Much has been said, researched, opined post the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns about the impact of Covid on millions of lives; pushing an estimated 230 million people into poverty in India. Migrant workers, being one of the most vulnerable and diverse populations, yet often invisible, also gained a renewed focus amongst both the public and in policy. Unfortunately, the extended pandemic has only exacerbated their condition of years of systematic failure in labour protection by government after government.
The four Labour Legislations- the Code on Wages, Industrial Relations Code, Social Security Code and the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code — replacing and subsuming 29 previously existing labour laws. These Labour Codes could have been a chance for the States to provide security and protection to workers particularly after its delayed and lackluster response at the outset of the crisis.
Instead we saw a horrifying measure of suspension of certain laws in the name of ‘ease of doing business’, saw protests from lakhs of workers and unions across the country including RSS affiliated Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh one of them stating that these issues had been aggravated “mainly because there is gross violation of the Migrant Labour Act by most of the States. Hence we are pushed to the wall and there is no other way out except going for agitation.”
Development, but at what cost?
The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 was subsumed into one of the four new codes on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Act instead of the demand to further strengthen and separate the Act owing to bureaucratic and political hurdles.
The Act also fails to mention intra-state migrants, about 40 million in 2011 which even the Government’s Working Group on Migration agreed is an underestimate to the actual numbers. Also the question of rationale behind excluding workers who earn more than INR 18,000 or how the amount was calculated should be prodded. The previous draft also had provision for ‘displacement amount’ i.e a travel allowance of sorts which is crucial and a huge part of the lives of migrant workers.
When the Economic Census of 2013-2014 itself stated that a mere 30% of establishments employ 6 or more workers- then the threshold limit for applicability of these Codes should be strongly questioned for leaving out millions of workers.
For a group as diverse as ‘migrant workers’ the policy needs clear provisions detailing the multiple types of work and workers in terms of contracts, wages, employer relationship, kind of work, etc. This should be in fact an apparent learning post the Unorganised Worker Social Security Act 2008.
The current code on Social Security continues to have loopholes
For instance, the maternity benefit provisions are only applicable to registered factories, mines, shops, establishments with a minimum number of employees. Essentially if say your domestic worker is arbitrarily removed due to pregnancy or requires leave there is no law guaranteeing her the protection. This example must not be far from home- privileged class (i.e caste) women who argue for maternity leaves and benefits can absolutely ignore the same to their domestic worker and have zero repercussions.
In fact, women in the labour market, particularly migrant women’s issues are intersectional with manifold barriers. The data routinely marks their migration only due to marriage and their identity as a worker is seldom recognized. Often their work is as a helper along with their husband/father and paid as jodi or within homes.
The recent Working Group on Migration‘s report in 2017 noted in detail the lacunae in Census and state administration on not accounting the caste identity of migrant workers. Often some communities are considered SC/ST in one state but lose that status in another.
What this essentially means is that one could be one of the most vulnerable and marginalized social group but lose their identity or access to resources as attempted by affirmative action while migrating to another. On the other hand their identity for all practical purposes remains very much alive thus not significantly helping their socio-economic conditions.
Lessons from Kerala
When we look at schemes and policies specifically for migrant workers, Kerala emerges far ahead than its peers. From a leading Malayalam commercial film having a song in Bengali to health announcements in four or more languages- the trajectory of migrant influence is high. One of the first states to enact a social security scheme – Interstate Migrant Workers Welfare Scheme 2010 (ISMWWS), the state of Kerala provides for treatment benefits in government hospitals, maternity benefits, compensation to family on death as well as body repatriation, etc for migrant workers aged 18-59 for an annual membership of INR 30.
Under the respective labour departments the form can be filled. In Ernakulam District for instance, Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (a non-profit working for social inclusion of migrant workers) works in collaboration with the District Labour Office Ernakulam, through its facilitation centre and even outreach work helps workers fill the forms. When a certain number of forms are filled officials themselves come to the centre or where the workers are situated and help complete the process. This also serves as a prime example of civil society-government partnerships.
However, for an estimated 4 million workers a mere 38,173 were registered between 2012-2017 (with only 25% of these being women). The introduction of AAWAZ insurance scheme with similar benefits is a duplication of the procedure with same (if not lesser benefits comparatively) but also includes a disturbing ambit of biometric data collection.
Not surprisingly when 35 people from a brick kiln near Kanjoor, Ernakulam were asked about both the schemes none of them were aware of the same. Ezajul* a 30 year old worker in a crusher proudly showed the card when asked if he had made ‘neela labour card’ but did not know about its benefits nor had he availed the same during his last hospital visit.
There is barely any awareness or attempt of the same leading to these dismal figures. This serves as an important lesson not just for Kerala but other states as well. An updated ISMWWS is a much required policy intervention that should be emulated in other states, especially popular destination regions like Maharashtra, NCR Delhi, Gujarat, etc. Other initiatives by the state include appointing Teaching volunteers who speak regional language of migrant children in select schools under Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan to the National Health Mission’s Atithi Devo Bhavo campaign conducting health camps, free testing and various other healthcare interventions for migrants.
Data and Dignity to Ensure Workers’ Rights
One of the key challenges to protecting workers is the informality in the labour market – who form an overwhelming 90% of the total labour force. There can be no proper policy intervention when there is an absolute lack of data of the actual number of migrants in each state. It is important to enumerate the migration patterns, identify and forge collaborations in migration corridors that have been formed to design any intervention in source-destination.
For example Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development and Gram Vikas collaborate and work in the Odissa-Kerala corridor to assist in grievances of workers migrating from the former to the latter, which range from support during transportation after lockdown, body repatriation, job opportunities, missing persons, grievance with employers, etc.
The prominent role that caste identity plays amongst the workers proves the urgent need to also include caste, gender identities in any such enumeration. Only then the question of registering the workers to ensure accountability and protection or even mapping high out-migration areas for intervention can be envisaged and initiated.
The next important factor would be universalization of social security benefits. Insurance, healthcare, pensions, etc. are not just reserved for the privileged classes but for workers earning low/infrequent wages in informal arrangements it should be a necessity. Demanding for dignified work and living conditions becomes important particularly when migrant workers are yet to collectivise and be part of trade unions. This will also address an often ignored aspect of socio-cultural needs of the workers for a holistic inclusion of migrants in the society.
This article was first published on Youth Ki Aawaz as a part of the Justice Makers Writer’s Training Program