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Human Rights Violations of Migrant Workers in India During Covid-19 Pandemic

The problems of migrant workers have become very important in many developing countries of the world. Migration of labour started in India during the period of British colonial rule. The National Commission on Rural Labour in India (NCRL,1991) estimates more than 10 million circular migrants in the rural areas alone. These include an estimated 4.5 million interstate migrants and 6 million intra-state migrants in India.

Migrant workers are those workers, who migrate from one area to another area within the state or country in order to get seasonal or temporary or part time work in different sectors. Migrant workers, who are not organized under any trade unions and their labour standards, are not protected by the government as well as trade unions, these migrant workers are illiterate, ignorant, and belong to a backward community. They do not get minimum wages stipulated under the Minimum Wages Act.

One of the reasons behind the Human Rights Violation of State Migrants workers in India are political and economic. State Migrants are outsiders in other States; they do not vote and thus cannot put governments under electoral pressure.

Nationwide Lockdown and Unfortunate Incidents Reported during Lockdown in India:

India has begun a 21-day nationwide lockdown, the biggest in the world, in a desperate bid to stop the corona virus from spreading out of control in this densely populated nation of 1.3 billion people. There are more than 700 confirmed cases in India, a number that is rising rapidly. Nonessential businesses are shut, state borders are closed to regular traffic, and people have been asked to stay in their homes except to buy food or medicine.

On 24th March 2020, the Government of India ordered a nationwide lockdown in India- starting midnight (just four hours of notice).

On 30th January 2020, the first Covid-19 virus case was detected in India. The number of cases kept rising through March.

According to the last census report 2011 census, 40 million migrant workers in India. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the two most important states where the share of total out migration is highest (Uttar Pradesh 23 percent and Bihar 13 percent).

The sudden shutdown of businesses has upended the lives of millions of migrant laborers in Indian cities. Lockdown in India has impacted millions of migrant's workers. Lack of food and basic amenities, loss of employment, fear of the unknown and lack of social support were major reasons for struggle in this huge part of the population. Thousands of migrants have protested across the country, for reasons ranging from demanding transport back home, quality of food served, not being allowed to cross the border, and against government directives preventing them from walking home.

On 21st April 2020, a 12-year-old child died after walking over 62 Miles from Telangana to her native village in Chhattisgarh's Bijapur district. She was 6 miles away from home.

Due to the lockdown, more than 300 deaths were reported till 5th May 2020, with reasons ranging from starvation, suicides, exhaustion, road and rail accidents, police brutality and denial of timely medical care. Among the reported deaths, most were among the marginalized migrants and labourers. 80 died while traveling back home on the Shramik Special trains.

On 8 th 2020 May, a freight train killed 16 migrants who had stopped to rest on railway tracks near Aurangabad in Maharashtra. On 14 May, eight migrant workers were killed and nearly 55 injured when the truck they were in collided with a bus near Guna, Madhya Pradesh.

On 16th May 2020, 24 migrant workers were killed, many more were injured when a trailer carrying migrants rammed into a stationary truck, also carrying migrants, of Uttar Pradesh.

Police Brutality on Migrants Workers in India:

On 26th March 2020, Uttar Pradesh one such viral video, shows a group of young migrant workers forced to hop down a main road with bags strapped to their backs, who were trying to return home amid the lockdown. They were caught by the cops, who refused to listen to their pleas, and humiliated by being made to hop and crawl in this heat.

On 28th March 2020, Thousands of migrants in Delhi, including whole families, packed their pots, pans and blankets into rucksacks, some balancing children on their shoulders as they walked along interstate highways. Some planned to walk hundreds of miles. But as they reached the Delhi border, many were beaten back by the police.

On 4th May 2020, Surat (Gujarat State) Hundreds of migrant workers seeking to return their home, were arrested by Police personnel during a protest, demanding travel arrangements to return their homes.

On 10th May 2020, 16 Migrant workers were crushed to death by a goods train when they were attempting to make their way to Aurangabad railway station Maharashtra State with the hope of catching a train to their homes in Madhya Pradesh State. After walking for several hours, the workers were tired. They sat down to rest and fell asleep. An oncoming goods train ran over them at around 5.20 am. They were walking along the railway track to avoid being thrashed by the police on the roads and with the knowledge that trains aren't running.

On 11th May 2020, a few migrant workers were beaten and kicked by Bengaluru Police personnel, at the KG Halli Police Station who (Karnataka State) requested the police to make arrangements for their return to home at Uttar Pradesh State.

On 17th May 2020, Police (Haryana State) cane-charged migrant workers who were trying to move towards the border of Uttar Pradesh some 20 km from there. The Migrant workers were seen running back to the shelter. Many of them left their luggage and cycles at the place and ran away. Migrants were warned not to move towards home in Uttar Pradesh State. Uttar Pradesh State has banned the entry of migrants on foot.

During the lockdown mostly Police have targeted daily wage workers, such as vegetable and fruit vendors, milk sellers, auto rickshaw and taxi drivers, and others delivering essential goods.

Government failure during Lockdown:

On 29th March 2020, the government ordered the closing of borders to stop migrant workers who have been marching on foot around 62 Miles to reach their villages. Authorities also announced steps to provide food, shelter and wages to them, looking to ease their hardship in the wake of the 21-day nationwide lockdown.

On 29th April 2020 government ordered migrant workers would be permissible to travel only after they had been screened and found asymptomatic.

On 21st May 2020, around 40 Migrants trains (Shramik special trains) lost their way and reached somewhere else rather than their destination.

Between 9th May and 29th May 2020, around 80 people who lost their lives on Migrants/Shramik Special trains died of unknown causes, data from the Railway Protection Force of India revealed.

The result is an unprecedented humanitarian disaster that millions of poor migrants are walking, cycling, dangerously hitchhiking home, sometimes over distances of more than 1200 Miles, often on empty stomachs.

It was very unfortunate that many State Governments in India took fare from migrant laborers while sending them home in trains and buses.

Supreme Court of India on Migrants Issues:

On 1st April 2020, In a petition seeking payment of minimum wages to the migrant workers for the duration of the lockdown, the Supreme Court asked, "Why are wages required when meals are being provided by the government?"

On 16th May 2020 Supreme Court of India rejected a PIL to direct the District magistrates to identify and provide free relief and transport to the migrant workers, stating that it was the responsibility of the state governments. Speaking about the workers killed sleeping on the Aurangabad railway tracks, the Court stated that it could not have been prevented.

On 26th May 2020, the Supreme Court of India admitted that the problems of the migrants had still not been solved and that there had been "inadequacies and certain lapses" on the part of the governments. It thus ordered the Centre and States to provide free food, shelter and transport to stranded migrant workers.

On 28th May 2020, the Supreme Court directed states to bear the cost of bus and train fares being charged from the migrants who are heading home due to loss of employment during the nationwide lockdown.

On 9th June 2020 the Supreme Court India to ensure the return of all migrant workers stranded by the post-corona virus lockdown to their home states within a fortnight and to inform the within the same deadline (July 8, the next date of hearing) about welfare programmes, including job opportunities, they plan to offer the returnees.

On 9th June 2020, the Supreme Court of India directed the Centre and the States to withdraw any complaint or prosecution lodged against migrant labourers who had set out on foot from big cities for their native villages to escape starvation, unemployment and disease during the pandemic.

In recent times, the judgment in ADM Jabalpur has been brought up a lot because the government has taken a lot of "extraordinary" measures, justified them by invoking "extraordinary" circumstances, and the Court's response has been circumspect at best.

Justice Khanna's legendary dissent in ADM Jabalpur is often taken to be an indictment of the Emergency itself. He agreed with the Majority to the extent that the validity of the Emergency could not be tested in a court of law. He was willing to assume that the executive authorities were acting in good faith.

For the last three decades, the Supreme Court of India has repeatedly stated that "the right to life does not merely include an 'animal existence', but a life with dignity." Unfortunately, when the time comes to give those declarations meaning, the Court asks why wages are necessary if food is being provided.

The Indian Judiciary has also not protected itself in glory by failing in its duty to protect the rights and dignity of migrant labour citing the ground of non-interference in policy.

International Labour Organization and India:

After independence, India has adopted various labour policies in order to improve working conditions of workers. Migrant workers and workers in the unorganized sector are struggling for their labour rights and to implement the provisions of various labour laws as per International labour standards.

India is a founding member of the ILO and it has been a permanent member of the ILO Governing Body since 1922. India has ratified six out of the eight-core/fundamental ILO conventions.
These conventions are:
  • Forced Labour Convention (No. 29)
  • Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (No.105)
  • Equal Remuneration Convention (No.100)
  • Discrimination (Employment Occupation) Convention (No.111)
  • Minimum Age Convention (No.138)
  • Worst forms of Child Labour Convention (No.182)
India has not ratified the two core fundamental conventions, namely:
  • Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention, 1948 (No. 87)
  • Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98)

The main reason for non-ratification of ILO conventions No.87 & 98 is due to certain restrictions imposed on the government servants. The ratification of these conventions would involve granting of certain rights that are prohibited under the statutory rules, for the government employees, namely, the right to strike, to openly criticize government policies, to freely accept a financial contribution, to freely join foreign organizations etc.

Conclusion and Suggestive Steps:
Some challenges faced by the migrant workers in India are struggling with low wages, physical, sexual and mental exploitation with safety and security.

The Government of India should ratify all the relevant international covenants that respect the dignity of labour, especially important ILO Conventions No.87.the freedom of association and protection of the right to organize convention, and the ILO convention 98, the right to organize and 16 collective bargaining convention.

Uniform labour standards in the context of unorganized sector workers, like migrant workers, should be implemented in rural and urban areas of India. It is necessary to protect migrants and other workers in the unorganized sector by International labour standards and also need to have a separate ministry for migrant affairs, dealing with domestic migrants of India.

Promote NGO initiatives and the formation of migrant worker groups to build an active movement for effective awareness raising, networking, advocacy and lobbying in order to prevent abuse and exploitation against migrant workers.

In the era of globalization, it is necessary to argue important aspects of labour standards and labour rights (Migrants Rights) and aim of achieving a system where there are no barriers to the smooth process of the Rule of Law.

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