Migrant Workers, Labour Rights, and Policy: Impact and Way Forward

Arjun Kumar, Ritika Gupta, Sunidhi Agarwal, Sakshi Sharda, Anshula Mehta

Keeping the migrant workers issues at center stage and recognizing the social and economic cost of COVID-19 Pandemic IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute , Working Peoples’ Charter and Indian Social Institute organized a Panel Discussion on Migrant Workers, Labour Rights, Policy: Impact and Way Forward.

The esteemed Panelists were Prof A V Jose an Honorary Visiting Professor at Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Kerala. Ms. Amarjeet Kaur, General Secretary, All-India Trade Union Congress. Mr. Sandeep Chachra, Executive Director, ActionAid India; Co-Chair, World Urban Campaign, UN-HABITAT. Dr. Elina Samantroy Jena, Fellow (Faculty), V. V. Giri National Labour Institute (VVGNLI), Noida, and lastly, Mr. Chandan Kumar, National Coordinator, Working People’s Charter. 

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May Day 2021

Setting the tone for the Panel Discussion Dr. Denzil Fernandes, Executive Director, Indian Social Institute, New Delhi and convener of the panel discussion spoke to the importance of May Day.  It is a day to commemorate the efforts of workers in the development and growth of the nation. This is also the day to recognize worker rights and acknowledge the gaps. In the neoliberal power structure, worker rights are diminishing as the corporates grow. May Day 2021 becomes ever more important as it comes in the middle of a pandemic. 

Academicians have been engaged in discussion migrant rights following the lockdown in May 2020 which saw a huge humanitarian crisis. The government has not been still in this era of turmoil, wherein they have rushed through the passing of the Labour Code Bills 2021. The Niti Ayog has developed its Draft National Migrant Workers’ Policy. 

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Moderator Dr. K R Shyam Sundar, Professor, HRM Area, XLRI – Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur, Jharkhand stated that May Day 2021 is not just about the workers, it is about people’s rights, it is about people’s lives and livelihoods. The rights canvas has widened to capture beyond the working class to include migrants, farmers, daily wagers. 

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For migrant workers, the first glaring gap that hits is the complete absence of data. The conversation around migrant workers has become mainstream due to COVID-19. It is after 10 months of misery the government and its think tank Niti Ayog have now come with the draft migration policy and 5 surveys. The labor minister acknowledged in the parliament that to set up a consolidated database on migrant workers would take the government 6 months. 

Keeping this in mind we will probably have a ready database by the end of 2021, this announcement is still not clear, whether for data collection the census method, or sample method is being followed? Whether the objective of the exercise is to arrive at an estimate or to identify on a census mode? 

At this time it is important to ask if the Draft Migration Policy is a good daft indeed. When is the final policy to be expected? Has the government consulted the trade unions and all stakeholders? Can the government record person-to-person migrant workers on a data portal in order for the state and central government to provide direct benefit transfers? Does migration have a gender element? Are the labor codes (still have not come into effect) any respite to the existing labor laws which are still on record?

With the second wave, we are staring at the possibility of a reverse exodus of migrants again from cities. There have been resorts in national dailies from major urban centers like Surat, Mumbai, and Delhi even though the state and central government continue to deny the same. There has been a spike in the demand for jobs under MGNREGA. Delhi Government has already provided Rs 5000 to construction workers from the construction cess fund. 

Do we have the necessary policy measures to tackle the migrant either at the point of origin or point of destination in the reverse sense?

Ms. Amarjeet Kaur

Ms. Amarjeet Kaur, General Secretary, All-India Trade Union Congress  pointed out that COVID situation was attempted by the government to be used as an opportunity, The government delayed salvaging the migrant worker from their suffering because they were busy with the political agenda. Meanwhile, the government also sold the national wealth and national resources. The PSU was sold, in the second wave, we realize the indispensability of public institutions.

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 No lessons were learnt from the last year. Though the transportation has not stopped this time because there is no national lockdown. The public sector is not prepared for the demand which results in workers having no choice but being left to the mercy of private transportation services which are exploiting the conditions. 

May Day celebrations  began with the government returning to 8 hours working day, they had attempted change to 12 hours working day. The legalization of trade unions was he result of a law passed in 1926; While the government is not doing much for the formal organized sector we are her speaking of the informal economy which is outside the purview of establishment In neo-liberal era the regular fixed jobs are coming to an end with contractization and casualization of labour. 

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Precariat of the World

Prof A V Jose, Honorary Visiting Professor, Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Kerala began by recounting the success of the labor movement in Europe where governments have now tacitly begun to recognize the rights of the migrant workers. The rights of these migrants who came from nowhere, never became the agenda of international organizations. They are still not part of the legal architecture of the rich countries. 

Migrants in Indian have left the countryside in search of a dignified means of survival. Their only demand is that of a reasonable income. As per estimates of the period Labor Force Survey, migrants in the state of origin were earning on average only Rs 6800 for male workers and 4000 for female workers. Less than 5000 for male and less the 3500 women that harbor most migrants. Even after self-employment, there was only a marginal rise in income which is less than 7000 for male workers and less than 3500 for female workers. 

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This is proof of regional and glaring gender inequality. They believed that a secure income was a possibility in urban centers. These workers at the most earn Rs 20000 on an average of Rs 13000 per month for men and Rs. 15000 per month for women at their destination. They were exploited by the national elite, these were the progeny of the demographic transition of India with minimal education and products of a fertility transformation and rise in population. They transformed into squallers and failed to extend humane conditions for the migrants.

Adding to the discussion Mr. Sandeep Chachra, Executive Director, ActionAid India; Co-Chair, World Urban Campaign, UN-HABITAT stated it is difficult to separate migrants from informal workers. An attempt for the same is politics in the negative direction.  Informal workers in India constitute 6 percent of the global population and a third of the Indian population. It is not advisable to separate the two, focus must be on unmasking the issues of informal workers. 

Right Based Approach 

Continuing Prof. A V Jose stated a breakdown and any sense of vulnerability would have led to complete devastation of their wages and livelihoods. This is exactly what happened during the pandemic, in the absence of healthcare and security the migrants were left with no choice but to return to the countryside. Any serious discourse on rights must recognize that entitlements mature into rights, social norms were built into the legal framework of the international organizations. Only lip service was provided in the convections on migrant rights.  

In our country the moment you migrate you forfeit the right to participate in the electoral process, leading to a situation where there is no possibility for this section of the population to be acknowledged or recognized. Until and unless we are able to embellish and enhance the content of their entitlement we cannot incorporate them into the language of human rights. A mere legal reform is not enough, back in the countryside. There is a need to replace distress-based migration with demand-based migration. 

The entitlements that must be ensured to the migrants are the right to food, the right to a secure job, the right to healthcare, right to basic education.

Prof. A V Jose

There should be a focus on redistributive transfers focused on education, healthcare, and urban and dignified living environment, which again and alone will create the minimum resource price. Based on this each migrant worker can decide autonomously on the need for migration. No individual would be pushed into migration. There is no shortage of resources it is just a question of polities to work together. 

Beyond an Apology 

Mr. Sandeep Chachra spoke passionately that there is a specific history of informal sectors. We cannot be oblivious to questions of Caste where the majority Dalits constitute workers. There are various kinds of apologies which are due to this section of the population. In the advisories to Human Rights Commission is on the question of very very vulnerable workers on the frontline that is the sanitation workers, burial ground workers, caste based sex workers (even though Ambedkar eloquently pointed that this work was not of choice but necessity), etc.

Any discussion about informal workers cannot ignore the caste reality even if it is mere lip service being provided to the issue.

Mr. Sandeep Chachra 

The next question specific inequity comes from gender. The domestic workers are triple embattled with intersection of various issues. Work participation rates of women has fallen during the pandemic, their work has been underpaid as pointed by Prof A V Jose and unpaid work is a reality. Policies can no more be oblivious to the glaring impacts of patriarchy.  

The last specific history is the consequence of colonization. What de-colonization mean? What would be a transformative understanding of work? To encapsulate indigenous workers at the earliest. The question of indignity cannot be forgotten. These are questions that are conjoined with neo- liberalism to result in imperialism. 

Women Migrants 

Dr. Elina Samantroy Jena, Fellow (Faculty), V. V. Giri National Labour Institute (VVGNLI), Noida detailed about the migrant rights from the gender lens. India has been facing a decline in the labour market participation for women and the earlier employment and unemployment surveys and now the periodic labor force service hold testimony to that statement. From 42.7 percent at around in 2004-05 now 24.5 in 2018-19 so it’s a significant decline and if you look, around  27 our female labor force is low and we experienced a 1.2 percent increase a marginal increase in 2018-19 but the challenge here is that increase was because of the self employment. 

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Women are mostly engaged in  informal work, when the pandemic hit, women who work in community, social and personal services and retail trade, manufacturing and construction. There was a sectoral hit on livelihood during the pandemic. There has now been an increase of 53.4 percent women who are self employed. There is the perineal challenge of lack of social security and lack of reach of existing labour legislations. Most of their work does not account in the national account statistics as well. 

Unpaid Care Work a perennial bain of Indian Society.

Dr. Elina Samantroy Jena,

An ILO report in 2017-18 located that 79 percent of workforce in service industry was composed of  working migrant women.  Majority of these women were domestic workers who face job insecurity and exploitation. There has been no policy response to these questions of insecurity. 75 percent females did not have any job contract and only 3 percent has contracts of only 3 years. Even among regular waged employees 63 percent women did not have job contracts. 

Labour Codes 

Ms. Amarjeet Kaur located that contrary to the belief that the national draft migrant workers’ policy is the result of deliberation and debate, it seems to be an attempt to safe face. One cannot be but suspicious about the time of the policy released by Niti Ayog which is close to the virtual meeting of ILO. The government wants to pose their seriousness and create records of deliberation with the trade unions. This is just to create the conditions which looked as though the tripartite structure was respected.

The labor code bills were introduced the day when trade unions were on strike. The minister while introducing the code on wages instead of repeating the recommendation of their expert committee of Rs 376 per day as minimum wages they stated the amount to be Rs 178 per day. They did not change the national minimum wage but only spoke of any change to floor wages. So the legal implications of minimum wages were left and no recommendations were accepted from the standing parliamentary committee. 

The labor codes when introduced in the parliament had to face complete boycott by the opposition. The current migrant law which is in existence presents the migrants occupational safety health code which has not been changed in the draft national migrant workers policy. There is no recalibration to evaluate the needs at the origin or destination, there is no evaluation of demand, etc.  

Interjecting Mr. Sandeep Chachra Any transformation of hard earned labour rights can be evaluated on four dimensions. First of wage, both minimum wage and floor wage do not deal with questions of reasonable wage and there is a need for wage compensation. The second dimension is conditions of/ at work. Labour codes tend to legitimize in one way or another these glaring inequities in a micro reading of the labour codes. The third dimension is the question of labour rights and human rights. Today we have the new phenomenon of neo- bondage or contractual bondage. 

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Water lights have been watered down for three decades in the country today. There is an unfulfilled desire of social security in India and social safety in India. Beyond limited gains that have been made by construction workers that too in account of charity, all other trades and sectors have no way out and no possibility of compensation. 

Government Policies under a Microscope 

Ms Amarjeet Kaur suggested Government has been callous without understanding the quantum of the issue. The health infrastructure’s growth has been impeded. The oxygen plants that the government had to set up to ensure no health failure work only began in October. The government has no intention of collating data because it dismantled its own institutions like NSSO, Statistical Institute and Labor Bureau statistics are actively hidden. Government backtracked from the promise to pay lockdown wages and ensure there will be  no entrenchment. 

In the last pandemic Government of India presented the Cess funds under their relief package. He mineral institutes used their own money that was used to provide welfare to the workers. The relief that was provided to the farmers was part of budget allocation as a special COVID-19 relied. Trade unions demands Rs 7500 for non income tax paying people. The Government itself has agreed to its lapses where 10 crore people did not receive the ration card.

Way Forward 

For Ms. Amarjeet Kaur Kissan organizations have shown the way and trade unions stand by their side. They have shown the government that arbitrary decisions cannot take place. This fulcrum will be used to create a better future    and this struggling hope of the people is the only hope.

Mr. Sandeep Chachra suggested the need for a dual strategy. There is a hope in people coming together. The fundamental premise of any policy stands on apology to balm the history of exploitations. The informal workers in India are owed an apology from national elites.This would be the first step towards and reconciliation and transformation. The second step would be incremental gains towards entitlements which are necessity for human dignity. Justice require more and economic transformation is fundamental which will have two trajectories, first the unfulfilled agenda of land reforms and second is the question of ownership. 

Speaking of international standards and development Dr Elina Samantroy Jena spoke about the International Labour standards on crisis response, there have been conversations about medical facilities for migrant workers, the occupational diseases protocol is reviewing the list of diseases. There is an attempt to include COVID-19 as an occupational diseases if contracted at the work place. Rules are being framed and reviewed to incorporate the challenge of the pandemic. Many countries have made health facilities universal, institutional definitions leaves behind a large groups of undocumented migrants. 

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Mr. Chandan Kumar, National Coordinator, Working People’s Charter We can’t expect anything from the government. There has been no labor conference in the last seven years. The entire labor regime has changed without any deliberation from the temple of Indian Democracy, the Parliament. The working poor in this country are resilient enough and they are fighting exploitation. 

There is a need for course correction and there has been none in the ground. The Chhatisgarh and Telangana Government have developed very concrete policies but they still haven’t been implemented. It is a mammoth task and can state take it upon themselves to bring the required change? Maharashtra government has come up with a welfare package for poor workers. Yet these are restricted to registered workers.

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