As the nation endeavours to navigate through these anomalous times, Workers have lost their lives while walking home. Others have been caught and quarantined in dismal conditions. Several have gone back only to be disowned by family members, and the stories go on. In this context—amidst exploring ways to ameliorate the current situation of migrants— we must strive to pave a way forward based on initiating sustainable institutional mechanisms.
The core institutional responses essential during this time are bolstering rural ecosystems and generating socio-economic opportunities, comprehensive data enumeration so that we can track migrants and strengthening the policy framework to ensure better future protection.
According to a by Jan Sahas, 92.5% of labourers have already lost work ranging from one week to three weeks. To combat financial strains, the Centre and the States should work closely to create opportunities in source areas through investment in skills, utilising schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana.
Opportunities can be created in semi-skilled and unskilled jobs wherein the wage rate should be at par with jobs that prompt migration such as construction work in destination states. Alternatively, a convergence platform can be created with MGNREGS to provide immediate job opportunities.
Overturning the crisis into an opportunity to develop rural economies–it serves as a window to promote entrepreneurship and viable ecosystems. Initiatives such as setting up of large scale storage processes would encourage employment and also serve to support the farming sector in rural areas.
Secondly, workers can be looped into the various manufacturing opportunities that will crop up as the crisis begins to ease. The manufacturing units may be directed to employ a specified percentage of semi-skilled and unskilled workers (in plumbing, carpentry etc.).
Thirdly, the outreach of the various social security platforms should be enhanced by registering more informal workers as Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (EPFO) subscribers and tightening the monitoring processes in order to ensure that employers are not negligent about depositing the money.
In the short term, relief measures for EPFO subscribers should be made widely accessible. At present this is only applicable for establishments with up to 100 employees, where 90% of employees draw less than a ₹15,000 salary. In Tamil Nadu, these provisions exclude a large segment of workers because most units in the textile industries employ more than 100 workers to ensure that the company can run for all the shifts.
Moreover, funds should also be released under Employees’ State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) for the registered workers in order to mitigate the adverse impact of most companies denying to pay wages for the period of the lockdown.
Countless have fallen through the cracks of relief. As per the conducted by Jan Sahas, only 18.8% of the respondents possess BOCW cards required to access the income support declared under the Building and Other Construction Workers (BOCW) Welfare Fund. Further, the mass exodus of migrant workers from cities has put an unprecedented strain on state governments. , an IWG member NGO in Tamil Nadu, highlighted the underprepared nature of medical facilities and quarantine measures for the returning workers–owing to the lack of data available to keep track of the migrant settlements. The availability of sound data is crucial in order to efficiently strategise response during emergencies, better central planning, and smooth portability of welfare schemes through a central account of all beneficiaries.
In present times, there is a severe dearth of comprehensive data about the migrants making it essential to ensure a uniform database pertaining to the migrant workforce.
Decentralising the process, such a database can be maintained through the practice of panchayat-level registers–registration of workers in migration registers at the source and destination panchayats. This, in turn, can be compiled by the respective state governments to ultimately contribute to a standard database. The registers can also serve as documentation to prove migration and access welfare benefits in the destination state to help ensure the smooth portability of entitlements. Further, it can help keep track of migration patterns to adjust the central aid to states under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), removing any incentive to favour local population over migrants.
Alternatively, the process of digitising present migrant records which are already maintained at the local government level should be initiated. Equipped with an MIS (Management Information System) linkage system–it would allow the officials to upload real-time beneficiary data as well as extract and filter the same.
Lastly, on the need for a stronger policy framework. As by the Parliamentary Standing Committee of Labour, a separate chapter on migrant workers should be formulated by the Ministry of Labour and Employment in the Occupation, Safety, Health, and Working Conditions Code (OSH), 2019, giving this section of the community the requisite legislative support. This should be supplemented by welfare provisions for migrant workers in the Code, such as dignified residential facilities at the destination states.
Institutional mechanisms serve as a vital cog in the process of building the trust of the public consciousness in the system. The sheer sight of migrants choosing to walk back home despite being promised assistance conveys a gaping, and so far well-founded, distrust in the government machinery. It is thus fundamental to build a relationship of faith in order to build their confidence in the governing systems and ensuring that their voices shall never be invisible again.
Contributors: The India Working Group against Human Trafficking (IWG)
Authors: Neha Mallick, Mehar Jauhar, and Haris Najib from Swaniti Initiative.