70%, and in some mines, 20% and climbing. Manufacturing units are facing the issue of contract labour keen to get back to their villages.

During an interaction with the government, industry members were told that workers who have returned home shouldn’t be called back, to reduce the probability of disease transmission, but that consumers shouldn’t suffer because of backend labour shortage.

Desperate employers are now offering bigger incentives — in cash or kind (pick-up and drop, supply of essentials). ET reporters spoke to businesses to get a sense of this fast-developing economic constraint.

Labour Movement an Issue


One senior executive of a big player said police hindrance to worker movements is the biggest challenge, a problem that won’t be solved by higher incentives.

Hari Menon, CEO of BigBasket, said the movement of goods has eased, but labour movement is still a big issue. He said apart from reach-outs to those absent, he’s also looking to tap workers from non-essential ecommerce firms who have lost jobs.

Food-delivery apps such as Swiggy and Zomato have to worry not just about their workforce but also that of their restaurant partners.

Vivek Sunder, COO of Swiggy, said staff is facing both transport issues and bureaucratic hassle.

Incentives on offer for getting staff back include medical and life insurance, pay and benefits in case of quarantine or treatment, said Rajneesh Kumar, chief corporate affairs officer at the Flipkart Group.


Leading retailers, in an attempt to maintain a minimum workforce, are offering hardship allowances, arranging transportation and offering meals at work.

German wholesaler Metro Cash & Carry India is offering staff up to Rs 500 per day in addition to existing salary. DMart (Rs 400 extra per day) and More Retail (almost double pay) are also offering additional payouts. Retailers said staff is still apprehensive about coming to work because of police violence and the fear of getting infected. Big Bazaar is taking care of transportation.

Retailers said there’s a regional difference in local administration response. In markets such as Maharashtra, Delhi-NCR, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, officials have been helpful; less so in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh.


Manufacturing units such as SunAlpha Energy, which specialises in rooftop solar gear, is taking care of workers’ food, and shelter and communications needs of out-of-state staff. Loom Solar is facing a serious labour shortage because workers are putting the ‘safety’ of their native villages over employment. In some manufacturing units, like those in textiles, advance payments have been made.

Faced with a huge labour shortage, Azadpur Mandi Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee (APMC) in Delhi has started providing food for workers. But many of them want reassurances by way of masks, gloves and sanitisers, as well as curfew passes.

Indian Oil Corp has a similar problem of apprehensive workmen. And the government decision that all PSU working staff will be paid 90 days salary irrespective of attendance has incentivised absenteeism.

Coal India subsidiary Eastern Coalfields has seen a sharp dip in contract workers, many of whom travel from the interiors of Bengal. Makeshift transport arrangements often don’t work and no easy availability of meals at work is another problem.

Employers across sectors also note that these are early days of the lockdown and that there’s a distinct possibility the labour shortage may get worse.

(Aditi Shrivastava, Alnoor Peermohamed, Writankar Mukherjee, Rasul Bailey, Shashwat Mohanty, Madhvi Sally, Debjoy Sengupta and Prashant Krar reported for this story)

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