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Redundancy of Interstate Migrant Workmen Act, 1979

Migration of human beings in the search of better opportunities is an ongoing cosmopolitan process which started almost 1.75 million years back by Homo erectus in Africa.[1]

The reasons for migration are many but a much-generalized objective of migration would be literally in search of betterment in every aspect of life. Being the second most populated country, India has also witnessed an increase in the numbers of interstate migration.

Once India became independent of the British rule, work opportunities increased, and the more efficient means of transportation helped in the interstate migration. Apart from women who migrate, after marriage which is an unfortunate part and parcel of the patriarchal social setup of India, employment is one of the major reasons for migration.[2]

People migrate in large number from rural to urban areas in search of employment. The inter-state migration in India is a very common occurrence.

The significance of the dignity of human labour and the need for protecting and preservation of the interest of labourers has been enshrined in Part III (Articles 16, 19, 23 & 24) and Part IV (Articles 39, 41, 42, 43, 43A & 54) of the Constitution of India keeping in line with Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy.[3]

Most of the Indian labour laws are inspired from these provisions of the constitution. The need for a specific legislation for addressing the issues of migrant labourers culminated in the enactment of Interstate Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 (hereinafter referred to as The Act).

The provisions of the act do provide for a lot of help for the laborer. However, in my opinion, the implementation of this act is not up to the mark. In this paper, I would argue the nuances of the act and what can be done to make it a better statute with help of a case study from Kerala.

An analysis of the situation of immigrant workers in Kerala is relevant. The reason for picking Kerala as an example is mainly because it has a better HDI ranking than most of the populated states in the country.[4]Moreover, the recorded crimes in the state along with the awareness of public regarding laws are somewhat better than the rest of the country. Despite all this, the conditions of workers even in a better developed state like Kerala are abysmal. Migrant workers in Kerala face multiple challenges which amount to exploitation and also receive much lower wages and work longer hours than local laborers.

Majority of migrant workers were not members of any trade unions or welfare schemes. They also do not have any platform to express their grievances. So, we can imagine and reasonably assume how deplorable the conditions in other states might be.
According to K. Biju, Kerala’s labour commissioner,many of the migrants are now arriving in the state without the help of any contractors which makes the application of the act redundant.[5]

Immigrants are a fluctuating group stirring in search of jobs from one place to another; therefore, their instability overlays way for their lack of identity. Some of them are working under contractors while some are under non-contract basis. According to the act, the labourers who are not bound by any contract would not receive any benefits or incentives and are deprived from all social welfare programs for their improvement. The Kerala High Court opined that migrant labourers are secluded or treated like second-class citizens in the state, resulting in a reception of hostile response in the form of crimes.[6]Even the presence of communism, which is supposed to be pro-proletariat, is not doing enough. However, Kerala is trying to bring about legislations like Awaz, which is a health insurance scheme exclusively for the migrant workers in Kerala.

Kerala government sponsored housing project for migrant workers at Kanjikode in Palakkad district is almost complete. We can witness the progression towards a more migrant friendly society in Kerala but the conditions of these workers are still not good enough.

An amendment Bill in 2011 was proposed to make this Act gender neutral by amending its title and replacing the word ‘workman and workmen’ by the words ‘worker and workers’ respectively. Even though this seems like a good change from a feminist perspective, it is perplexing that the lawmakers have not thought of bringing additional provisions to implement this Act strictly with more accountability and castigations for violations. This change is not relevant as judiciary has interpreted that the work workman includes female worker as well.

The Act does not apply to all individual migrant Labour because it is targeted at an establishment with at least five workers. Moreover, one State Government would not want to interfere in the territorial jurisdiction of another state where the implementation responsibility lies with both the States. This is a stern hurdle for the effective enforcement of the Act. The notion behind this act was to safeguard the workers from the tribulations of a contracting system and also to exterminate the evils of contracting system.

Instead, the Act is boosting Contracting System by making the recruitment of Inter- State Migrant Workman by or through a contractor under an agreement or other arrangement for employment. There is no provision in the Act for specifying the duties and responsibilities of principal employers as well as accountabilities of the principal employer are also not specifically drafted.

There should have been provisions for the mandatory registration of all [not just an establishment with five] interstate / intrastate workers in a gram panchayat or municipality or corporation. The unorganized sector is excluded completely.

Furthermore, the local police station should have the information regarding the whereabouts of these workers. The act should have extended the benefits to intra-state workers because there are around seven crore intra state migrations as well. This lack of extension is done by overlooking the fact that the employers are local and they are way better equipped for conniving with the local government. So the workmen are worse off and needs more protection. All interstate workers should have been provided with the benefits of PDS to avoid buying food grains and kerosene at higher prices.

The idea of cheap labour is so fascinating for the entrepreneurs that immigrants are institutionally forced to work with lesser wage. There is a fear among the domiciles that the social security of the state is challenged by this.

Even for addressing that, in my opinion, such a registration would render help. This is a global phenomenon. Even in case of immigration to Europe from Asian countries are perceived by the act of state to get cheap labour.[7]

There is an undeniable philanthropical ground for letting immigrants to countries like Germany but there is an economic aspect to it as well. There lacks inclusion of the migrants into society, hence certain inclusive policies and schemes could be put forward such that it would help in bringing migrant labourers into the mainstream & also create a management system that can solve the issues regarding their identity. It could create a catalogue for implementing other schemes for them related to their socio- economic, environmental & housing issues, without hindering the activities of local community.

[3] Constitution of India

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