A horror movie in the making? | Business Standard Column

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After the lockdown, a summer of discontent is looming as the jobs crisis deepens

As the world starts gingerly to reopen after an unprecedented shutdown, the widespread sense of relief that it’s finally over is heavily tinged with anxiety and fears about the social and economic consequences of the three-month long crippling lockdown. The road back to normality or even a semblance of it (the so-called “new normal”) is paved with flashing lights at every turn.

The real challenge for policy makers everywhere is to be prepared for an outbreak of large-scale social unrest likely to be triggered by severe financial hardship and job losses in the wake of damage done to their economies. In Europe alone, an estimated 40 million workers have been furloughed and are subsisting on government handouts most of which are time-bound and will run out in a few months.

Likewise, in America, more than 40 million have filed for unemployment benefits. One in six American workers are believed to have now lost their jobs since mid-March as the American economy faces its worst crisis since the 1930s Great Depression. Without government support, many might have been without any income.

There is real worry many of the old jobs, especially in the service industry, may no longer be available as companies downsize to adapt to the post-lockdown “new normal”. In Britain, nearly 2 million jobs are likely to be lost if pubs and restaurants don’t reopen soon. Even after they reopen, the business is expected to be sluggish because of social-distancing rules, which will have a knock-on effect on workers — a sluggish business means a slimmed down workforce.

In India, some 120 million people lost their jobs in April alone, according to estimates from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy quoted by The Hindu. A Confederation of Indian Industry survey is reportedly saying that at least 100 million Indian jobs are at risk. Commentators have likened it to a horror movie in the making.

Across the globe, job losses are multiplying more rapidly than you can count, creating an army of unemployed people — a ticking bomb waiting to go off once the state help stops and many find that their jobs are gone forever. A number of governments such as that of Britain have already started to wind down their unemployment benefit schemes even as major employers like British Airways, Ryanair and Uber have announced large-scale redundancies.

In India too Uber has sacked 3,700 employees. In America, Boeing, Chevron and hotel chain Marriott and a host of other big companies have announced lay-offs. And this is just the tip of the iceberg which doesn’t take into account the massive job crisis in small businesses affected by the lockdown — and in the informal sector as so starkly illustrated by India’s migrants’ crisis.

Trade unions and rights groups have warned of an imminent explosion of pent-up rage which could trigger violent public disorder targeting politicians and government figures. In Italy, which is predicted to lose half a million jobs, a public backlash has already begun with protests by taxi drivers and restaurateurs demanding state help for those who have lost jobs. Senior ministers have been given personal bodyguards after receiving threats and personal abuse.

Attilio Fontana, governor of Lombardy, and a member of the populist League party, has been called an “assassin” by angry protesters who have held a series of demonstrations outside his office. Police have been ordered to monitor factory closures and mass lay-offs that might trigger violent protests. “There’s a risk that social tensions and exasperation could explode across the country,” foreign minister Luigi Di Maio, warned as a Rome-based business group said that 10 per cent of the capital’s 65,000 small stores and artisanal workshops had been shut for good.

Similar protests, mostly led by a mix of far Left and far Right groups, have been held in France, Germany, Britain, Poland and other European countries — as well as across the pond in America. The jobs crisis has become a lightning rod for people to express their anger over a host of other issues, not least the widespread perception that their governments mishandled the coronavirus crisis leading to avoidable loss of lives and damage to the economy.

The protests are predicted to grow as the lockdown gradually eases amid dire warnings of a global recession. As latest figures show, Indian economy slowed sharply in the first quarter of the year, “hurt by the global and local spread of the Covid-19 virus”, according to Bloomberg news.

The fact that so far India has been relatively free of a public backlash doesn’t mean that it is somehow immune to it. It only means that India’s working class is not as organised and articulate as it is in the West. The real test will be when workers in the organised sector start returning to their old jobs — to find they are gone for good. The next few weeks will be critical.

The author is an independent commentator and writer

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