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.
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.
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.