School of Social and Political Science

Asia experts urge better post-Covid labour deal



Woman wearing a face mask


Politicians in South Asia should act swiftly to better protect labour rights during the Covid-19 pandemic, Edinburgh research suggests.

The contrasting fortunes of workers in parts of India with those in Sri Lanka highlight the urgent need for fairer legislation, social and political scientists say.

Pro-welfare policies introduced by federal politicians in Kerala and Delhi – to counter central Government’s erosion of workers’ rights – are vital and timely interventions, experts claim.

The approach differs sharply from Sri Lanka where the dynamic between Government and the private sector needs greater scrutiny to guard rights and healthcare, researchers say.

A study by the University’s School of Social and Political Science, and collaborators in Sweden, India and Sri Lanka, found India’s centralised Covid response has undermined labour rights. Particularly hit are migrant and casual workers – a process that had been ongoing since the shift to a more market-based economy.

Strong need

Lead researcher Professor Wilfried Swenden said: “India’s initial Covid response was marked by a significant centralisation of powers to deal with the pandemic – but subsequent events demonstrate a strong need for cooperation between the centre and the states.”

Edinburgh experts also concluded that the militarised approach Sri Lanka has taken to Covid-19 – although initially successful – has led to a loss of control of the pandemic.

The strategy sidelined health professionals, failed to protect the health of workers and oversaw a vaccination programme that was too late and too slow, researchers say.

A study by the University's Centre for South Asian Studies (CSAS) found that political failings have had significant impact – particularly on blue-collar casual staff working in the private sector.

Disturbing trend

Lead author Professor Kanchana Ruwanpura, a fellow at CSAS and Professor at University of Gothenburg, said Sri Lanka’s descent from being a front-runner in Covid management to a country with rapidly rising cases and deaths is disturbing.

Professor Ruwanpura said: “Global vaccine inequality is exacerbating local dynamics. Not only are workers’ lives and communities in peril – so too is an economy already on the brink.”

The two studies are part of a wider research project called Covid-19 and the South Asian State: A Cross-National and Cross-Regional Comparison.

The Edinburgh-led project also involves University of Gothenburg; San Pedro Institute, Jaffna, Sri Lanka; Jawaharlal Nehru University, India; and the Indian Institute of Technology, Hyderabad. It is funded by the British Academy.

Read the reports


Report on Sri Lanka – Covid-19 and Sri Lanka: From outlier to uniformity

Report on India – Covid-19 and labour protection in India

Visit the project’s page on the British Academy website