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India’s Migrant Crisis Is A Humanitarian Emergency

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

The nationwide lockdown announced on March 24 caused great distress to migrant workers around the country. Thousands of migrant workers are walking across India to go to their native place to reunite with their families, as it left the migrant workers with no money or jobs. They majorly depend upon daily earning to run their livelihood.

These migrant workers reside in one place and work at other particular places in search of a job to meet the need of their family; therefore, they move from one origin to a destination, or from the place of birth to another place, moving across borders as to find an opportunity.

Migrant workers finally leaving for their homes.

Will The Removal Of Labour Laws Actually Help Labourers?

According to the 2011 census, the migrants in our country toll to 37% (45.36 crores) of the country’s population. The statistics of the ILO report indicate that 95% of the workforce is in the informal sector. Nearly 81% of all employed persons in India make a living by working in the informal sector, with only 6.5% in the formal sector and 0.8% in the household sector, according to a new ILO (International Labour Organisation) report “Women and Men in the Informal Economy – A Statistical Picture (Third edition) 2018 states that “A majority of women in India are informal workers”.

The credit for the first association of Indian workers goes to the Bombay Mill-Hands Association, founded by N.M Lokhande in 1890. After independence until today, there is combined membership in the formal sector from 13.21 million in 1989 to 24.85 million in 2002. Almost all of The Central Trade Union Organisations now have at least 20% of members from the informal sector, which is very low compared to formal sector memberships.

Various states have proposed a suspension of labour protection laws by stating that the new law encourages industry to invest and promote jobs as removing labour laws will help states and abroad companies invest in the state. Most of the labour laws are made before 1950, and it is ancient and scattered, but these laws are fundamental for all workers. These laws are treated as guardians to protect basic human rights.

The existing labour laws mainly deal with the condition of workers, employment security, and the environmental condition of workers. For example, Factories act 1949 provides that industries should be clean of any fluids and fuels. The availability of ventilation, fresh air, well-maintained environment, clean and clear drinking water for everybody, etc. are all a basic need.

Under a new measure, the hiring process, along with the firing process of the migrants shall be easy, as there is no guarantee of rights that they had earlier, such as short notice period, limited working hour shift, etc. Such measures will trouble other states as new law adopted states would start competing with the existing legislation, which may be turn out to be a reverse of existing laws. Another hurdle is that a new law will be tested on constitutional grounds because new measures would force workers to choose between options available under a policy such as to be with existing employers and stay with protective right or to leave the protective right.

The Long Term Implications Of The Labour Law Amendments

migrant labourers amid lockdown
Migrant labourers amid lockdown.

All provisions of the new law will not apply to the migrant worker if he selects to work under another state. If the government suspend the labour laws then the minimum wages and timely payment will not become mandatory, working hours, overtime and pay weekly not compulsory, industries not legally bound to have a basic need, there will be no necessary government inspection routine because there is no jumble of proper paperwork as in earlier law has. All other connected acts, such as maternity benefit act, equal protection act, and sexual harassment at the workplace act, will automatically get suspended as a new law does not have an express provision to include existing laws.

There are two significant effects on the informal sector in the coming months. Southern and western states will face shortages of labour and workers as they are importing workers, and the other is that eastern and northern states will have labour surpluses. There is also a lot of concern about the welfare of migrant workers that specific safeguards given to migrant workers may be lost as a result of this consolidation of labour laws as there is a lack of legal protection.

The new policy states that workers will work from 8 hrs shift from 12 hours shift as a reason to revive the economy fast after the pandemic period. But as to look at it in the long term, it will damage the labourers’ motivation from physical to the mental level, making it difficult to revive the economy sooner because the government expects to do this at the essential cost of welfare.

As part of reforming the interstate migrant law, a Bill has been introduced in Parliament named the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code of 2019. The Bills’ proposed code seeks to merge 13 labour laws into a single piece of legislation. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act of 1979 is one of them. The labour ministry has also proposed constituting a social security fund to unorganized workers class Under the Code on Social Security, 2019. The said proBilld Bill, introduced in the Lok Sabha in the last winter session of Parliament, referred to the standing committee.

The Supreme Court took suo moto cognizance of the plight of stranded migrant workers. Headed by Justices Ashok Bhushan, Sanjay Kishan Kaul, and M R Shah, the court said in an order that, “The newspaper reports and the media reports have been continuously showing the unfortunate and miserable conditions of migrant labourers walking on-foot and cycles from long distances.” On an additional note, the Court directed the Centre and State governments to take immediate measures.

There is some scheme which provides benefits in the short-term as well as for the long term too. The mass employment method, such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), will be effective in the short term. But as to look from the long term perspective, improving migrants worker conditions and putting them under a circle of legal protection in terms of welfare will be effective.

It is time to cover migrants in our policy circles and acknowledge their importance and quantum of their contribution to the economy. The government of India talks about smart cities, but these smart cities need migrants. To pump the economy, we must concentrate on basic rights which maintain a basic level of productivity at least.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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