Migrant Workers Work for India. Will the Indian Government now Work for Them?

Earlier this year on March 24, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi declared a nationwide lockdown for a continuous 21-day period. This move, given with only a few hours of notice, was applauded by the World Health Organization. Although the pandemic had not yet reached alarming levels in that period preceding, the effects of the outbreak and the subsequent lockdown soon became apparent. As lockdown measures were implemented across India, the migrant worker’s life came to a halt. Soon, thousands of workers along with their families packed their belongings into rucksacks, placed their children on their shoulders, and walked barefoot along interstate highways that stretched for hundreds of miles. They continued to march with swollen feet, bodily injuries, broken water gallons and scarce food supplies. Stories of their travel made international headlines. But who were these migrants, and what led to this mass migration? 

Inter-state migrants in India

It took a pandemic to bring into focus the life and conditions of India’s migrant workers. India, although a traditionally agrarian economy, experienced changes to its economy through the rise of globalization. Individuals began to migrate from rural to urban areas as life in the village became more and more unsustainable. The interstate migration rate doubled between 2001 and 2011 compared to the previous decade, growing 4.5 percent annually according to a recent World Economic Forum survey.  The survey also suggests that the annual interstate migration in the country averaged between five to six million migrants a year. However, even in cities poverty became a cause of concern for migrant workers. Seasonal migrants often dominated informal jobs in sectors such as construction, manufacturing, transportation, and the hotel industry. In these cities where they work, they have little to no access to quality healthcare and due to the nature of this work, migrants are often at risk of accidents and severe injuries. Many do not have proper living conditions, with reports suggesting that most migrant workers were found living in makeshift houses, or sometimes on city streets. Migrant workers are also not considered to be a part of the general population of the state and are often discriminated against and exploited. However, this population plays a substantial role in the development of the country’s economy: migrant workers in India earn close to 170 billion dollars a year, which is close to six percent of the country’s GDP. However, a report by the International Labour Organization  published in April 2020 suggests that the advent of the pandemic could push nearly 400 million workers into poverty. 

The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act of 1979

The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act was enacted to regulate the employment of the inter-state migrant workmen and to provide for their conditions of service. It is indeed a welcome legislation as it is the first of its kind in the unregulated, informal labor sector. At the outset, the act applies to any establishment in which five or more inter-state migrants are employed. Migrant workmen are entitled to wages similar to non-migrant workmen, in addition to displacement allowance, journey allowance, and payment of wages during the period of journey. Despite being a crucial piece of legislation, few states in India have adequately implemented the law. 

The need for social security measures 

For migrant workers, social security is a necessity. In India, the concept of social security is enshrined under Article 41 of the Indian Constitution under the Directive Principles of State Policy. The articles under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) treats access to Social Security as a basic right. The ‘Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention 102’ adopted by the ILO in 1952 also prescribes minimum standards for benefits in the important areas of social security. India has not yet ratified this convention, but it has enacted several independent legislations that fall under the category of social security. The Maternity Benefit Act, the Provident Fund Scheme, and the Family Pension Scheme, as well as the Payment of Gratuity Act of 1972, are some examples. Still, migrants working in India’s informal job sector are excluded from protection under these acts.

Reforms toward labor laws in India are much-needed today. The definition of “workmen” requires an amendment to include migrant workers. The Indian government attempted to revamp labor and industrial laws resulting in The Draft Labour Code on Social Security & Welfare 2018. This code provided for the integration of schemes and benefits across the country and recognized the rights of workers to access these benefits. The latest Social Security Bill 2019 was the first to define the term “inter-state migrant worker”. The government may notify various social security schemes for the benefit of workers. These include an Employees’ Provident Fund Scheme, an Employees’ Pension Scheme and an Employees’ Deposit Linked Insurance Scheme which may provide for a provident fund, a pension fund, and an insurance scheme, respectively. Several bodies to administer these social security schemes will also be established. Chapter nine of the 2019 Social Security Bill covers social security provisions for unorganized workers, which per its definition encompasses wage workers under which migrant workers are subsumed. However, this makes the practical applicability to migrant workers ambiguous. Additionally, under the 2019 Bill, employment injury benefits and provident funds for workers in the unorganized sector are left to the discretion of states. 

The southern state of Kerala is exemplary  in its handling of the coronavirus outbreak as well as in its treatment of migrant workers during its lockdown. 19,764 camps were set up throughout the state and the labor Commissionerate set up a monitoring system to coordinate welfare activities. Additionally, 24-hour call centers were arranged  in 14 of the district labor offices and multilingual personnel are stationed at each of these centers.  Out of the 34.85 lakh migrant workers in Kerala, only ten percent expressed an interest in returning to their home state. Kerala was also the first state to introduce a migrant worker’s welfare scheme in 2010, a social security scheme offering migrant workers four benefits: medical care, death benefits, children’s education allowance, and termination benefits. The Kerala government in partnership with Bhavanam, a local public sector non-profit, has also facilitated the construction of dormitory hostels for migrant workers. Other states must also follow a similar model to better protect their populations of migrant workers.

The way forward:- creating a new normal

The Indian government, despite steady announcements and progressive phases of lockdown, did not have the foresight to assess the effect of a lockdown on the workers in the informal sector. As a means of resolving this issue, the government introduced a set of schemes which included payment of wages by the employers. They also introduced online portals to regulate the movement of migrant workers, and set up free modes of transport. However, all these measures taken up by the government did little to help India’s migrant workers. The Supreme Court took suo moto cognizance  of the plight of the migrants and ordered that food, shelter, and transportation must be provided by the states. Many local organizations across the country stepped up to provide essentials to those migrants who needed it. But charity is short-lived and resources eventually run out. And that, precisely, is the conundrum. 

Presently, the Indian government has no database or comprehensive policy at the federal level for its migrant populations, which will near 650 million by 2021. To protect the rights of migrant workers, there must be adequate coordination between the central and state governments. While the Inter-state Migrant Workers Act is a laudable attempt, it only works on paper. The pandemic exacerbated the Act’s weaknesses. If the law had been properly implemented, there would have been adequate data about the migrant worker populations in each state, and steps thereon should have been taken.

Consequently, for the act to live up to its intended purpose, it must be made more friendly to contractors by reducing technical formalities, thereby incentivizing them to register migrant workers. Another approach could be the provision of self-registration and the creation of identity cards. In addition to the above, the interstate portability of welfare schemes must be effectuated. The current system of avails of schemes based on the domicile of an individual, and is therefore flawed. Portable welfare schemes will allow them to gain benefits in the state where they are employed. There is also a need for trade unions in the informal sector, where union leaders can ensure migrant worker rights. Such trade unions focused on new strategies that can adapt to the Indian informal economy dynamics are essential. If the people of India still do not have equal access to the most basic rights and facilities, the law as a mechanism will become obsolete. To tackle the rights of short-term migrant workers, grass-root level schemes such as cash transfers and food aid must be effectuated. In addition to minimum wages, there must be a minimum standard of social security to all in the form of food, housing, and health. Finally, this must be done alongside spreading awareness among the general population about the existence of the relevant schemes and the right to social security measures, as necessary. 

Four months have passed since the first lockdown in India, and since then many more challenges have come to the fore. The millions of migrant workers and their families that returned to their homes after March 24 are still in need of support during this pandemic. Many positive steps have been taken by states in response to these challenges. The state of Madhya Pradesh created a database of all migrant workers from its state. The governments of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Bihar have committed to create a skill register of migrant workers in order to better enable prospective employers to reach out when needed. Madhya Pradesh was the first to implement this, called “Rozgar Setu” or “employment bridge.” The Punjab state government will conduct a survey to assess job requirements towards enabling self-employment schemes. Similarly, Uttar Pradesh formed a migration commission to provide employment to returning migrants. 

The Indian government is also taking steps to create a National Database for unorganized workers. Additionally, Prime Minister Modi inaugurated The Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan on June 20, a scheme designed to provide employment to returnee migrant workers, and is already in operation in the states with most returning migrants, i.e. Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, and Jharkhand. Also, as a result of the spike in mental health illnesses due to the pandemic, the Uttar Pradesh government in collaboration with UNICEF extended psychological support to returnee migrants in relief camps and quarantine. However, there is still a need to plan for the long-term sustainable development of these workers.

While the rest of the world seems to be moving towards a new normal, where do migrant laborers fit in? Migrant laborers contribute a great deal to India’s prosperity and economy. What is the government of India doing to support them? There is a dire need for a policy that goes beyond a few months of relief. Migrant workers too are citizens deserving of rights. Moving forward, India must not ignore the contributions of its migrant population and the obstacles toward equal rights that they face, and then work toward effective and long-lasting change.