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Issues Faced By Migrant Workers In India

In the vast socio-economic landscape of India, migrant workers constitute a significant demographic. These individuals, predominantly engaged in daily-wage occupations within the manufacturing and construction sectors, undertake internal migration, often transitioning from rural to urban locales in pursuit of improved employment opportunities and enhanced remuneration. Their intent is typically transitory, with no permanent domicile in their work region. As per the 2011 census, internal migrants represent a staggering 37% of India's populace, approximately 36 crores.

The Economic Survey of India 2017 further elucidates the magnitude of inter-state migration, estimating an annual figure close to 9 million between 2011 and 2016. A substantial majority of the estimated 400 million individuals employed in India's unorganised sector is migrant labourers. The rights and protections afforded to these workers are enshrined in the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act of 1979 (ISMW Act).

This legislation, still operational, delineates the regulatory framework for the employment and working conditions of inter-state labourers within Indian labour law. The ISMW Act is slated for inclusion in India's forthcoming social security regulations. However, despite the existence of such statutory protections, migrant workers in India grapple with a multitude of challenges.

They frequently encounter unstable housing conditions, limited awareness of their rights under social security programmes, and restricted access to healthcare services. The implementation gaps in the enforcement of regulations render these workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, thereby undermining the protective intent of the legislation

Current Scenario: The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act of 1979 and its shortcomings

The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act of 1979 (ISMW Act) is the existing statute that regulates the affairs of interstate migrant laborers. This legislation was instituted primarily to protect workers who secure employment outside their home states, thereby addressing the distinct challenges this group encounters. The ISMW Act necessitates the registration of all establishments that employ migrant workers. The mandate of the ISMW Act, 1979, is instrumental in ensuring accountability and transparency in the employment of migrant workers.

It imposes a legal responsibility on employers to maintain a record of their migrant workforce, thereby facilitating regulatory supervision and averting exploitative employment practices. Moreover, the Act mandates contractors to obtain licenses from both the home and host states. This dual licensing system aims to provide an additional layer of protection for migrant workers, ensuring their rights are upheld in both their home state and the state of employment.

A noteworthy provision of the ISMW Act is the welfare measures it delineates for migrant workers. These encompass wage rates, displacement allowances, journey allowances, and other facilities. The wage rates provision ensures that migrant workers receive at least the minimum wage defined by law, thereby shielding them from wage exploitation.

The displacement and journey allowances aim to compensate migrant workers for the costs incurred in relocating for work, acknowledging the financial implications of migration. The ISMW Act stipulates that every migrant worker must be registered with the pertinent district magistrate before they can be employed in any establishment.

This registration process acts as a vital safeguard against illicit employment practices and exploitation. It provides a legal framework to maintain a record of migrant workers, thereby enabling regulatory supervision. In accordance with the Act, all employers must secure a license from the relevant authorities before employing any migrant worker. This licensing requirement is designed to ensure that employers adhere to the provisions of the Act and provide sufficient protections for migrant workers. Specifically, the Act prescribes the minimum wages that must be paid to migrant workers and outlines the conditions under which they may be employed.

These provisions aim to ensure the fair remuneration and humane treatment of migrant workers. Additionally, the Act establishes tribunals to adjudicate disputes between migrant workers and their employers, thus providing migrant workers with a means of seeking redress for any infringements of their rights under the Act.

However, despite its noble intent, the Act has been plagued with numerous issues and shortcomings, primarily due to poor implementation. The ISMW Act mandates the registration of all establishments employing migrant workers and requires contractors to obtain licenses from both the home and host states.

However, the Act has a record of very poor implementation across states. This cannot be solely attributed to lax enforcement of labour laws in India. Certain provisions of the Act itself, such as Section 12 which delineates the duties of contractors, have made its effective implementation challenging.

This section imposes a significant compliance burden on contractors, which often acts as a deterrent to their registration under the Act. Contractor compliance is a significant issue in the implementation of the ISMW Act. There is a discernible tendency among contractors to evade their coverage under the law by abstaining from registration under the Act. This is primarily driven by the desire to avoid the associated compliance costs.

Furthermore, interstate workers, who are often under the control of their employers, are apprehensive about associating with local workers to improve their living standards and working conditions. There is also a marked reluctance among interstate workers to learn the local majority language and understand the local customs, further exacerbating their isolation and vulnerability. The lack of worker protections is another critical issue with the ISMW Act.

Under the Act, employers are mandated to provide accommodation and free clothing to workers. However, in many cases, this provision is not adhered to, leading to migrant workers often facing numerous challenges, including issues with finding local employment, lack of insurance benefits in a pandemic environment, issues of timely and fair payment of wages, lack of portability of benefits, and lack of affordable housing. The enforcement of the ISMW Act is another area of concern.

Despite clear evidence of failure to follow the law, there have been less than 200 inspections carried out under the Act from March to December 2019. Although more than 2,000 irregularities were identified in this period, less than a thousand were rectified, and just 40 prosecutions were launched under the Act. This lack of enforcement underscores the need for more robust mechanisms to ensure adherence to the provisions of the Act. Lastly, the coverage of the ISMW Act is inadequate.

The Act only applies to establishments employing five or more inter-state migrant workers. This leaves a large number of migrant workers in smaller establishments unprotected, thereby creating a significant gap in the coverage of the Act.

Other problems faced by Migrant Workers

  • Unfair Wage Practices and Payment Issues
    In India, migrant workers often find themselves battling wage theft and unjust payment practices. They are frequently compensated less than the legally mandated minimum wage, constituting a blatant infringement of their worker rights. This problem is especially rampant among migrant workers in the informal sector, where regulatory supervision is limited and workers are often uninformed about their legal rights. Employers with unscrupulous intentions sometimes withhold wages, capitalizing on the vulnerability of these workers who are often in desperate need of employment and lack the means to pursue legal action. This not only breaches their rights but also compromises their ability to fulfil their basic needs, thereby pushing them deeper into the poverty trap.
  • Inadequate Access to Affordable Housing
    Securing affordable housing is a significant hurdle for migrant workers. Exorbitant rents in urban areas frequently compel these workers to reside in congested and unsanitary conditions in informal settlements or 'slums'. These living conditions can give rise to numerous health complications, including respiratory ailments, infectious diseases, and mental health disorders. The scarcity of adequate housing not only impinges on their quality of life but also poses considerable risks to their health and well-being. Furthermore, the lack of a permanent address often precludes them from availing government welfare schemes, thereby intensifying their vulnerability.
  • Experiences of Discrimination and Social Exclusion
    Migrant workers often encounter discrimination and social exclusion in their host states. They are occasionally met with suspicion and animosity by the local community, resulting in their social isolation. This discrimination is not only harmful to their mental health but also impedes their integration into the local community. Language barriers, cultural disparities, and the temporary nature of their work often make it challenging for migrant workers to establish social networks and access community resources. This social exclusion can have extensive repercussions, impacting their access to healthcare, education for their children, and other vital services.

Reformative Measures for the Benefit of Migrant Workers in India

Migrant workers, especially those who undertake inter-state migration within India, confront a multitude of challenges. These challenges are often exacerbated due to the precarious nature of their employment, the lack of a comprehensive social security system, and the obstacles they face in accessing basic services.

Here are some proposed reforms for the benefit of migrant workers:
  • Role of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs): NGOs play a crucial role in supporting migrant workers. They provide essential services, champion their rights, and raise awareness about their issues. Organizations like the Disha Foundation have been relentlessly working to support migrant workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their efforts include providing food and shelter, assisting with transportation back to their home states, and offering legal aid to those facing exploitation. Their work highlights the importance of civil society in supplementing government efforts and reaching the most vulnerable sections of society.
  • Social Security Schemes: Numerous social security and welfare schemes exist for workers, including migrant workers. However, many migrant workers are not aware of these schemes or do not have access to them. Awareness campaigns need to be conducted to ensure that migrant workers are aware of and can access these schemes. Additionally, efforts should be made to simplify the process of availing these benefits and to ensure their portability across states.
  • Skill Development and Training: Skill development and training programs can help migrant workers secure better employment opportunities. The government has launched several initiatives in this regard, but more needs to be done. These programs should be designed keeping in mind the unique needs and challenges faced by migrant workers, and should aim to equip them with skills that are in demand in the labour market.
  • Ensuring Decent Living Conditions: Migrant workers often live in cramped and unsanitary conditions. Ensuring decent living conditions for migrant workers is crucial for their health and well-being. This would require concerted efforts on multiple fronts, including improving the supply of affordable housing, enforcing health and safety standards in migrant accommodations, and ensuring access to basic amenities such as clean water and sanitation facilities.
  • Ensuring Fair Wages: Migrant workers often face wage theft and unfair payment practices. Ensuring fair wages for migrant workers is crucial for their economic security. This would require stricter enforcement of existing labour laws, as well as measures to promote transparency and accountability in wage payments.
  • Revamping of the ISMW Act: Given the evolving dynamics of the workforce and the increasing trend of migration, it is imperative to revisit and modernize this legislation. Here are some legal strategies and recommendations for doing so:
    1. Expanding the Act's Applicability: Currently, the ISMW Act is applicable to establishments and contractors employing five or more inter-state migrant workmen. This criterion could be reconsidered. By lowering or eliminating this threshold, we can ensure that all inter-state migrant workers, regardless of the size of the establishment they work for, are safeguarded under the Act.
    2. Reinforcing the Registration Mechanism: The Act necessitates the registration of establishments that employ inter-state migrant workmen. This mechanism could be fortified by making it obligatory for all employers, not just those employing five or more workers, to register. Moreover, the registration process could be made more user-friendly and accessible, with provisions for online registration.
    3. Augmenting Welfare Provisions: The Act stipulates certain welfare measures such as displacement allowance, journey allowance, appropriate residential accommodation, medical facilities, and protective clothing. These provisions could be amplified and diversified to include additional benefits like educational schemes for children of migrant workers, skill enhancement programs for workers, funeral assistance, and provisions for old age homes.
    4. Guaranteeing Equal Remuneration: The Act mandates equal pay for equal work, irrespective of gender. This provision could be fortified to ensure its effective implementation. Strict penalties could be instituted for violations of this provision to deter discriminatory practices.
    5. Bolstering the Enforcement Framework: The primary responsibility for enforcing the provisions of the Act rests with the Central and State Governments. This enforcement framework could be bolstered by increasing the frequency of inspections and audits. Penalties for non-compliance could be made more stringent to deter violations and ensure adherence to the Act's provisions.
    6. Enhancing Awareness: A significant number of migrant workers are unaware of their rights under the Act. Awareness campaigns could be initiated to educate workers about their rights and the benefits they are entitled to under the Act.

In conclusion, the issues confronted by migrant workers in India are complex and deeply rooted in the country's socio-economic structure. Despite their invaluable contribution to the nation's economy, these workers face challenges ranging from insufficient legal protections to poor living conditions.

While the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act of 1979 has been a significant stride in acknowledging and addressing the unique challenges faced by interstate migrant workers, its limitations and ineffective implementation have left a large segment of this vulnerable population unprotected. The deficiencies of the current legal framework, as detailed in this comprehensive study, underscore the pressing need for reformative measures.

The suggested recommendations aim not only to fortify the existing legal provisions but also to address the systemic issues that impede their effective implementation. Social security schemes, skill development programs, and efforts to ensure decent living conditions and fair wages are also key components of the proposed reformative measures.

As India continues to experience significant internal migration, recognizing and addressing the challenges faced by migrant workers is not only a moral obligation but also essential for sustained economic growth and social harmony. The proposed reforms, if earnestly implemented, have the potential to transform the landscape for migrant workers, providing them with the dignity, security, and rights they rightfully deserve.

The call for comprehensive policy reforms, effective enforcement of existing laws, and increased awareness and advocacy efforts emerges as a clarion call in this research paper, urging all stakeholders to contribute towards a more equitable and just environment for India's migrant workforce.

Award Winning Article Is Written By: Mr.Ark Sharma
Awarded certificate of Excellence
Authentication No: JN437032036302-4-0124

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