A migrant labourer is someone who has moved from one country to another, or
within the same country, in search of work and livelihood. Economic and
employment opportunities being a key reason for majority of migrations is
underlined by the fact that the International Labour Organization has espoused
specific conventions to protect migrants for employment.
Though such conventions do not generally cover intra-country migration, they are
relevant for creation of best practices, especially for a country like India
where economic migrants form a large part of India's unorganized workers. They
face immense obstacles like lack of information, critical skills and bargaining
powers that ultimately lead them to an exploitative web of informal arrangements
comprising of low pay, unhygienic standards of work, unequal pay for women and
lack of social security.
Thus, India has failed in providing social and economic protection to its
migrant labourers. The rapid spread of Covid-19 and its immense economic impact
has further exposed India's dilapidated structures with regard to protection and
lack of policy consideration towards migrant labourers.
Labour comes under the concurrent list in the Constitution of India, 1950. Thus,
both the Central and State Government can make laws relating to migrant workers.
This has resulted in a plethora of Central and State laws without a well-thought
out and uniform policy with a minimum basic level of protection for migrant
workers that are strictly and uniformly enforced in India.
A lot of migrant workers get absorbed in the informal sector that provides
production and sale of goods and services generally on a smaller scale. Such
enterprises contribute the most towards job creation and the government is
responsible to take incremental steps to slowly create an effective social
security net for employees working in such enterprises. However, the same has
not yet been achieved in India and on the contrary, Covid-19 is being treated as
a pretext to dilute the already weakened labour laws in the country by various
state governments. Thus, India's policy measures have failed to address the
economic and social issues of the migrant workers during the unfolding Covid-19
The above state of affairs is even more distressing considering that the
unorganized sector plays a major role in the Indian economic economy in terms of
India's gross domestic product, capital formation and employment opportunities.
Most Indians are unaware of a key legislation for migrant workers, specifically
the Inter-State Migrant workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of
Service) Act, 1979. This Act has positive features such as requiring
registration of inter-state migrant workers by establishments engaging them and
requiring contractors who outsource labourers to these establishments to obtain
a license. This Act applies to an establishment that has employed 5 or more
inter-state migrant workers. There is displacement allowance and journey
allowance. Unfortunately, this legislation is a dead letter law.
The Act seems to have made an effort towards getting a formal structure like
displacement allowance, journey allowance, timely payments, protective clothing
for workmen etc. The main reason as to why this legislation has not been
followed is the compliance requirements. The legislation makes the costs of
hiring an inter-state workers more than of an intra-state worker. States use
their discretion to avoid compliance and cater to the business enterprises.
Added to this the negligence of the government by lack of supervision and no
strict penal law for non-compliance of the legislation. All of which is a pure
result of present distress of migrant labourers.
Rather than gearing towards protection of migrant labourers, many states have
taken the path of diluting labour laws, for e.g. Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh
etc. Dilution of laws pushes us far away from formalization. Does dilution of
labour laws really provide a tradeoff for economic benefits and economic
growth? By diluting the protective measures provided by labour laws in the
excuse of pandemic induce business growth? Should the economic prosperity
outweigh the right to live and dignity of the labour force? And does India hold
responsibility to fulfill its obligation towards the standards set by the core
conventions of International Labour Organization which India has ratified? These
are crucial questions that need to be looked into.
Constitution of India prohibits Forced Labour. Article 14 upholds right
to equality. Courts in India have rules equal pay for equal work is not just
based on gender parity but even for casual workers, daily wage labourer vs
formal employee. Constitution envisages to provide social security for every
citizen of the country under various articles. Article 23 and 24 of the
Constitution provides right against exploitation. The article protects
individuals against private citizens and not only against state. The ignorance
of these constitutional safeguard by the courts and utter silence of government
has strengthened the narrative of indifference.
Migrant workers are the most vulnerable population in the world. Their migration
is out of necessity but not a choice. Access to food is not the only solution.
Giving free ration to migrant workers does not absolve government from their
larger responsibility nor does it ease the distress of these workers. India
government has always played deaf ear to the political discourse on labour
issues. Covid-19 pandemic has really uncovered the lack of government's
commitment to protect the most vulnerable population of the country.
India needs to follow minimum international labour standards as established in
International Labour conventions. United Nations has highlighted the human
rights crisis India is facing amid this pandemic. It had called for Domestic
Solidarity. Time for India to take notes on European approach of labour
policies. Their policy is majorly based on inclusion. Social inclusion means
social cohesion in which every member is drawn together as active member of a
society. They provide for migrant support measures to integrate them into the
workforce. EU divides its migrant population into fragments like high skilled
workers, inter-corporate transfers, foreign students, season workers, etc.
India should start the process of integration of migrant labour force into its
formal economic framework. There has to be comprehensive law on protection of
migrant labour force. Rather than giving subsidies like food grains, it must
provide safety net in form of monthly allowance by direct benefit transfer,
insurance policies at low cost, occupational safety, skill enhancement schemes (EU
has this scheme). Further, labour laws need to be bought under the Central list
that should provide best standards of labour protection and welfare while
removing the discretion State governments to dilute that framework. Finally,
there has to be coherence and coordination between Center and State governments
for regulation of labour laws.