The Indian migrant worker: victim of a pandemic or much more?

By Saumya, PhD student from National Law University, Delhi and Visiting Research Student at the University of Antwerp

Picture from aljazeera.com

he world falters under the spell of the virus, and India is no exception. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is turning out to be as much a socio-economic battle in India as it is a health crisis. Initial efforts at curbing the havoc unleashed by the virus were quick, reasonably strict and commendable, which helped to keep the number of the infected comparatively low. But the herculean task of protecting more than 17% of the world’s population with limited resources could not be without problems. The overall situation was recently described on this blog.

As the pandemic tightened its grip on India, the more stringent lockdown measures once again exposed the fissures within Indian society. Any disaster inflicts pain the most on those who are not able to sail through it, in this case the poor and vulnerable who do not have enough financial means to sustain without making a living even for a week or so. The group includes contract labourers (not having permanent employment), daily wage labourers who have to think on a daily basis if they will be able to earn something or go without any money, piece rate workers who get paid depending on the number of products worked on and not on daily or hourly basis (such as the number of bangles made or garments stitched), self-employed people with a very small scale business such as tea-sellers, rickshaw pullers, etc. Characteristics running through the group include direct dependency on daily operation of factories, shops and offices, insecurity of employment and income, lack of social security, health benefits, paid leave, and other assistance. Quite ironically, such people who were clearly not in focus when the initial lockdown measures were designed, constitute at least two-thirds of the total workforce in India as per various surveys. They have been crucial in providing India the so-called ‘comparative advantage’ in the form of cheap labour when competing for more and more share in world trade. However when it comes to welfare policies or announcing emergency measures in events such as the present COVID-19 pandemic, safeguarding the interests of this group has simply not been part of the original plan. What is also unfortunate is that the approach of the State and the civil society towards such people is that of doing charity when the damage is done, rather than making long term structural investments which enable them sail through such times while preserving their dignity.

Picture from deccanherald.com

The arduous journey back home
Lockdown measures were first announced on the 24th of March, ordering all industrial and commercial establishments to close down and suspending all transport services except those necessary for manufacture and supply of essential goods and services. Left with no security and anticipating that the period of unemployment could prolong, the workers, who generally migrate from their villages in the non-industrialised states of India (such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar) to the industrialised regions (such as Maharashtra, Gujarat, Delhi), started heading back home mostly on foot. The nation was taken by surprise on the morning of 28th of March when thousands of migrant workers gathered on the border of the capital city after getting the news that state governments had finally managed to arrange buses to ferry them to their home states. The crowd just kept swelling as the hours passed by, and it was clear that the transport services arranged by the state governments were far from enough to accommodate the scale of exodus from the city. It took this chaos for the authorities to wake up to the plight of the migrant workers. The very next day on 29th of March, the Central government decided to restrict any movement of migrant workers and ordered the State governments to make arrangements for food and shelter, screening and quarantine facilities for 14 days for those workers who had already started their journey towards their home states. In addition, industrial and commercial establishments were prohibited from deducting any wages of workers during the period of lockdown, but this could hardly be followed. Moreover, landlords were asked not to demand rent from them for a month and to allow them to stay in the accommodation, or else face legal action. Various testimonies of the workers showed the initial inefficacy of such a move too, and exposed the insensitivity of the society as well towards the vulnerable groups.

Picture from Scroll.in

In the absence of long term structural and institutional support for such workers, the State and the civil society are scrambling to provide first aid mixed with charity. A number of relief packages have been announced for the poor which promise on providing free food grains and financial assistance to the registered workers. One may be surprised to note the government’s submissions to the Court in this regard, claiming that such welfare packages take care “of daily needs of every poor person, which include migrant workers as well as their respective families in their original villages, there was no necessity for migration workers to rush to their villages who started shifting from the place of their occupation to the place of their residence. Their daily needs were being taken care of wherever they were…” Complex logistical issues in the implementation of such schemes and laxity on part of state governments in doing so are a slap on the face of such tall claims.

One of the schemes aims at distribution of 5 kilograms of rice/wheat per person per month along with 1 kilogram of pulse per household for a period of 3 months. However this scheme relies on the Targeted Public Distribution System (PDS) which requires the beneficiary to have a Ration card (entitling the person to receive grains at subsidised rates), Aadhar Card (an identity card linked to biometric data of the person registered with the government), fingerprint authentication, etc., and the system has its own logistical difficulties. The Ration Cards are normally issued by the respective state governments and until recently, could not be used in any other state. The ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ scheme, enabling inter-state usage of Ration cards, was launched before the pandemic broke out, however its implementation is not complete. The Union Food Minister has also admitted that one, there is very limited awareness about this scheme among the migrant workers currently, and secondly, many states have suspended biometric authentication system in the PDS owing to fear of the corona virus infection spreading. Thus it is logistically very difficult for the migrant workers stuck outside their home states to reap any benefits from the relief packages announced by the government.

Similarly financial assistance has been advised for the registered workers of building and construction sector. It involves direct transfer of funds to the back account of workers out of the cess fund through the Construction Welfare Board (CWB) (cess is the amount which the employer at the construction project pays to the CWB, normally at the rate of 1% of the cost of the project). The scheme is worth an applaud, but also comes with a baggage of logistical hurdles which raises serious doubt on its actual efficacy. Apart from the fact that a significant number of construction workers are not registered, the existing registrations with the CWB have reportedly not been renewed leading to many invalid/ inactive registrations. (In Maharashtra, one of the leading industrialised states in India, approximately 50% of the registrations were found to be invalid). Slow process of renewal of registrations, corruption, under estimation of the cess amount and lack of efficient mechanisms to for its collection and transfer are other issues making this emergency welfare scheme very difficult to implement.

Picture from fes-asia.com

On 31.03.2020 the government claimed in the Supreme Court that the mass migration had stopped and that all the workers who were on their way home had been shifted to shelter homes and were being provided with adequate food and other amenities. However the numbers reported on the ground were simply overwhelming and the makeshift arrangements have not proven to be enough. National and even international media continued reporting from various places where workers could be seen walking back home hundreds of miles away to other towns or states, and the same situation has continued even during subsequent phases of lockdown. Meanwhile anger and resistance rose among the migrant workers due to prohibition on their movement and reported lack of facilities in the makeshift camps, leading to protests at several places demanding for means of transport. Workers were begging to go home, saying, “…Give us just one day. Provide us transport and lock the country down for as long as you want after that. Just get us home.”

Approximately a month after restricting the movement of migrant workers, the government woke up to the cries of the workers and ultimately issued orders for inter-state transportation of migrant workers via buses and special trains. Subsequently, this month the continuing plight of the workers still opting to walk to their homes hundreds of kilometres away owing to shortage of seats in the special trains prompted the central government to issue repeated requests to the states for arrangement of more such trains. However the logistical problems such as want of identity documents for booking of tickets, which are not possessed by a number of workers or their family members, lack of response from the government helpline number, etc., has still forced many workers to take to the roads walking hundreds of miles to reach home.

It is saddening to see the apathy of the State machinery towards this group in society. We heavily rely on these workers to build skyscrapers, make low cost products and to compete for becoming one of the world’s major economies, yet we tend to disown them the moment they become vulnerable. Continuing rise of irregular employment, poor implementation of social security and other rights of such workers in normal times, coupled with the fact that such a mass exodus of workers after imposing of lockdown was termed as an “unforeseen development” by the government, explains at length about how these workers are never the focus of our long terms policy priorities as well as our emergency measures. The operation of special buses and trains for the workers being an exercise supposed to be coordinated by the state governments, the reported delay and reluctance of the receiving states to coordinate with the other states trying to send the migrants back home, and also the alleged confusion over who is responsible to pay for the transport (the central government, the state governments or the workers themselves), are other examples showing how we use the workers to make a shining India, but consider them as a burden in times when we are not in a position to exploit their labour.

Some states went a step further and tried to encourage the workers from going home, solely with the hope that their services would be needed to revive the economy! One Indian state cancelled the special trains scheduled even after 240,000 workers had registered with the government in order to avail transport facility to go home, after an appeal from the Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association of India which was concerned that it would be impossible to revive construction activities in the state if the workers leave. Trains were restarted shortly, after heavy criticism, but not before many more workers had taken to the roads to walk back home hundreds of kilometres away. Meanwhile some other states have also started planning on how to use (rather expolit) the services of such migrant workers who are heading back home possibly to revive the state’s economy.

Planned annihilation of labour protection
Amidst this chaotic situation a number of states are making efforts to revive the economy and attract more business, and suspension of the most basic workers’ rights seems to be a major thrust towards doing so. At least nine to ten states have increased the maximum permissible limit of working hours to be 12 hours daily and 72 hours weekly, with or without overtime wages. One state that has stood out is the state of Uttar Pradesh which had proposed to suspend for a period of 3 years, most labour laws giving basic protection to workers such as minimum wages, social security, occupational health and safety, laws related to industrial disputes and trade unions, protection of contract labour, practically all grievance redressal mechanisms, and so on. (Only a few protections related to timely payment of wages, compensation to workmen for any injury in course of employment, law regulating terms of employment of building and other construction workers, provisions related to women and children, were saved). Such sweeping changes which effectively proposed to suspend central laws were introduced through an ordinance of the state executive, leading to serious doubts being raised on its constitutional validity. The ordinance is reportedly still pending with the President for his consent (as required under Article 254 of the Indian Constitution). Some other states have not gone to this far an extent, but have, for instance, decided to suspend the regulation on working hours, holidays, entitlement to leaves, temporary closures and layoffs, termination of employment, means of redress for unfair treatment, etc. for all undertakings who do not employ more than 100 workers. Exemptions have been proposed from laws related to occupational health and safety, contract labour and industrial disputes, making hire and fire easier. A number of relaxations from labour laws have also been announced for newly established undertakings. Quite contrary to all this, there are proposals to tweak other laws such as those providing for registration and licensing requirements for industrial and other establishments, land allocation for industries, etc., in favour of the corporate in a number of states.

Picture from arabnews.com

It is interesting to note that till now majority of the Indian states proposing to amend/ suspend the labour laws are those less industrialised, primarily agricultural states, which the migrant workers call home. With surplus labour at the moment, these states have reportedly been eyeing on increase in foreign investment by presenting themselves as viable alternatives to China, and probably to other Indian states. A number of states are already in talks with various companies in the US, EU and other regions in Asia. The aforesaid means adopted to attract such investment reinforces the age old myth of labour laws being antithetical to the cause of economic development (this has rarely been proved). Labour laws actually seem inconsistent with the neo-liberal agenda of profit maximization with minimum investments.

Since the year 1991, our policies have been pushing for a liberalised economy, with decreasing public investment in areas such as health and education. This has helped maintain the persistently less skilled and vulnerable population. It is also in tandem with the patterns of production used in the developing and under-developed countries in the neo-liberal era which include demand for cheap labour as a measure of reducing the cost of production, cutting down costs of provision of various facilities to workers, increasing demand for casual/ temporary labour, constant discouragement of collective bargaining practices, and entails labour deskilling. However such corporate strategies have also led to increasing socio- economic inequalities. Legal and political facilitation of such patterns and policies has not helped the population of any country to climb up the socio-economic ladder. It provides only short term gains to selected class of persons, but does not inculcate in the masses the core competencies to sail through such tough times as the present. Countries around the world have been able to witness real progress only after investing in human resources to increase skilled workers, technology and other core competencies, and providing income security, some areas in which India still lags far behind.

Perhaps the migrant workers might not have struggled so much to survive in the cities or to go back home had the labour welfare legislations been actually implemented. For instance under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, such workers are supposed to be registered with the state authorities (which would have ensured visibility) and are entitled to journey allowance as well as return fare for travelling back home. Other provisions are also supposed to ensure residential and health facilities for such workers. However unfortunately, this and other labour welfare legislations are notorious for disincentivising investment, encouraging existing businesses to disguise the hiring of workers, increasing informalisation, and creating the fear of huge compliance requirements and above all, increasing the cost of production. As a result we have above two-third of our workforce with irregular employment for which neither the corporate nor the state takes any responsibility. What is needed is to revamp these laws to enable them encourage formalisation. However as of now, the states in India seem to have taken a diagonally opposite course, trying to remove the safety net for all workers and thereby setting the reverse narrative in a bid to attract investment.

Most states have proposed to suspend labour laws for a period of 1000–1200 days, which roughly amounts to 3 years (except for the extension in working hours which is in force for 2–3 months). It is quite amusing to ponder over who is going to get conned after the said period is over — would the states be willing to go back to their less business friendly status by bringing all labour protection back into force, or will it lead to perpetuation of exploitative working conditions for all workers?

The absence of long term capacity building measures or the lack of their implementation makes our vulnerable population needful of charity (in the form of free cash, free food and so on), and also ensures that they will be requiring the same every time a tragedy strikes. In the present pandemic, the migrants walking on the roads are also a subject of pity, some succumbing to the harsh conditions, whereas some others are hailed as heroes for braving the odds. What we are forgetting in the process is that each time we subject them to such pity or charity instead of securing their rights, we take away certain aspects from the core of their dignity. The migrant workers are now going back home having lost their jobs, with no savings, either on foot, receiving some charity, getting beaten for violating the lockdown on the way or being heaped into the buses or trains, and back home the ground is perhaps being set for another round of their exploitative employment, if any, with no signs for them to escape this vicious cycle.

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This platform gathers analysis about society and development. The writers are part of the USOS network in Belgium, DRCongo, India, Morocco and Nicaragua.

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USOS international student blog

This platform gathers analysis about society and development. The writers are part of the USOS network in Belgium, DRCongo, India, Morocco and Nicaragua.