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Status Of Migrant Workers During Covid 19

Recently, the recent uproar was regarding the exodus of Migrant workers who decided to walk miles to reach their native homes while the government of India imposed Lock down in the country due to sudden out break of corona virus. The migrant workers became the worst affected section in the pandemic. The article deals with the current status of migrant workers along with various labor laws and their implementation in real scenario.

Further the article mentions the role of judiciary in protecting the rights of workers with the help of case laws. in pursuant to this the article highlights all the major guidelines and steps taken by judiciary as well as government respectively. Further the author also gives suggestion and recommendations to ease the pain of migrant workers during the Pandemic.

INTRODUCTION:
In developing countries, the migrant workers play a crucial role towards the urbanization of the area which makes them the backbone of the urban economy. Migration of workers usually means the movement of people from their native place of residence to any other place either within the country (internal migration) or outside the country (international migration) in search of employment.

At present medical emergency is created across the world due to sudden outbreak of Coronavirus pandemic, along with this several other challenges are emerging at the background as its effect. One of the such issue is the hardships being faced by migrant workers in this time of covid-19 crisis. According to the census 2011 India has 45.36 crore of internal migrants or 37% of the country's population which includes both inter-state migrants as well as migrants within each state.[1] Intra state migration takes place within the same state whereas Interstate migrants are the people who migrated from one state to another.

According to the Economic Survey, 2016-17, it was that estimated that there were six crore inter-state labor migrants between 2001-2011 and each year between 2011-2016, on an average 90 lakh people travelled for work.[2]Amid this crisis these interstate migrants seem to be most vulnerable towards the current situation. On 24th march 2020 a nationwide lockdown was announced by the government of India for 21 days which was further extended.

The consequence of such lockdown was the exodus of migrant workers from the cities to their native villages. Millions of workers were seen walking miles on roads to reach their homes. Among these thousands of workers lost their lives in between the journey because of starvation, lack of transportation and medical facilities and many of them even had to face legal consequences. The turmoil of Covid- 19 engulfed the dignity of such workers and worsened their socio- economic conditions.

The pandemic has not only created the health emergency but also the financial crisis all over the world. The repercussions of this crisis made conditions critical for the daily wage workers, street vendors, rickshaw pullers etc as their lives and livelihood is at risk.

The constitution and the Labor Rights
The plight of Migrant workers is existing since the time of Industrial Revolution. Several legislations and polices have been framed to protect their basic rights. Article 22 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides the fundamental right of social security to every member[3].

The United Nations convention on economic social and cultural rights specifically deals with labor rights under Article 6 of the declaration which safeguards their right to work, employment, prevent discrimination in the work place and prohibits forced or child labor. this empowers them to enjoy these rights of self –determination and could attain their economic, social and cultural development.[4]

The international labor organization (ILO) one of the united Nations body sets the recognized labor standards for the protection of workers' rights globally. the organization works towards promoting as equal pay for equal work, safe working conditions, freedom of association, abolition of forced labor and sex-based discrimination, employment protection, provision of social security, protection of migrant workers, elimination of sexual harassment of women workers. However, none of the policies or conventions seems to be working at this time of crisis.

The objective of Indian constitution is very clearly mentioned in its preamble where it focuses to secure justice – social, economic and political; equality of status and of opportunity among all its citizen. Article 21 of the constitution guarantees right to life and personal liberty.[5]

This article intends to ensure the workmen to live with basic human dignity. The impression of article 21 in terms of migrant workers may also be observed in part IV of the constitution which lays down the Directive Principle of State Policy to achieve the idea of social justice. Article39 (e), (f); Article 41 and 42 provides for health and strength of workers, protection against abuse and exploitation, right to work and employment opportunities, equal pay for equal work, social security, just and humane working condition and maternity relief.

Labor law in India is a part of concurrent list under schedule VII of the constitution which implies the fact that the central and state government both are empowered to formulate and regulate the policies, hence various legislations are enacted to protect and safeguard the rights of migrant workers. Some of the Acts governing labor laws are discussed below:
  1. Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment) Conditions of Service Act 1979,
    This act was brought into existence because of the inefficient provisions of the previous statute of Contract Labor (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970 which failed to curb the issue of malpractices that were being done by the principal employer/contractor/sardar/khatedars, etc.

    The act was enacted to protect Interstate migrant workmen from their exploitation by contractors and to regulate the condition of service provided to them in Indian labor laws. This act provides certain rights to migrant workmen in terms of wages, welfare schemes and other facilities and imposes duties and obligations on contactors towards these workmen.
The aforesaid Act lays down certain duties and obligation on employer, some important ones are discussed below:[6]
  • Furnishing the particulars of the workmen in prescribed format to the specified authority in state.
  • To provide a passbook and registration ID indicating other details like name, place of establishment where he is working, period of employment etc.
  • A register is to be maintained with the full details of interstate workmen which shall be made available to the statutory authority for the purpose of scrutiny whenever required.
  • In case of failure by the contractor, the Principal employer is obliged to bear the wages and other benefits to interstate workers.
  • during the period of employment if such workmen suffers from any injury or fatal accident, it has to informed to concerned state authorities and to the kins of the deceased through the contractor.

RIGHTS OF INTERSTATE WORKERS UNDER THIS ACT:
  • Equal amount of wages shall be provided to workmen for the similar nature and same duration of work being performed in that establishment. However, the wages of an interstate worker shall not be lower than the wages fixed under Minimum Wages Act, 1948 (11 of 1948),
  • as per section 14 of the act the interstate workers have right to receive displacement allowance equal to 50% of monthly wages or Rs 75 whichever is higher
  • under section 15 of the act the workers are entitled to receive home journey allowance including payment of wages during the period of journey,
  • various other facilities shall be provided to them such as accommodation, medical facilities free of charge on mandatory basis, protective clothing to workmen etc.
  • Termination of employment after the contract period without any liability.
  • They have the Right to file a complaint with the authorities within three months of any incident, accident, etc.

The rights and duties enshrined under this act just seems to be a dead letter. The mass movement of interstate migrant during the lockdown reveals the loopholes of state governments in implementation of the said act as the states did not have complete data of workers as a consequence of which many states were unable to provide even the basic necessities in times of emergency. On the other hand, there is lack of awareness regarding the rights and privileges among the workers.

II. The Unorganized Workers' Social Security Act, 2008
The unprecedent crisis of Covid-19 and the situation of lockdown has forced the labors of an unorganized sector to return to their native places. India is emerging as a super power though a large sector of population is still uneducated who are dependent on the unorganized sector for their livelihood such as handloom workers, leather workers, construction workers etc. according to latest record of a Sub-committee of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector (NCEUS), the contribution of unorganized sector to GDP is about 50% (NCEUS 2008).[7]

Despite of such major contribution the government failed to provide social security to the people working in the unorganized sector. The workers working under this sector are very low paid. The workmen in this sector lacks job security along with it there is no facility of paid leaves, provident fund, medical benefits, no compensation for injuries during the work period or other incentives. Section 2(c) of the Unorganized Workers' Act defines “unorganized sector” means an enterprise owned by individuals or self-employed workers and engaged in the production or sale of goods or providing service of any kind whatsoever, and where the enterprise employs workers, the number of such workers is less than ten.[8]

In the year 2008 The Unorganized Workers' Social Security Act was enacted for the purpose of ensuring social security and welfare of unorganized workers and to implement the national Security Social Scheme. the act consisted of several welfare provisions which would help to uplift the workmen working in the unorganized area some of the important provisions are:
  • According to sec (3) of the act the central government is empowered to formulate the welfare schemes for the workers of unorganized sector in the matters relating to:
    1. life and disability cover;
    2. health and maternity benefits;
    3. old age protection; and
    4. any other benefit as may be determined by the Central Government.
       
  • The act however does not define the term social security but it states that in order To claim social security benefits provided under the Act, the workers needs to register themselves after fulfilling certain conditions specified under sec 10 of the act.
     
  • The act provides for various social security schemes such as Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme, National Family Benefit Scheme, Janani Suraksha Yojana, Aam Admi Bima Yojana, Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana and various other schemes. One of such schemes is Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana to provide health insurance to the workers of the unorganized sector specifically to the people who falls under BPL (Below Poverty Line) category. The scheme is designed as cashless insurance where they are provided with smart card that enables them to get hospitalized in private as well as public hospitals.

Challenges faced by migrant workers:
Article 19 (d) and(e) of the constitution guarantees the freedom to move, reside and settle anywhere within the territory of India, this gives an option to people to migrate from one place to another in search of better employment opportunities and high wage income. The other reasons for migration of workers are economic necessity, inter regional disparity, social and cultural factors etc. however even migrating to other states does not full fill the purpose of achieving better living conditions.

The migrant workers had to deal with lot of issues such as lack of social security, job security. many of them are deprived of even the basic amenities of safe living and working conditions, proper sanitation, they hardly receive any health benefits. They fail to access state driven services due to lack of identity proof and other valid documents.

The major issue among the migrant worker is the food security which has also been compromised. It is evident that public distribution system is one of the food security safety net programs under National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013 which aims to provide food grains on highly subsidized rate.[9]

This benefit is linked with the ration card so that the food grains can be availed locally but in case of migrant workers they lose access to benefit at one location while migrating to other. The issuing of ration card is under the state governments as result of which ration card is not compatible across other states and for availing the benefits in other state the migrants had to again apply for the card by renouncing the old one which is pretty a lengthy procedure.

This section of population is vulnerable to exploitation and there have been many cases where such instances are clearly visible. For example, women migrant labor is paid less as compare to men for the same kind of work, many employers compel workers to work for extra hours without any additional wages for it. There are cases where the children of these migrant workers are also made to work in the same industry despite of prohibition on child labor.

To protect the exploitation of migrant workers the judiciary has intervened into the matter from time to time and has brought many reforms concerning the rights of migrant labors through relevant cases. In a case of people's union of democratic rights v. union of India[10], a writ petition was filed which was brought by way of PIL (Public Interest Litigation) in the Honorable Supreme Court Of India in order to ensure the observance of the provisions of various enactments of Labor Laws.

In the said petition several allegations were put forth concerning the violation of provisions of Equal Remuneration Act,1976 as women workers were paid less and the balance amount of wages were misappropriated by jamadars dealing with the Asiad project. Further there was clear violation of Article 24 of the constitution and provisions of Employment of Children Act, 1938 as it was found in the investigation that several children below 14 years of age were employed in the construction of various project, also the minimum wages were denied to workmen in spite of the provision of Minimum Wages Act of 1948. In addition to these there was the violation of several other labor laws such as contract labor (regulation and abolition) act 1970, Industrial Disputes Act, 1947 etc.

The Supreme court observed that the State is under constitutional obligation to secure the fundamental rights of the workers and enforce them. Further the Central Government is bound by Directive Principles of State Policy to ensure the observance of various social welfare and labor laws enacted by Parliament. The court herein. Extended the meaning and scope of Article 21(Right to Life) to include right to live with dignity along with the right to livelihood.

Along with article 21 the ambit of article 17, 23 and 24 was also extended. The court stated that when a labor is provided remuneration less than the minimum wages for the service he provided then it falls within the ambit of article 23 which is wide and unlimited and focuses at “traffic in human beings” and “beggar and other forms of forced labor” wherever they are found. Therefore, it is not only “beggar” which is prohibited under Article 23 but also all other forms of forced labor.[11]

In another case of Laborers Working on Salal Hydro Project vs. State of Jammu & Kashmir[12] and others a petition was filed based on the copy of a news report published in the INDIAN EXPRESS newspaper high lighting the indifferent conditions of the migrant workmen working on the site.

In this case the MIGRANT laborers were brought from other states and were employed by contractors and sub-contractors under the project. Relief was sought by way of implementation of labor welfare legislations for the benefit of these deprived persons. There was no uniform pattern of employment as such and these workmen were recruited by khatedars from their villages in Orissa and Bihar who were given advances before being taken to the project site.

On the site it was found that these migrant workers were mercilessly being exploited by contractors and sub- contractors. They were not providing basic amenities like rest rooms, canteens and washing facilities. No uniformity was maintained while paying wages to the workers and there were complaints of deductions on account of advances made to them, messing charges, etc.

Several other corrupt practices were found to be prevailing among the khatedars, contactors and sun contractors. the provisions of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 were being clearly violated. No weekly off day was being allowed to them, even the minimum wage fixed for workmen was found less than that fixed by the State Government. on the project site many minors were also found working.

The Court by allowing the petition upheld the rights of migrant workers by emphasizing on the implementation of Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 and stated that the Central Government was under obligation to enforce the provisions contained in sec. 12 to 16 and also those relating to registration of principal employers and licensing of contractors. In pursuant to this the contention of Central Government that the workers had gone to Salal Project for work on their own and therefore could not be considered as migrant workmen was rejected by the court. It was held that the Oriya workmen recruited by khatedars from their villages in Orissa and brought to the project site for work are lnter-State migrant workmen within the meaning of s. 2 (e) of the Act and such workers are entitled to have benefits provided under the act.

Measures taken for the migrant laborers by Government during lockdown.
The economic and social disparity prevailing in the society has led to an extent that the weaker sections are struggling to survive. The recent sudden announcement of lockdown by the government pushed the vulnerable sections of the society into more precarious situation. Though the announcement made was to curb the potential transmission of Corona virus to masses but this decision seems to have detrimental effect on lives of migrant workers as the government lacked a fool proof planning before such announcement. There were no alternative options of employment given to daily wage workers, no facilities were provided regarding the food distribution to weaker sections, no awareness campaigns were raised concerning the Covid-19 at the beginning etc. This whole scenario compelled the migrant population to come out on the roads and walk miles to reach to their native place.

The judiciary has once again come into picture and has acted as a guardian to protect the rights of migrant laborers. In case of Harsh Mander and anr. Vs. UOI and anr[13] a writ petition was filed in Supreme Court wherein the petitioners were seeking directions for the government to ensure the payment of wages to the migrant workers during the epidemic. In the response the court asked the petitioners to look at the status report submitted by the government and refused to interfere in policy matters.

Later on petition was disposed on 21st April, when Solicitor general, Tushar Mehta filed a status report and informed about the various measures being taken to address the issues of migrant workers and he also highlighted the fact that a helpline has been generated where the complaints can be logged so that the aggrieved could receive an immediate relief.

Further by looking at the severity of the matter the Honorable Supreme Court of India took Suo- moto cognizance and issued directions In Re: Problems and Miseries of Migrant Laborer[14], in order to alleviate the suffering and ease the pain of migrant workers. The order dated 09.06.2020 directed the central and state governments to take following measures:
  • To ensure that stranded workers must be transported within 15 days from the order dates either by train, bus or other modes of transportation.
  • To formulate employment schemes after conducting skill mapping to provide the source of livelihood at their native pace.
  • To give the details and list of all welfare schemes which can be availed by such workers.
  • The SC asked the Railway to provide shramik special trains within 24hours of receiving request from the concerned government.
  • To withdraw all such complaints which have been filed against the workers for violating the lockdown norms while they were attempting to get back to their homes.

Steps taken by government:
On April 1, the Ministry of Health and Family Affairs has asked the state governments to arrange relief camps for migrant workers with basic amenities facilities of food, sanitation and medical services.[15]

The Finance Minister at centre announced that the migrant workers would receive free food grains for the period of two months as a part of Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan which is expected to benefit eight crore migrant workers and their families. Under the same platform of Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan a scheme has been launched to provide Affordable Rental Housing units for Migrant Workers and Urban Poor under PMAY.[16]

Several state governments like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh had announced an immediate financial assistance by transferring cash for the returning migrants. UP government had provided maintenance allowance of Rs 1,000 for returning migrants who are required to quarantine.[17]

SUGGESTIONS:
The situation would have been much better if the government had anticipated the class of population who might get severely affected by the decision of lockdown and the government should have taken steps then and there to control the exodus of migrant workers however it did not happen and several repercussion of an unplanned decision is clearly visible. In order to deal with whole scenario, the government needs to emphasize on following points:
  1. There is need to develop a powerful communication channel directly between the government and the migrant workers through which messages can be conveyed to them regarding the various welfare programs and other benefits of the schemes.
  2. There is already a panic situation prevailing among the people specially among the weaker sections regarding the Covid-19 which may be wiped out through awareness campaigns make them learn to take precautions and protect themselves.
  3. Mgnrega jobs [Mahatma Gandhi National rural employment act 2005] can play an important role for providing work to migrant workers, who returned back to their homes. It will work as an immediate financial assistance for their livelihoods.
  4. An ample of amount of time must be given to general public in order to prepare themselves for such economic lockdown in the country.
  5. The local governments can share the responsibilities of the state government while creating the database of migrant workers and mapping their skills.
  6. Last but not the least there is an immediate need to strengthen the medical facilities by focusing on both physical as well as mental health because the lockdown situation seems to difficult specially on weaker sections who are being affected by depression, anxiety etc.

Conclusion:

The corona virus pandemic is not only about the health emergency but it has also created various issues at the background such as weakening of economy, loss of employment, and the plight of migrant workers are one such issue, however it's been a perennial problem existing since long time, although several measures have been taken to resolve the issues but no improvements could be seen as such. Several labour laws have been enacted and amended since the constitution came into existence but some how it failed to serve the purpose which is clearly evident during the times of pandemic.

This section of population has been exposed to higher risk of exploitation in upcoming times due to unavailability of employment opportunities. The aftermath effect of pandemic will prevail for a long period; therefore, a full proof planning is required to overcome the problems of migrant workers. The government has to work efficiently in mapping the skills of the workers based on which the policies can be formulated to provide employment.

The scheme of one nation one ration card must come into force and shall be implemented immediately so that basic food requirements can be met. Above all the government must ensure that benefits of the schemes are within the reach of each and every worker and they are able to avail it. No country in the world was prepared to deal with this unforeseen pandemic but every nation is trying their best to mitigate the problems and India is among them.

The government alone cannot ensure safety and security to the weaker section of society, hence each and every individual needs to lend their hands to fight against ordeal. It is important that these people shall receive equal treatment in the society so that they can live their life with dignity, with their head held high.

End-Notes:
  1. censusindia.gov.in/2011census/population enumeration
  2. Economic Survey 2016-17.
  3. UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III)
  4. UN General Assembly, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 16 December 1966, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 993,
  5. Art. 21 constitution of India 1950
  6. Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment) Conditions of Service Act 1979 (No. 30 of 1979).
  7. The Unorganised Workers' Social Security Act, 2008 ACT NO. 33 OF 2008.
  8. dfpd.gov.in/nfsa-act.htm
  9. Peoples Union of Democratic Rights v Union of India AIR 1982 SC 1473
  10. ibid
  11. AIR 1984 SC 177
  12. Harsh Mander and anr. Vs. UOI and anr WP (Civil) Diary No(s). 10801/2020
  13. main.sci.gov.in/supremecourt/2020/_Order_09-Jun-2020. B vn
  14. Ministry of Health and Family Welfare D.o.No.Z.28015/42/2020 - EMR Dated: 1stApril, 2O2O
  15. prsindia.org/report-summaries/ announcements-aatma-nirbhar-bharat-abhiyaan
  16. ibid

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