COVID-19: Plights of Migrant Labourers & Exposed Weak Systems

Migrant Labourers

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This article ‘COVID-19: Plights of Migrant Labourers and Exposed Weak Systems’ gives an insight into the existing Migrant Labourers Acts and highlights their vulnerability.

Introduction

The Indian economy has been advancing at a very rapid rate. The contribution of each and every sector of the society is facilitating the overall development of the Indian society. But it is harrowing to know that it is only the contribution of the rich or dominant class of the society that is highlighted and the enormous efforts by the working class are neglected.

The workers are now suddenly being called heroes and their rights have become a hot topic. This is because due to the corona pandemic, the lockdown has been imposed which has affected this class very badly. They are the daily earners and daily spenders and now are left without any source of income and are thirsting for their basic needs.

“We rise only at the time crisis”

clearly explains the situation of these labourers in society. They remain invisible except during the crisis when their rights are discussed because they suffer the most. Before imposing the lockdown, the vulnerability of the Bihari service providers that are working in Delhi, Bengali workers who are working in Kerala and such many more labourers working in unorganized sectors in other states, was not kept in mind. The condition is getting worse due to the neglect of the government and the lack of legal mandates.

Indian Labour Laws: Existing Migrant Labourers Acts

It is the duty of both the centre and the state governments to take care of the welfare of the labourers but still, there is only one act “Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979” which checks the exploitation of the migrant labourers and regulates their services. The act gives the definition of an inter-state migrant workman[i] and describes him as a person who is from a particular state but is employed by a contractor in some other state. These workers leave their home, move to another place, and gets themselves registered there with some employee for daily work.

The Act incorporates the registration of the labourers, their displacement and journey allowances, obligations of the contractor, and legal aid to workers but the act has failed in its implementation. The Act is archaic, obsolete, complex, and inflexible and hence is hardly enforced anywhere. An amendment was proposed in 2011, but it still did not deal with the implementation problem. The implementation of the Act fails further as some of these migrant workers are considered contract labourers which is even the worst form of labour [ii] and then they are regulated by the Contract Labour Act, 1970. But this Act again does not ensure the social security of the migrant workers nor considers their journey allowances.

Unorganised Workers Social Security Act was passed in 2008 which also includes the migrant labourers and provides 10 schemes for the workers below the BPL. The act enacts legislation covering every aspect of social security but still has not proven helpful to migrant labourers. The act does not have special legislation either for agricultural migrant workers or for women. It has no provision for action against the employee who does not register the unorganized sector’s labourer and these migrant labourers remaining registered could not get the benefit of schemes.[iii]

The provisions listed under Workmen’s Compensation Act 1923; The Payment of Wages Act 1936; The Employees’ State Insurance Act 1948; The Employees’ Provident Funds and Misc. Provision Act, 1952, and the Maternity Benefit Act 1961 should also benefit the inter-state migrant labourers [iv] but none of these directly addresses the issues and problems of migrant workers and hence lay useless during the present plights of the labourers.

Covid-19 For Labourers

The condition of these labourers who left their families for employment gets critical as the lockdown extends. They are homeless, having no source of income, running out of resources, and have no facility to travel back home. These people not only bear the expenses of their own self but also their far living families. Hence, now not being paid their wages and being away from their families they have started to trek miles to reach home as they do not have any other option. But the government is restricting their movements and they are forced to stay in shelter homes where they are not provided with the proper diet even.

In the case of Standard Vacuum Refining Company of India Ltd v. Its workmen[v], the SC emphasized on the condition of the working class, issued guidelines and declared the rights of these people as an absolute necessity.”[vi]

And the current state of migrant labourers is violative of the articles 14, 16, 19, 23,24, 39, 39A of the constitution and hence it becomes the responsibility of the judicial system to help these workers.

Considering the helplessness of the labourers and violation of their fundamental rights different PIL’s have been filed for them. A Public Interest Litigation has been filed by Harsh Mander and Anjali Bharadwaj under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution to ensure minimum wages to all the Migrant workers. Advocate Reepak Kansal also filed a PIL to ask the court to provide basic necessities like food, shelter, and medical aid to the Migrant labourers.[vii]

Another PIL was filed under Article 14,19 and 21 of the Indian constitution in the Apex Court urging it to direct the central as well as state government to allow the Migrant workers to return to their hometowns after testing them of the growing pandemic, COVID-19, and also the authorities to arrange for their safe travel back home.

The Supreme Court has asked the government to provide food, shelter and other basic needs of these labourers, pay them their remaining wages and ensured to restart some of the industries to help them regain employment but did not allow them to go back to their homes nor took steps to rectify the loopholes in the existent acts.

Security Measures

Tough the PIL’s brought relief to these labourers, there is a need to take stringent steps for the welfare of this usually invisible but important stratum of the society. Some of the steps that can be taken care:

  • The already existing acts must be amended to include the problems of the migrant labourers and their implementation must be ascertained. Some accessible and reliable social security platforms must be constructed and should be provided with statutory and legal architecture.
  • The labourers and the workers are divided into different classes and categories and the latest Social Security Bill, 2019 is silent on the inclusion of the ‘migrant labourers’ thus a single definition as given in draft Labor Code on Social Security & Welfare, 2018 of a common class of worker should be used and all the benefits must be given to every category of the labourers.
  • There are no proper statistics on how many migrant workers are presently working, which makes policy formulation a tough task. Hence, a proper census must be there to include all and then measures must be taken accordingly.
  • The complex structures of the business models need to be deeply studied deeply, in order to extract the meaning of social security and labour welfare. Special attention to the social security of workers should be given in those areas where there is no fixed employee-employer relationship, like the MSME sector.

Conclusion

The spread of Corona across the country and the lockdown has brought the topic of security of migrants in news. Labourers form an important part of our economy as well as our society but they are also the most vulnerable class whose rights are never discussed. Amongst these classes, the Migrant labourers are even more prone as they leave their home state in the first place and then work in the lamentable state without any guarantee or insurances. Besides earning for themselves, they have to fulfil the needs of their families but being uneducated is unaware of their rights.

Hence, it becomes the responsibility of the government to take necessary steps and the judiciary to uphold their rights not only during the crisis but always. The breakdown has revealed the insufficiency of our system and the loopholes in the existing acts and now stringent steps must be taken to safeguard the rights of migrant labourers and to prevent their such condition ever again.


By: Akshat Jaithlia and Ridhima Chadda


References

[i] Section 2(e), Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979.

[ii] Shri Chintaman Rao v. State of Madhya Pradesh, SCR 1958, P.1340.

[iii] Preethikumar, A critical study on social security and working of the unorganised worker’s social security act 2008, available here (last accessed on 30 April 2020).

[iv] Bandhua Mukhti Morcha v. Union of India (1997) 10 SCC 549.

[v] 1999, SCC (L & S) 765.

[vi] Inter-State Migrants – The Law and Judiciary, Chapter 4.

[vii] Ashish Tripathi, PIL filed in Supreme Court to ensure migrant workers get food grains, April 17, 2020, available here (last accessed on 1 May 2020).


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Author: Akshat Jaithlia and Ridhima Chadda