Time for collective action to overcome migrant crisis

Ravi Srivastava | Updated on May 26, 2020

Apart from boosting income and demand, the Centre must assist States in moving migrant workers to their homes. And industry, on its part, must provide wages and help restore workers’ confidence in their employers

The sun has still not set on hungry and thirsty children with bags on heads, mothers hugging their infants, and workers with blisters on their feet, setting off on a journey into the unknown, hoping to reach places they connect as homes.

This humanitarian crisis has been brought upon by a failure of public policy and public action. To make things worse, States have carried out an unprecedented assault on the rights of the working people by withdrawing basic protections that had been hard won by a tiny sliver of the working class. Unfortunately, many employers appear to approve of these changes while being silent on the plight of those who help build their industries. But the heroes among them are those who have overcome the myopia of their peers and spoken of the country’s collective future.

In an exceptional article (Economic Times, May 16), Azim Premji, the former Chairperson of Wipro, writes of the “unforgivable tragedy” of the death of 16 migrant labourers on railway tracks, acknowledging that the “blame lies on the society that we built”. He notes the worsening precarity of workers and the lack of any social security cover for these labour migrants.

He writes that “it was shocking to hear that various state governments, encouraged by businesses, are considering (or have already done so) suspending many of the labour laws that protect workers.” He notes that measures such as these will only exacerbate the plight of the poor and that they are not only “unjust but dysfunctional”. He believes that the “interests of businesses and workers are deeply aligned particularly in the times of the crisis”.

He then goes on to underscore the need for a large fiscal stimulus to include a much expanded MGNREGA, and an urban employment guarantee scheme, a strengthened public health system, free and universal PDS and emergency cash relief to each poor household and migrant for a period of time, and finally autonomous and free movement of migrant labourers to their homes.

Similar measures were outlined in an appeal by the Indian Society of Labour Economics to the Prime Minister and the Chief Ministers and recommended by a vast section of economists and industry associations such as the CII. Had these measures been taken promptly and expeditiously, they would have stemmed the tide of reverse migration, lowering the huge costs to migrants and the economy.

Instead, a “package” of about twenty trillion rupees has been announced by the Central government, mainly comprising credit and policy-related measures but the total additional budgetary outlay for the much needed fiscal stimulus to demand and income support is less than one per cent of GDP during 2020-21.

Meanwhile, the crisis that has hit the migrants and informal workers looks set to intensify despite the easing of the lockdown. Workers in urban areas, who still continue to grapple with hunger and unemployment, have to deal with unpaid rents, bills and other liabilities built up over the last two months.

In the rural areas, the MGNREGA is only slowly ramping up but the subsistence and employment crisis will intensify in the lean monsoon period. The government should urgently announce a second round of stimulus measures with emergency income support to all households except the well-to-do along with an urban EGS and free universal PDS.

On the sidelines

As the migrant crisis exploded, we saw the spectacle of an exceptionally strong government at the Centre deciding to sit on the sidelines, leaving States to coordinate and implement movement, even though both inter-State migration and inter-State quarantine are central subjects. The Prime Minister’s addresses to the nation remained silent on the issue. The government’s directives demonstrated a marked reluctance to facilitate inter-State movement of migrants.

Till as late as May 8, the Central Labour Ministry was of the view that migrant workers should be “persuaded” to stay back. The States where migrants worked, on their own part, were equally reluctant to send them back, with the Karnataka government initially deciding not to send trains purportedly under pressure from its builder lobby. The source States were themselves not keen on receiving large number of migrants because of the pressure on their fiscal and administrative resources.

Clearly, neither the Central government, nor the States or the employers have covered themselves in glory in the way this huge humanitarian crisis has been handled. There are extensive and continuing reports of unpaid wages and workers being coerced to stay back on sites, even without payments.

The recent changes in labour laws announced by several States are against the backdrop of the existential crisis faced by labour, and will encourage, as Naushad Forbes, former President, CII, has warned “a race to the bottom with no laws’.

The most comprehensive changes have been proposed in States such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat will lead to a virtual demolition of the edifice of labour laws. The changes violate major ILO conventions and are on a common template provided by the Central government with the ostensible and unrealistic goal of attracting fresh investments, at a time when the primary objective has to be to keep industries afloat, restore demand, and revive the confidence of labour who feel let down by employers.

Time to rebuild

This is the time that all stakeholders must come forward to rebuild jobs, incomes and the economy. The Central government should take urgent measures to boost income and demand. It must deploy its resources, including the army and paramilitary, who have performed so well in national disasters, and assist the State governments in moving the migrants safely to their homes. Industry should collectively reject the rationale and need of rebuilding its future on the blood and sweat of workers and uphold the dignity of work.

A large number of industrialists, and people of substantial means have already been deeply involved with humanitarian efforts along with millions of other Indians. The actor Sonu Sood arranged a large number of buses for migrants to reach home. An urgent coordinated effort by industry to provide wages and help send migrants home at the earliest will go a long way in restoring the confidence of the workers in their employers.

Along with the pandemic, the crisis afflicting the vast sections of the working poor will still require very large proactive measures, which should also seek to build, and not destroy, partnerships among different sections of people, including workers and their employers.

The writer, a former Professor of Economics at JNU, is honorary Director of the Centre for Employment Studies, Institute for Human Development, Delhi

Published on May 26, 2020

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