The story of the Indian migrant labourers’ plight has been played out too many times on national television, written about in every newspaper and online portals but do we really know what the labourers are entitled to? Could the government have handled it more skillfully? Have the Indian labour laws failed India’s migrant workers?
What is the law?
The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 was put in place to “regulate the condition of service of inter-state labourers in Indian labour law”. The Act is meant to protect workers whose services are required outside their native state.
Before we get into what the Act holds for the labourers and how it could have rescued them, let us take a look at some data which tell us that their number is in no way insignificant. According to the 2011 Census, the last available compilation of migration data, India has 5.6 crore migrants who are working in a different state than their native — most come from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Most of them are employed in the unorganised sector and a large number are daily wage labourers.
The contractors, who are mostly known to lure these labourers with the promise of fulfilling their dreams of higher income and the dream of the big cities, are required under the Act to obtain a license from an authority both of the home state and also the one where they are employed. Those hiring them also have to get a certificate of registration before letting them work. The Act also says that the license may have varied conditions under which inter-state migrants will be recruited, the remuneration payable, hours of work, fixation of wages and other essential amenities to be provided. There is a clear provision about the wages to be paid to them as well along with details of the due date and their entitlement to a displacement allowance. A reasonable private settlement, satisfactory clinical offices and protective apparel are additionally among what is to be given.
What does the act say?
The Act sets down the arrangement of inspectors by the concerned government, and reviewers from the home state may visit the places of work where these labourers are working in the host state to guarantee that full compliance is maintained. Sadly, most inter-state vagrant labourers don’t even know their privileges and those who dare to bring up the issues faced, risk losing work.
In an attempt to make sense of the existing labour laws and streamline them, the Occupational Safety, Health And Working Conditions Code of 2019 was introduced in the Lok Sabha in July last year. This code absorbs and replaces 13 labour laws, which also includes the migrant worker Act mentioned above. And it also strengthens migrant labour rights. This code says that if any firm is employing migrant labourers through a contractor who does not have a licence shall be thought to be employed by the principal employer directly. It also says that migrant workers are entitled to a displacement allowance equal to 50 per cent of their monthly wages.
At the end of 2019, the code was referred to a standing committee. In February 2020, the committee had its report ready which said that the state governments and the labour ministry agreed that there should be a special provision on the issue of migrant labour. The committee also said that the code should incorporate similar measures like in Odisha for migrant workers such as a toll-free Shramik (labour force) Sahayata Helpline, Migrant Labour Help Desk, hostels which are open during the time they are there for their children, making the Anti-Human Trafficking Units stronger and starting support centres for the migrants.
However, the ground reality is different
But the laws were seldom seen in action. After hundreds of migrant workers and their family members lost their lives simply due to exhaustion, the Supreme Court on May 26 asked the central and state governments to submit a report in two days stating their actions to help migrant workers. On May 28, the Modi government at the centre said it has sent back 9.1 million migrant workers to their native state in 27 days — May 1 and May 27 — 5 million by train and 4.1 million by road. The SC now has detailed guidelines for the central and the state governments to follow in the matter.
Those critiquing Narendra Modi’s actions during the crisis blamed the PM for the hasty announcement of the lockdown on March 24 — four hours’ notice is short. This left the migrants, mostly daily labourers, with no time to brace for the sudden unemployment. The focus at the time was on saving lives more than livelihoods, said some government officers. This move was taken despite strict warnings that any movement of migrants could see COVID-19 entering rural India, where the health infrastructure is worse equipped to handle the pandemic. While some officials said that they did not have the right numbers, others said that they did not think the initial lockdown would result in such a huge exodus. But how can the government not have data? Because they are employed in the informal sector? Experts say that can’t be true. Dr Amitabh Kundu, a fellow at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries, a think-tank in New Delhi, told India Today that India currently has 65 million interstate migrants, and 33 per cent of whom are workers. In addition to that, there are 12 to 18 million street vendors who work away from their native place.
According to the Economic Survey of India 2017 — a government document — nine million people migrate from state to state every year. The Survey, even though briefly, discussed their situation. Not just the Economic Survey, the working group on migration by the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation discussed the same in 2017. But no importance was given to what they had to say.
Painful walk back home
As the lockdown extended it became harder for the labourers to hold on. They did not lose patience like the Home Minister Amit Shah would like to believe but as Kundu points out, “Forty-five per cent of them share one room among five. Nearly 40 per cent use community water. The lockdown confined them to their congested living spaces, as moving out meant facing police atrocities.” They had families in villages but no rent to pay or food to eat. More than 80 per cent of them were headed to Bihar and UP which is also the poverty belt of India.
A lot of them are what are called ‘circular migrants’ — they come to the cities in search of work when it’s off-season in the agricultural front. “They go back in June-July. Railway data shows that around 4 million people move around that time. The lockdown advanced their return by a month or two. It’s surprising that the government did not anticipate this movement,” says Kundu.
The policies formed had no real basis and the economic packages announced were not of any real help in the short term. Even though the central government harps that they have helped millions, the reality on the roads of just our metropolitans say a different story.
If the migrants do not return to their workspace soon, the manufacturing and infrastructure sectors will be affected severely. This will drive up the wage rates which will eventually increase the price of the products. The government needs to form policies that help gain the trust of the migrants which will persuade them to come back to the cities. While some non-governmental organisations have claimed that they will increase employment opportunities in rural areas, it is not a viable idea, say experts. The industries need the manpower that is now back in the villages or en route. India’s dream of a $5 trillion economy will not be fulfilled without them.