Time for a national policy on migrant labour

N Madhavan Madhavan N | Updated on July 31, 2020 Published on July 30, 2020

As guest workers swallow the insult done to them during lockdown and return to work, it is only fair to treat them with respect

The photograph of a migrant worker, who had alighted from a Shramik Express in Bihar, kissing the ground was telling. It reflected his anger at the way he was treated by the governments, not to mention his employer/contractor and the resolve to never leave his home State again in search of work. In fact, he should count himself among the lucky 6.3 million people who got a train ride back home. Thousands of migrant workers had to walk home hundreds of kilometres, many with their children in tow.

Insecurities — job, income and food — coupled with a fear psychosis forced migrant workers to panic and return home, defying the lockdown. The reverse migration that ensued brought to light many aspects of guest workers that the country conveniently choses not to see.

Though they are said to account for 20 per cent of the total workforce — this puts their number anywhere between 100 million and 140 million — and are said to be responsible for 10 per cent of GDP, migrant workers get a raw deal. They are paid less and are denied formal contracts even though they work harder and put in longer hours. They are not given gratuity or medical benefits and are not entitled to any leave with pay. When at work, they do not have adequate occupational safety and out of work, they lack a social safety net. Their living conditions are often appalling. They lack political support as they are disenfranchised (they rarely get an opportunity to cast their vote). The local population hates them as they are seen as job-stealers.

Even under these circumstances if they continue to migrate for work, it is because they earn much more than what they can back home. Despite the relatively poor pay, they manage to save and wire money back home to supplement the family’s income. But the traumatic experience they were subjected to post-lockdown, many feared, would be the last straw which will deter them from migrating in search of work again.

Coming to terms with reality

With lockdown easing across the country and manufacturing picking up pace, industry is beginning to miss the migrant workers. Some companies in host States have already sent buses all the way to Odisha, UP and other home States to fetch the workers. Migrant workers, on their part, have come to terms with reality. Their initial anger has given way to pragmatism. They have realised that there is no way they can earn enough staying back in their villages. The demand for jobs under MGNREGS is far more than what is being offered. The textile sector is Coimbatore and Tiruppur is getting ‘frantic’ calls from migrant labour asking the companies to arrange e-passes and get them back to work. According to labour economists, as much as two-thirds of the migrant labour will eventually return to work.

While their return is critical for the country’s rapid economic revival post-Covid, it is only fair that when they do come back, they are treated with the respect they deserve. After all, they are playing a significant part in nation-building. Many will be surprised to know that there is already a law — Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 — to prevent exploitation of migrant labour. It calls for registration of all establishments employing migrant labour and licensing of contractors. Contractors are mandated to provide details of immigrant labour they have deployed to the relevant authority. That apart, contractors should ensure regular payment, suitable accommodation, no discrimination, free medical facilities and protective clothings.

There is a reason why this law has remained just on paper. It is onerous to implement and makes the cost of hiring a migrant labour more than a local. Yet another case of an over-enthusiastic bureaucrat defeating the very purpose for which the law was made. As things stand, there is no information on the number of migrant workers with any State.

Protecting their interests

What is needed today is a national policy on migrant labour. It should accept that migration is inevitable as there will regional inequalities in development. It should ensure that a migrant worker’s economic, social and political rights are protected. They should not be discriminated against when it comes to pay and other benefits that regular workers get.

They should be registered and given an ID which can be linked to their Aadhaar and Jan Dhan account. Once this is done, the government can use direct benefit transfer to send them benefits (experts admit that lack of such a facility caused the large-scale reverse migration now).

The Government’s plan to have a one nation-one ration card will help them source their entitlements from whereever they are based. Similarly, their voter ID card has to be made portable. This will ensure that they can participate in the democratic process and gain strength as a vote bank.

These measures will help in integrating the migrant workers with their place of work. As Chinmay Tumbe, an expert on migration, puts it: presently “migrants get economic security in the city and social security in their villages”.

The policy should also ensure that contractors and the employers are made accountable when they employ migrants. This alone will prevent exploitation. Efforts should be made to skill/re-skill the labourers and a national registry created for them based on their skills. This will help them find jobs independently. Today, they are beholden to their contractor for the next job.

Some baby steps have been taken by two large home States — Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. They have set up a Migrants Commission. This is not enough. They should discuss with host States such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala and Gujarat to ensure that migrant workers are treated well.

A smarter way is to start economically developing their States and creating local employment. If they do so, supply of workers to host States will reduce and employers will be forced to treat them better. But what some home States have instead done is to dilute or dispense with their labour laws. That will go against the interest of migrant workers.

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Published on July 30, 2020
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