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Migrant Labor Crisis in India amid COVID-19

Genius begins great works; labor alone finishes them.- Joseph Joubert

Poverty is pushing millions of desperate people to resist the lockdown orders. To control the spread of CoronaVirus the Government has chosen to confine all of its population. Migrant workers are globally on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. They work in essential but with a low pay and in vulnerable jobs, as health and care workers, nurses, cleaners and laundry workers, by putting them at high risk of exposure to coronavirus.

The success of the lockdown varies from cities to cities and towns to towns. Some areas are clearly empty with few people venturing out, but for the millions who are below the poverty line confinement is not an option. More than a million people have been infected by CoronaVirus around the world, India is the country so far having relatively low infected numbers despite its huge population.

India has increasingly been struggling to cope as it enforces the World's largest CoronaVirus lockdown, the Government has ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses but the measures have hit millions of low paid and migrant labourers the hardest. It is being the story of two lockdowns i.e. the one is that in which possibly we live in, locked in but at home, the another lockdown story is narrated by these migrant labourers that of desperation of them trying to reach their home.

Migrant labourer is a person who is engaged or has been engaged in a paid activity in a place of which he or she is not a resident.

Impact of the pandemic on the rights of Migrant Labourers

In this pandemic time the migrant workers are at the higher risk of losing their livelihoods, having their labour and human rights violated and contracting coronavirus. These migrant labourers are mostly expected to be engaged in part-time work, work in the informal economy, especially engaging in domestic works and in the care sector, without any formal employment contracts.

The jobs in which these migrant labourers engage are generally barred from social insurance schemes, that means finite or no social safety, no access to health care and maternity protection. The commencement of the pandemic has led to dismissal from jobs for around 8.5 millions of women migrant domestic workers, by ignoring and even violating their health and safety. The commencement of travel restrictions has highly increased the monetary challenges and uncertainty, with many helpless far from home.

Michelle Bachelet the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that she was agitated by the condition of the informal migrant workers affected, many of whom with a sudden notice were forcefully asked to leave the cities where they worked, if they are unable to pay for rent or food.

Challenges and Risks for Migrant Labourers

Employers may also avoid rights of workers such as protection from unjustified dismissal and offer social security and social benefits.

Labourers without any formal employment agreements, and having a finite access to healthcare and social protection at the time of the pandemic, are particularly at much higher risk.
With lack of support, the labourers are in a position to face a strong chance of falling into poverty, and further after the pandemic it may become harder to find work again once economies start to recover.

The rights of some workers to engage in work may suffer unreasonably due to the curb in place of their work. It includes parents of young children or single parent families, employees with health issues, and migrant workers transported to work in agriculture or to provide social care.

Fair and Just working conditions are also the matter of concern regarding migrant labourers. According to some reports some employers are not considering government requirements to control the spread of the virus and putting their workers at risk of infection by not following social/physical distancing rules.

As a result from the pressure on sectors like health and social care, and food production and distribution, to tackle the pandemic, in the health sector and in supermarkets, that can affect women disproportionately, the Government has also provided relaxation on working hours.

Some other basic challenge that are being faced by the migrant workers are:

  • Loss of livelihoods
  • Reduced remittances
  • Lack of social protection and health care
  • Violence against women migrant workers
The Indian Government has announced a relief package of 1.7 trillion rupees for providing free food and to transfer cash to the needy and vulnerable populations, and health insurance for healthcare workers, among other things.

How can migrant labourers be protected?

As the nationwide lockdown announced on March 24th at short notice has caused immense distress amongst migrant labourers around the country, thousands of migrant workers are walking around India in a desperate attempt to reunite with their families. Several questions are being raised about their welfare and the lack of legal protection for their rights.

The labour welfare activists have decided to recall the 1979 law i.e. The Interstate Migrant Workmen Act, to regulate the employment and working conditions of interstate migrant labourers.

As part of the reforming Labour Law a bill has been introduced in Parliament namely, Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code 2019, the proposed bill seeks to compile around 13 Labour Laws and to convert them into a single piece of legislation, but the activists of labour welfare are in fear that if such consolidation happens then the specific safeguards which were provided to migrant labourers will be lost.

The Interstate Migrant Workmen Act, 1979, seeks to regulate employment of migrant labourers and their conditions of service, it is applicable to every establishment that employs 5 or more migrant workers or if it had employed 5 or more such workers on any day in preceding 12 months. The act would apply regardless of whether the 5 or more workers were in addition to other employed in the establishment or by the contractors. The Act envisages the system of registration of such establishments. The principal employer is prohibited from employing interstate workers without a certificate of registration from the relevant authority, i.e. every contractor who recruits workers from one state for deployment in another state should obtain a license to do so.

The registration of establishments employing interstate workers creates a system of accountability and formalises the utilization of their labours. It helps the Government to keep track of the workers employed and provides a legal basis for regulating their conditions of service. As part of the licensing process the contractors are bound by certain conditions i.e. they are bound to provide the terms and conditions of the agreement on the basis of which they recruit workers, these terms include their immuneration, hours of work, fixation of wages and several other essentials.

If the nature of the work is similar then the conditions of the service of the migrants shall be the same as the other workers in the same establishments, in other instances, the prescribed amount by the suitable Government will be applicable. According to the Minimum Wages Act, in no instance the wages shall be lower than what is prescribed under the aforementioned act.

The attempt to consolidate these laws means that many separate laws concerning various kinds of workers and labourers have to be repealed. The proposed law seeks to repeal 13 acts such as the Factories Act, Mines Act, the Interstate Migrants Workmen Act and other enactments relating to those working in different fields. Both the Acts i.e. the older one and the newly proposed Code anticipates the payment of a displacement and a journey allowance to the interstate migrant workers.

Suddenly out of work, many workers were evicted from their residences by their landlords, many have had to queue for hours in unsanitary conditions to receive food aid from the Government. With the cutdown in transport facilities, thousands have fled the cities to return to their villages, often on foot. Casual labourers makeup about 90% of India's workforce, many are suddenly out of work. In a country like India, a lockdown is probably difficult because there are people who have to go to work to put food on the table. This lockdown has caused a further struggle for those who are below the poverty line in India. There are also concerns that India's food supply chain will be hindered by the lockdown.

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