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The Pandemic Revealed India’s Invisible Workforce

COVID-19 shone a harsh light on the plight of India’s migrant workers. Now legislative changes are finally in the offing to better their lot.

By Neeta Lal for
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The Pandemic Revealed India’s Invisible Workforce

In this May 30, 2020 photo, Indian migrant workers and their children look out from the window of their train in Prayagraj, India as they return to their villages.

Credit: AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh

Images of thousands of Indian migrant laborers trudging home barefoot with women and children in tow, or packed sardine-like in overcrowded trucks and trains to be ferried to their native villages from host states have been tugging at the nation’s conscience for months.

Ever since the country of over 1.3 billion people was locked down on four hours’ notice on March 25, the migrants’ mass exodus from cities has created a humanitarian and health security challenge and an unprecedented logistical nightmare. Bereft of accommodation and savings, the poor suddenly found themselves out of jobs with the overnight shutdown of factories.

According to industry estimates, about 80 percent of India’s 470 million workers are employed in the unorganized sector. Pulling rickshaws, selling vegetables, building malls, or working as domestic help, they toil to keep the wheels of the informal economy turning.

The hitherto invisible migrants’ sudden explosion into mainstream media coverage amid the COVID-19 lockdown also shone a light on their Dickensian working conditions, exposing the dark underbelly of India’s labor industry. Reports have highlighted how the underpaid workers remain outside of the ambit of laws, with no social security nets to boot.

Their plight has also triggered vociferous protests from the media and civil rights organizations, which seem to have nudged the central government into action. Legislative changes are finally in the offing to better the lot of migrant workers. For starters, the phrase “migrant workers” is being redefined under a special labor code to provide them with social security and health benefits under the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation.

The anachronistic Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation and Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, will also be subsumed under a new labor code to provide enhanced wages to the workers. These will be no less than those fixed under the Minimum Wages Act of 1948. As notified by the center in October 2019, the minimum wages for unskilled agricultural and industrial workers are now 347 rupees ($4.60) per day and 403 ($5.34) rupees per day, respectively.

The legal framework will also be bolstered to be applicable to individual migrant workers as well as domestic help who earn up to a specified amount. “The workers will also be issued an Identification Number. Social security benefits, such as pension and healthcare, will also be a part of the new package. In addition, the employers will also have to provide a displacement allowance of 50 percent of the wages and fares in addition to wages during any disruption period,” informs an official at the Ministry of Labor.

To further ensure a seamless execution of the new code, labor inspectors will conduct surprise checks and a two-year jail sentence may be imposed on any company or individual for obstructing the inspectors’ work. Violators of the new labor code can face a jail term of up to a year and a fine of $15.

To benchmark minimum wages for different states, the wage floor for interstate migrant workers is being fixed to ensure uniformity across different states. The Ministry of Labor and Employment is also in the process of consolidating over 40 labor laws into a set of four labor codes, which will govern industrial relations, working conditions, remuneration, and social security.

The new measures haven’t come a day too soon. Indian migrant workers are currently governed by a host of anachronistic laws, including the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979. The four-decade-old act, introduced to regulate the employment of workers who migrate between states, has failed miserably to protect workers’ rights.

Bheem Prakash, a NOIDA (Uttar Pradesh)-based lawyer and social activist, says loopholes in the current laws are exploited with impunity by rapacious agents and contractors. “Many extort almost half the salaries of the poor workers through threats and coercions. Grueling working conditions only make it worse. No working hours are fixed for these workers in factories. They often have to work on all seven days with no overtime and under challenging conditions,” says Prakash, who took two agents to court for cheating laborers from Bihar. The court’s verdict is still pending.

According to the activist, migrant workers become easy prey for middlemen as few of them bother to enroll with government agencies. Lax implementation of regulations only adds to the mess. “There is no provision for companies to file annual reports on migrant workers employed and salaries/allowances paid to them. This creates lack of transparency and encourages inspectors to misuse their power by soliciting favors from employers,” elaborates the activist.

The World Bank’s India country director, Junaid Kamal Ahmad, recently slammed the country’s labor policies emphasizing the need for the center and states to work in synergy to create a more conducive employment ecosystem for laborers. The need for greater center-state cooperation is all the more imperative, say experts, as labor is a concurrent subject. This means that powers rest with both the center and the state government to craft labor laws and regulations.

The need for greater center-state coordination was also highlighted recently when several states tweaked labor laws pertaining to migrants’ wages and working hours in the rush to ferry them back to help in the recovery of the virus-hit factories after a prolonged lockdown. The violation of basic workers’ rights by the state governments created a backlash from trade unions.

The failure of the Union government to check these violations led the trade unions to complain to the International Labor Organization, the World Federation of Trade Unions, and the International Trade Union Congress. In a letter to the ILO, quoted by The Wire, the trade unions declared that they “consider these moves as an inhuman crime and brutality on the working people.”

“The suspension and dilution of labor law protections of workers by some state governments during the ongoing coronavirus crisis are devastating the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of poor workers,” says Kirat Singh, a Ludhiana-based trade union leader. “Under the garb of providing work to the migrants, the government’s anti-worker policies have facilitated the exploitation of workers.”

The protests led the International Labor Organization to intervene and comment that legal amendments should emanate from tripartite consultations involving all stakeholders — the government, the workers, and the employers — and not unilaterally.

Some experts have also highlighted the urgency of conducting a fresh census to calculate the exact number of migrants. This tabulation, they add, will help in better policy formulation and aid equitable distribution of resources during emergencies such as the current pandemic.

Lakshmi Puri, erstwhile assistant secretary general at the United Nations, writes in an article for the Hindustan Times that it is vital to collect and update comprehensive migrant worker-related data and statistics. Going beyond the 10-year census exercise, it is important to categorize migrants by skill, sector, and gender at the state and national level, Puri argues. The absence of this categorization, she elaborates, “has blindsided us on the scale of the migrant labor challenge and frustrated efforts to reach them to help with food, cash transfers, health services, shelter or relocation to home/host states.”

As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and various Conventions of the ILO, India is bound by law to uphold the security and dignity of its poor workers. Its failure to do so will only give the world’s fifth largest economy more labor pains.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based editor and journalist.