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Migrant workers cannot be allowed to slip through the cracks

They are an invisible army of workers who were never paid attention to even in normal times. They have been ignored as they don’t count as votes in the cities. To devise policies for migrant workers, there needs to be a realistic understanding of the nature of their mobility. Unfortunately, the Indian State failed to initiate it. Collaborative policy measures should be taken across states to ensure their social and economic security keeping in mind the dynamic and itinerant nature of their jobs.


By Sreya Sarkar

Photo: Akshat Chandra, Policy Talks Photo Intern - Delhi, India

With Labour Day just behind us, we might wonder how far the labour laws have come to support the workers in India. The organized sector has had some victories over the last few decades but the informal sector, especially the migrant workers included in this broad category, have been mostly left to fend for themselves without substantial legal mandates to support them. The crisis ushered in by the Covid pandemic has impacted 40 million Indian migrant workers and demonstrated how unprotected they are.

Lockdown in a country like India, given the size of its population and density, is a massive logistical challenge. The measures are essential to check the spread of a virus the entire world is still learning to cope with. But ensuring that the actions are “neither applied in a discriminatory manner nor exacerbating existing inequalities and vulnerabilities”[1] is vital as well.

The night Prime Minister Modi announced an emotional but detail-free curfew order, thousands of migrants with no job security or savings were forced to trek hundreds of miles to their home villages with the public transportation shut down abruptly. And as they reached the state borders, disturbing reports and images trickled in showing the police assaulting migrants for breaking quarantine rules and spraying them with disinfectant on the streets, a picture of dire indignity. The police once more became the whipping boy whereas they were just following the orders issued by the Home Affairs Ministry. The double whammy of not communicating with migrants how they could get help in the cities they were deciding to leave; and the orders to the states, to intercept and quarantine migrants, reveals shoddy contingency planning or lack of any, on behalf of the Center.

The stigmatization and criminalization of the migrant workers trapped in petty interstate parochialism and they are being made to feel ‘stateless’ or ‘address-less’ have been criticized by international organizations and thought to be reminiscent of the mammoth mismanagement of Indian Partition. So, the question is why were the migrant workers not taken into consideration when the lockdown was being planned?

The short answer is that they are an invisible army of workers who were never paid attention to even in normal times. They have been ignored as they don’t count as votes in the cities. The inter-state migrants are registered to vote in their villages. But when election day comes, they are usually in the city where they work and are unable to cast a ballot.

Who are the migrant informal workers?

Migrant workers constitute the backbone of the informal unorganized workforce in urban centers yet they are among the most vulnerable. They come to the cities to look for work because they cannot make a living in their village.

Photo: Akshat Chandra, Policy Talks Photo Intern - Delhi, India
Photo: Akshat Chandra, Policy Talks Photo Intern - Delhi, India

Here are a few facts about them:

1. Statistically, because they move between villages and cities, among different work sites, capturing their number is difficult. The total number of internal migrants in the country (accounting for inter- and intra-state movement) is approximately 139 million. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the biggest source states, followed closely by Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, and Rajasthan. The major destination states are Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Gujarat. They comprise 42% of the informal and unorganized sector workers that account for more than 93% of India’s workforce (450 million Indian workers) according to a 2018-19 survey[2].

2. Most earn cash, have neither benefits nor paper trail. They usually work as unskilled labourers since they enter the job market at a very early age. They experience no upward mobility most of their work-life span.

3. They dominate the low-paying, hazardous, and informal market jobs in key sectors in urban destinations, such as construction, hotel, textile, manufacturing, transportation, services, and domestic work.

4. They are rarely part of a trade union and typically work without any contract. Due to their mobile nature, they don’t find any place in the manifestos of trade unions.

5. They have disproportionate representation from historically marginalized groups, the SC and STs (more than 90 million).

Legal Gap

To devise policies for migrant workers, there needs to be a realistic understanding of the nature of their mobility. Unfortunately, the Indian state has failed to initiate that. So, what we see today is a web of incoherent laws that don't necessarily serve them. The existing legal machinery is not sensitive to the nature of legal disputes in the unorganized sector. Many never make their way to labour courts and if they do, they keep languishing for lack of proof.

1. A 2016 academic paper[3] indicates that informal migrant labour is used to evade the social security provisions laid down under the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 among other legislation. Since informal workers fall outside the purview of most of the pro-workers labour laws, the trajectory of informalisation is likely to have serious repercussions on the welfare of workers especially that of migrants.

2. The pandemic has exposed the non-implementation of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 that mandates registration of establishments and contractors employing inter-state migrant workers, but not the workers themselves. Had it been implemented properly, Indian authorities need not be scurrying for a database of migrant workers both at home and at host states right now. As the Act imposes obligations on the contractor employing such migrants to ensure basic labour rights, if executed, contractors could have been held accountable for extending necessary relief to them.

3. The Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 is a more recent attempt at enacting protective legislation. But only approximately 6% are enrolled for social security benefits under it. A detailed analysis of the Act unmasked a game of politics rather than a move towards welfare. It is too loose to serve any benefits to the target population and too weak not to be manipulated by central and state governments in trying to avoid their responsibility[4].

4. India has welfare measures for people below the poverty line, but migrant workers rarely have access to them. Chinmay Tumbe, the author of India Moving: A History of Migration, points out that welfare services are often only available in one’s place of birth. This is a disadvantage for workers who need to stay temporarily and work at multiple sites. This is also a reason why migrant workers are returning home. “At a time of distress, home is where they can access social security benefits like food from the public distribution system and they have the security of being with their family,” states Tumbe[5].

5. Most migrants cannot use the Public Distribution System (PDS), which entitles poor families to subsidized grains. The PDS design does not serve the migrant informal workers as its coverage in the urban area is low. Also, PDS ration cards are neither portable across the nation, nor can the rations be divided, allowing family members to pick up portions at different locations.

The Way Ahead

1. Designing a formal portable identity or ration card, or a smart card: An ambitious One Nation One Ration Card scheme, which aims to make subsidized food available to workers who are currently left out, was scheduled to be operational in June of this year. On-the-ground implementation remains a challenge, however. The fair price shops have their share of problems, as well. 28% of them don't have an electronic point of sale machines. But these crinkles can be ironed out once the system is set up.

2. Migrant labour must be factored into legislation or scheme on social security for unorganized workers: They have to be treated at par with other workers in the destination states and should be allowed complete portability of welfare schemes, access to healthcare, and allied benefits. Provision of social security where there is no well-defined employer-employee relationship, like in MSMEs is important. With the everchanging business scenario, there is a need to decode the network of complex supply chains to identify principal employers and involve them in helping the employees.

3. Strengthening of schemes in place: The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which provides at least 100 days of paid employment per year to unskilled labourers, has come to a halt under the lockdown. In the long run, however, workers’ advocates view it as a crucial system to provide income to migrant workers who have returned to their villages, and officials are asking for the strengthening of the act. There is also the need to strengthen and continue a government initiative called Pradhan Mantri Shram-Yogi Maandhan for workers with a monthly income up to Rs 15,000 and belonging to the age group of 18-40 years. It assures a monthly pension of Rs 3,000 per month after attaining the age of 60.

4. The states can play an important role: The Ministry of Home Affairs has authorized state governments to use their disaster response funds, amounting to Rs. 29,000 crores. Some states have exhibited higher standards of human values while they extended support to stranded migrant labourers in their respective states. Eventually, the states need to take the initiative to create a roadmap for cooperation between each other to mitigate the stress on inter-state migrants.]

Across the developing world, economic growth and integration have been inseparably linked with a surge in domestic migration. Urban centers thrive because of the seamless labour of this invisible workforce, yet in the wake of a crisis, they are the most disposable. India needs to recognize this group and the complexity of their everyday lives. There is no point in making the mistake of creating policies based on stable and sedentary population which is not reflective of the lived realities in urban centers anymore. Collaborative policy measures should be taken across states to ensure their social and economic security keeping in mind the dynamic and itinerant nature of their jobs.



[1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

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