Outsourcing Empathy

By Riya Raphael

In spring 2020, in between streams of phone, Zoom, Teams, Skype, WhatsApp-calls, a close friend and I talked deep into one April-night about the apple farm on which she works. The apple farm is located on a tiny island up north near Turku, Finland. With the onset of coronavirus, local and national lockdowns, there was uncertainty on the apple farm whether seasonal workers from Estonia, Latvia and Moldova will be able to travel and work during harvest season in the fall. By late summer however, some workers managed to get to the apple farm from East Europe. To compensate for the low numbers of East European seasonal workers this year, a contract agency arranged for Vietnamese seasonal workers to work in Finland. Low-cost, flexible labour can always be found for Western Europe, even in times of a pandemic, as long as the workers return back where they came from after picking apples for the Finnish market. Ironically, even Brexiting-United Kingdom flew in Romanian fruit pickers to work on Britain’s farms to avoid food shortage.

As spring went by, I spent far too much time watching, listening and reading blaring news as lockdowns got imposed, then removed, then imposed again. What does this mean for people who cannot work-from-home? Apart from healthcare workers, micro and local level service providers also form part of a wide variety of essential workers. These services include: transportation of goods and services, food and grocery sellers, street vendors, agricultural workers, cleaners, temporary workers in factories and processing units. Most of these low-skill, low-income jobs are overrepresented by migrants from neighbouring regions or those who cross borders to make livelihoods for themselves and their families. States seemed far too eager to impose lockdowns and restrict borders. As economy and transportation came to a halt millions of low-wage informally employed migrant workers went jobless.

         I remained glued to the news. Videos and images of people moving with their kids and luggage appeared from all across the globe. From Thailand where workers from Myanmar left for home after losing their jobs; from Chile, where workers from Bolivia were stranded as borders closed. While many Venezuelan workers returned to Venezuela, many continued to stay in various parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. States could now conveniently use the excuse of the virus to further shed the little responsibility they seldom presumed towards migrant workers.

Even within borders, states struggled with internal migration of labour. Around 10 days after the announcement of the Indian lockdown, a close friend from Delhi, the capital city, uploaded an Instagram-story of migrant workers walking past the road in front of his house. When the lockdown in India got announced on 24 March 2020, did the state consult advisers on what would happen to the workforce? What was ‘work-from-home’ for the 11% (around 10 million) of the total urban employment in India who worked on streets? In the country, majority of the low-income workspaces are overrepresented by migrant workers who travel from poorer regions to more affluent cities and towns for jobs. Did the executive decision-makers think of these statistics, (let alone people) before calling for lockdown? By the end of that week in March, hundreds and thousands of migrant workers gathered at bus and train stations eager to return home. As transport networks were unreliable, thousands of migrants started walking home by foot.

         The Indian state and it’s highly-educated economic advisers seem to have been taken aback by the vast number of people walking home through the Indian summer. Either this was sheer callousness, lack of knowledge of widely available data, or explicit decision-making by the sovereign. Who will be saved and whom it will let die? As days went by some regional governments, NGOs, activist groups and local residents started distributing food and water to people who must have walked for tens and hundreds of kilometres. On a summer afternoon, yet another close friend, this time from a town in northern India, tells me over the phone that her family and the local religious houses had been distributing food and water to the migrant workers passing by. During the various phases of the lockdown, the neoliberal, right-wing Indian-state has conveniently not only privatised natural reserves and drastically reformed labour rights but has also outsourced empathy to private actors.

Migrant workers working on a field. Photography.
Migrant workers working on a field. Source: zenpix, Mostphotos.

Surely, the government could have fixed the public railways and regional transportation to ensure that jobless migrant workers get back home safely? When the buses and trains finally arrived, it was too late as many migrant workers had died on their way home. However, the Government of India sent aircrafts to various continents to bring back home expats. I wonder if this is what neoliberalism looks like mixed with extreme-right politics. This is to argue that not only is the neoliberal state only interested in ensuring that healthcare gets privatised, but also who deserves to be airlifted in the face of immediate crisis. It is not surprising that the lower income migrant workers are predominantly lower-castes, while the vulnerable expats emerge from mostly upper-castes and upper-classes. The landscape of the Indian extreme-right and fascist politics seeps into economic decision making on where investment flows and who needs to be saved from COVID-19. In September, the Indian state announced that they had not collected data on the number of migrant workers who died on their way across the country. According to one source, at least 238 migrant workers died on their way home, not due to coronavirus but due to exhaustion or road and railway accidents. For the right-wing neoliberal state, even the deaths of the working class is not worth counting.

         Whether it is the walling up of the borders of Brexiting-UK, at the backdrop of arranging charter flights to fly in Romanian workers so that strawberries can be harvested. Or it is the Indian state that watches silently as migrant workers walk past the capital city to their villages, I wonder if we are observing the establishment of right-wing executives and neoliberal legislatures indulging in necropolitical-economics.

Migrant workers walking through the capital city on their way to their hometowns. Video by Shubham Kumar, souced from the photographer.

Note: all the friends who have been referred to above have given consent to be part of this blogpost.

December 2, 2020

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