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COVID-19 and Issues Faced by Migrant workers - Khushboo Jindal & Tarun Saini

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

Indifference of decades: How deeply rooted is the migrant crisis in India?

The fight for survival during the times of COVID-19 has been difficult for almost all the sections of the society. However, more than anyone, the migrant workers have suffered a tragedy that can rarely be described in words. They have lost their livelihoods, suffered apathy at the hands of their employers and the indifference by the government. They were forced to stay where they worked without wages, shelter and food, for days. It was as if the government did not recognize their existence. A report in The Hindu estimated that during the first lockdown in India, only 50,000 to 60,000 internal migrants moved from one state to another of the estimated 4 Crore migrants. The rest were stuck at their places of work- while the landlords started demanding rents, employers terminating them without pay and the authorities asking them to stay indoors when they had no place to go.

The problem, however, is not limited to local or internal migrants. There are millions of international migrants that are also facing difficulties now. The Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Malaysian workers stuck in the middle-east without jobs and wages are at the mercy of their embassies. While the middle-east is known for its inhumane treatment of migrants, it has completely crossed all boundaries of humanity in the time of crisis. Most of the migrants are solely dependent on their embassies for food and survival while the employers have completely abandoned their responsibilities. With most of the oil-dependent economies facing their worst crisis ever, almost all the rating agencies are predicting that millions of jobs will be lost in the middle east, of which migrants will be the biggest sufferers. The crisis there is just beginning.

However, as per a report by the world bank, the internal migrant crisis in India is two and half times the international migration. The magnitude of this crisis is unheard of and in the times of Covid-19, requires a thorough assessment.

Who are these internal migrant workers?

Unlike the western economies, India’s economy is centred around the informal sector. The 2018-19 Economic Survey presented by the Chief Economic Advisor states that around 93% of the workforce in India is in the informal sector. NITI Aayog puts a rather conservative figure in this regard stating that 85% of the workforce is in the informal sector as of 2018. While there may be debate about the sampling and collection methods to come at the actual figures, it is certain and undebatable that the workforce in the informal sector is considerably more than the formal sector. The workers in the informal sector constitute around 50% of the country’s national income and form the core of the ‘demographic dividend’, Prime Minister Modi keeps talking about. And most of these workers in the informal sector are the migrant workers- either intra-state migrants or inter-state migrants.

Further, the migration in India is generally categorised in two parts- long term migration and short term migration. The Long- term migration involves relocation of the entire household or the individual concerned. The person doesn’t move back to his native place regularly for employment but merely for festivals or on special occasions. On the other hand, the short-term migration involves seasonal migration and involves regular travel between the host state and the native state depending upon the work availability.

The migrant workers are generally used by the employers and factories as contractual employees with no commitment towards their social security. Their mode of employment is through third-party contractors who themselves hire these workers on a daily-basis. They are untouched by the social security schemes available to the formal sector and whatever little they do receive is through the common pool and not through the targeted measures. Most of these workers work in the urban centres on the principle of survival- payments are daily or less than minimum wages, there is no job security, they live in ghettos or slums and are not covered by the public distribution system. The employment as well as the salaries are not regular. The schemes such as Ujjwala, PDS and ICDS are not portable i.e. they can only be availed at the native place and thus, these workers do not have access to these also. Their lifestyle is debt-based i.e. they live through debts and whatever wages they get is paid to discharge that. In short, they are at the mercy of the employer and the local administration where they work.

The reasons behind the migrant crisis in India

The crisis was not a result of hasty planning as few would like to make it. This was a complete systematic failure created by years of institutional debauchery, legislative absurdity and a societal apathy that characterises our growth.

Firstly, every urban centre and state has always focussed on its ‘own’ people. The residents have always received undue preference over the migrants who have been used as fodder for the machines than run the factories and urban centres. The migrants are generally not given the same level of healthcare, social and economic rights available to the residents.

Secondly and most importantly, the legislative mess that we have in the country in the name of labour laws only created more obstacles in the formalization of the economy. The sheer absurdities in the name of compliances are nothing but a vulgar display of power that bureaucracy wishes to exercise on the businesses. The distrust between the government and businesses also contributed to the informal economy where the workers were systematically and institutionally segregated.

Thirdly, superficial and unimplementable measures were taken which only accelerated the crisis. The order dated 29th March 2020 by the Ministry of Home Affairs directing the employers to pay their workers on time only hastened the process by which these migrant workers engaged in the informal sectors were forced to move from their workplaces. The Order should have focussed on food and shelter rather than the wages.

Fourthly, no one can argue that the hastily announced and badly planned lockdown triggered the crisis. The lockdown was announced without even considering the migrant workers. The special trains and busses were not arranged and planned at the initial stages, as they should have been. The migrant workers were largely left untouched by the relief package announced by the Union Government. While certain state governments such as Assam and Uttar Pradesh did act with required sensitivity and alacrity to provide relief to its workers stranded outside their territories, states like Bihar, Delhi, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and West Bengal completely failed to rise up to the occasion.

Lastly, the failure by the state governments to take steps to protect their people who went outside these states also created a situation where these migrant workers were left without a social security cover at either places. Most of them did not receive support either from the origin state or the host state. Left on their own by the state, they were left with no option but to march along the shiny highways- to their villages where they could expect sympathetic neighbours and relatives, at the very least.

One must note that these workers have the constitutional right to travel across the states to find work. They are entitled to be treated in the same manner as a state treats the workforce from its own state. They have a right to dignified life in the state they work and live temporarily. However, in practice, they are treated as the necessary fuel that runs the factories and urban centres without affording them the necessary social and economic rights.

We must also mention the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, a key piece of legislation targeted specifically for the protection of the internal migrants. The act has several features and a few important ones among them are- (a) registration of the migrants by the employers; (b) submission of details of migrant worker to appropriate local authority; (c) parity of wages between migrant and resident workers; (d) provisioning of allowances such as displacement allowance, journey allowance and paid journeys; (e) provisioning of suitable accommodation and access to medical facilities. A number of these allowances and facilities are over and above the requirements for non-migrant workers. Naturally, a number of states have not implemented this legislation in the manner it was envisaged. The onerous compliances and maze-like regulations that characterise this act makes hiring migrant workers more costly, onerous and difficult when compared to resident workers. This also increases the chances of these workers being pushed into the informal economy.

The Way Forward

The problem of migrant crisis wasn’t created in a day and cannot be solved with quick fixes. The COVID-19 merely brought the crisis to the forefront and showed how thoroughly India is unequipped to handle a sudden migrant crisis. There has to be an understanding of the crisis and its reasons before we can start assessing the problem for likely solutions.

Firstly, the data we have right now to draft major policy frameworks to help the migrants. The migrant crisis was almost invisible to the government and society at the large till it took a severe turn. As of now, it is scattered and full of contradictions and factual errors. India desperately needs a migrant register which may be prepared by state authorities and collated by the centre. The data has to be clear and received from the district level. Unless we know who the migrants are and what is their pattern of movement across the state, there is no way any effective policy can be drafted or put in place.

Secondly, there is a dire need to focus on formalisation of the economy.Demonetization, Goods and Services Tax (GST), and the Direct benefit Transfer through Jan-Dhan, Aadhar and Mobile (JAM) are clearly the good steps. But are they enough? The answer will be negative. At the outset, focus should be on rationalizing the labour laws- especially, there is a dire need to reform the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979. We have to make it more convenient and cost effective for the employers to hire migrant workers and introduce them in the formal economy. These draconian license-raj laws have to give way to new flexible, modern and technologically adaptable labour regulations. Thankfully, the centre and the states are working on a mission mode in this regard. Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Tripura have already eased the labour laws to attract more investments and ensure a quick pace for formalization of the economy.

Thirdly, our politics and economics has to be one that shows responsibility. Our focus has to be on providing a right to life which has dignity, social, economic, and legal rights bundled with it. The negligent and indifferent act of the state has to end. The regional politics has to give way to a more coordinated and empathy driven politics. The focus should be on seamless migration where the migrant comes to a new state bundled with his social security package and treated as a resource, as a guest worker (as was done in Kerala) rather than a burden on state resources, as Maharashtra recently did.

Fourthly, the apathy of the state towards businesses has to end too. The state and the industry has to be the natural partners in the endeavour to ensure socially secure working conditions for the migrant labours. The industry can’t be subjected to whims and fancies of the state where arbitrary and draconian orders are passed without considering the troubled status of the businesses. A wide-ranging consultative mechanism has to be established to take industry inputs before making such hasty decisions.

Fifthly, the centre will have to focus on the states which suffer large-scale migrations and focus on creating manufacturing SEZs and jobs there. The supply chains will have to be reassessed. No economy can function in the long run which has more than 40 million internal migrants which are daily wagers. The number of inter-state migrants has to be reduced and the only way to do this is to create jobs and opportunities in these states. Kerala already has such a department called Department of Non-Resident Keralite Affairs which can be adopted by other states.

Sixthly, the state will have to focus on social security aspects of the entire population as a whole than merely the migrants. The Aadhar details can be used to create universal social security teams and then subsequent classifications or exemptions can be implemented with the help of technology. The Governments may also contemplate a self-registration mechanism for the migrants which ensures that their movement and locations are documented and they can avail the social security benefits accordingly. The schemes such as Ujjwala, PDS and ICDS can be linked solely to Aadhar and made portable.

Seventhly, in the short term, we will also have to address this crisis. The states should be encouraged to engage and keep the migrant workers where they are. However, if they are unable to, they must engage with other states and centre to ensure safe travel for these migrants. Their Aadhar card can be used to track their movements and native locations. The focus has to be on the safety of these workers and their families and communities when they go back to their native places. These workers also deserve the level of screening and quarantine as offered to the returnees of the Vande Bharat mission. However, as we plan to reopen the economies- national, state and local, the need for these workers will only increase. Therefore, the best possible way would be to ensure that they stay at their workplaces. Karnataka and Telangana have already started taking steps to retain the workers.

The Covid-19 crisis is the new normal and the pandemic is here to stay. In fact, the possibility of a second wave is also a lot. The Governments world over have indicated that unless a vaccine comes, the virus is unlikely to disappear and may continue for long. This reverse migration will have to be addressed keeping in mind this new normal. However, one can only hope that this Covid-19 crisis will usher the reforms that will avert another migrant crisis in coming times.

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