Woes of India’s migrant workforce

The quantum of precarity that informal workers, particularly migrant ones, have to face, directly affects their resilience and ability to recover from the pandemic lockdown shocks.

 This is part of our special issue on May Day 2022.

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THE pandemic lockdown exposed the fault lines of our development. The insensitivity, with which India’s migrant workers were treated, was witnessed by the whole world. The post-COVID recovery phase too continues to be marred by worker abuses.

At present, the Working Peoples’ Charter [WPC] coalition, an initiative to bring together organizations working on issues related to informal labour, gets approximately 15-20 complaints every day at the India Labour-Line, a mediation and legal aid centre established as an alternate governance system, grounded on decades of on-field experiences of workers’ woes with no institutional framework or labour governance system to redress. These relate to cases of wage thefts, harassments, accidents and injuries.

Also read: India Labourline launched: a new national labour helpline to serve India’s informal workers

India Labour-Line was started in response to the urgency to create a framework to bridge the gap in providing legal aid and mediation services for the problems faced by the workers at the worksite. Since its inception in July 2021, India Labour-Line has till date registered 5.5 crore wage theft cases from 18 states. This explicitly shows the quantum of precariousness that informal workers, particularly migrant ones, have to face, which directly affects their resilience and ability to recover from the pandemic lockdown shocks.

Since its inception in July 2021, India Labour-Line has till date registered 5.5 crore wage theft cases from 18 states. This explicitly shows the quantum of precariousness that informal workers, particularly migrant ones, have to face, which directly affects their resilience and ability to recover from the pandemic lockdown shocks.

At a crucial time for workers, the labour governance architecture is in a state of suspension right now, with stakeholders not clear as to what rules to institute and abide by. The new labour codes have not been implemented, with no state government finalising rules/regulations or extending actual entitlements to workers mentioned in the Codes. Many draft policy documents highlighted the work conditions and lack of justice systems for migrant workers, including NITI Aayog’s draft policy on migrant workers, but they are still waiting to see the light of the day. A few state governments have formulated welfare policies to provide support to migrant workers, but they still await any form of meaningful implementation on the ground.

A wide range of feasible policy proposals, such as the National Relief package proposed by WPC, could have been immediately implemented within the existing institutional framework. But the Union Government has shown extreme parsimony. Similarly, the Affordable Rental Housing Complex [ARHC] scheme was announced on July 20, 2020 under the Pradhan Mantri Aawas Yojana (Urban) as a relief measure in response to the mass exodus of migrants from urban centres. While the National Urban Rental Housing Policy of 2015 (draft) and the Model Tenancy Act, 2019 give a policy framework for regulation and creation of rental housing stock, only a total of 83,534 in 13 states was the quantum of vacant housing, of which 5,487 houses have been converted into ARHC. Close to 2 years into the implementation of the scheme, the performance rate is a dismal 6.55 per cent.

Also read: ARHC Scheme Falls Short Of Solving Rental Housing Issues

What should be done?

  • Recognise migrant workers: Right now, there is no clarity on howe-SHRAM will work with existing databases on informal workers and how to connect labourers to welfare schemes. There is no assurance on e-SHRAM beyond recognition of informality. Therefore, the government needs to ensure proper recognition of the migrant workers as a priority.
  • Give relief to migrant workers: Even as the formal economy and Gross Domestic Product recover, there needs to be a specific stimulus to migrant and informal workers to compensate for lost income and savings, and address accrued debt, along the lines of the proposed National Relief Package.
  • Protect migrant workers: Making occupational health and safety a fundamental right at work would reduce the toll of death, injury and illness. The centennial International Labour Organization conference was held nearly three years ago, even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and it wasagreed that occupational health and safety should become a fundamental right at work.
  • Create employment for migrant workers: Urban employment programmes have been announced or implemented only bysix state governments, but remain limited in scope, are not equivalent to large-scale job guarantee programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and are not gender-responsive, especially in light of increased migration of women and children to the cities.
  • Make policies for and with migrant workers: Labour policy architecture cannot be in uncertainty at a time when workers are in crisis.A comprehensive policy and legislation encapsulating the Sustainable Development Goals 8.8 and 10.7 for the migrant workers needs to be developed, enacted and implemented.
  • House migrant workers: There is an urgent need for housing for migrant and informal workers, and multi-pronged approaches of slum up-gradation, worksite housing and redevelopment of sustainable and adequate rental housing, including secure temporary housing for migrant workers.

Only a total of 83,534 in 13 states was the quantum of vacant housing, of which 5,487 houses have been converted into ARHC. Close to 2 years into the implementation of the scheme, the performance rate is a dismal 6.55 per cent.

Also read: Migrants’ livelihoods during the pandemic: Challenges and opportunities

The union government in collaboration with state governments have to urgently address the key demands and concerns mentioned above. The WPC stands as a collective voice of informal workers in India, which is demanding equity, social justice, dignity as well as a holistic and universal social protection for all.

(This article is inspired by, and based on, a statement by the WPC published on March 24, 2022.)