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Protection of Migrant Workers in India: A Practical Way Forward

A migrant labourer is someone who has moved from one country to another, or within the same country, in search of work and livelihood. Economic and employment opportunities being a key reason for majority of migrations is underlined by the fact that the International Labour Organization has espoused specific conventions to protect migrants for employment.

Though such conventions do not generally cover intra-country migration, they are relevant for creation of best practices, especially for a country like India where economic migrants form a large part of India's unorganized workers. They face immense obstacles like lack of information, critical skills and bargaining powers that ultimately lead them to an exploitative web of informal arrangements comprising of low pay, unhygienic standards of work, unequal pay for women and lack of social security.

Thus, India has failed in providing social and economic protection to its migrant labourers. The rapid spread of Covid-19 and its immense economic impact has further exposed India's dilapidated structures with regard to protection and lack of policy consideration towards migrant labourers.

Labour comes under the concurrent list in the Constitution of India, 1950. Thus, both the Central and State Government can make laws relating to migrant workers. This has resulted in a plethora of Central and State laws without a well-thought out and uniform policy with a minimum basic level of protection for migrant workers that are strictly and uniformly enforced in India.

A lot of migrant workers get absorbed in the informal sector that provides production and sale of goods and services generally on a smaller scale. Such enterprises contribute the most towards job creation and the government is responsible to take incremental steps to slowly create an effective social security net for employees working in such enterprises. However, the same has not yet been achieved in India and on the contrary, Covid-19 is being treated as a pretext to dilute the already weakened labour laws in the country by various state governments. Thus, India's policy measures have failed to address the economic and social issues of the migrant workers during the unfolding Covid-19 crisis.

The above state of affairs is even more distressing considering that the unorganized sector plays a major role in the Indian economic economy in terms of India's gross domestic product, capital formation and employment opportunities.

Most Indians are unaware of a key legislation for migrant workers, specifically the Inter-State Migrant workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979. This Act has positive features such as requiring registration of inter-state migrant workers by establishments engaging them and requiring contractors who outsource labourers to these establishments to obtain a license. This Act applies to an establishment that has employed 5 or more inter-state migrant workers. There is displacement allowance and journey allowance. Unfortunately, this legislation is a dead letter law.

The Act seems to have made an effort towards getting a formal structure like displacement allowance, journey allowance, timely payments, protective clothing for workmen etc. The main reason as to why this legislation has not been followed is the compliance requirements. The legislation makes the costs of hiring an inter-state workers more than of an intra-state worker. States use their discretion to avoid compliance and cater to the business enterprises. Added to this the negligence of the government by lack of supervision and no strict penal law for non-compliance of the legislation. All of which is a pure result of present distress of migrant labourers.

Rather than gearing towards protection of migrant labourers, many states have taken the path of diluting labour laws, for e.g. Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh etc. Dilution of laws pushes us far away from formalization. Does dilution of labour laws really provide a tradeoff for economic benefits and economic growth? By diluting the protective measures provided by labour laws in the excuse of pandemic induce business growth? Should the economic prosperity outweigh the right to live and dignity of the labour force? And does India hold responsibility to fulfill its obligation towards the standards set by the core conventions of International Labour Organization which India has ratified? These are crucial questions that need to be looked into.

Constitution of India prohibits Forced Labour. Article 14 upholds right to equality. Courts in India have rules equal pay for equal work is not just based on gender parity but even for casual workers, daily wage labourer vs formal employee. Constitution envisages to provide social security for every citizen of the country under various articles. Article 23 and 24 of the Constitution provides right against exploitation. The article protects individuals against private citizens and not only against state. The ignorance of these constitutional safeguard by the courts and utter silence of government has strengthened the narrative of indifference.

Migrant workers are the most vulnerable population in the world. Their migration is out of necessity but not a choice. Access to food is not the only solution. Giving free ration to migrant workers does not absolve government from their larger responsibility nor does it ease the distress of these workers. India government has always played deaf ear to the political discourse on labour issues. Covid-19 pandemic has really uncovered the lack of government's commitment to protect the most vulnerable population of the country.

India needs to follow minimum international labour standards as established in International Labour conventions. United Nations has highlighted the human rights crisis India is facing amid this pandemic. It had called for Domestic Solidarity. Time for India to take notes on European approach of labour policies. Their policy is majorly based on inclusion. Social inclusion means social cohesion in which every member is drawn together as active member of a society. They provide for migrant support measures to integrate them into the workforce. EU divides its migrant population into fragments like high skilled workers, inter-corporate transfers, foreign students, season workers, etc.

India should start the process of integration of migrant labour force into its formal economic framework. There has to be comprehensive law on protection of migrant labour force. Rather than giving subsidies like food grains, it must provide safety net in form of monthly allowance by direct benefit transfer, insurance policies at low cost, occupational safety, skill enhancement schemes (EU has this scheme). Further, labour laws need to be bought under the Central list that should provide best standards of labour protection and welfare while removing the discretion State governments to dilute that framework. Finally, there has to be coherence and coordination between Center and State governments for regulation of labour laws.

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