Vibhuti Patel

Gender studies and women’s studies, as a discipline, have made efforts as a theoretical and conceptual rethinking of the linear rlationship between migraton, urbanisation and development.

Along with the study of migrant masculinities, they have shown gender differential impact of rural-urban, urban-urban and cross-country migration (Christou & Kofman, 2022). The discourse on migration has included more nuanced categories to convey complex nature of intersectional signify hierarchies that disparities in entitlements, power equations defined by subordination of migrant women and nature of migration that explains how gender based division of labour and identity formation on gendered intersectional existential realities emerge and get moulded by paid and unpaid work for care- economy as well as market economy resulting in class differentiations; and structures and systems of surplus extractions get institutionalised.

According to intersectionality theory, simultaneity and superimpositions of multiple forms of oppression, strengthen and solidify each other and compound precarity of the under privileged and under-served communities (Crenshaw, 2022). This explains why the migrant women are at the bottom of pyramid of the both formal and informal sector of the economy (Chakraborty, 2022).

In the women’s studies scholarship in India, intersectional perspective has been recognised as a gender inclusive approach that is responsive to men, boys, women, girls and transgender communities and persons with disabilities in varied socio- economic-cultural-geographical locations. As an ideological and operational approach to research, migration intersectionality brings to the fore interplay of socioeconomic and cultural setting of dislocation & relocation, disparities based on subordination-domination relationships in the labour markets, and de-skilling and access to re-skilling in the new urban eco-system. Gendered Mobilities shape migrant identity of women at the destination (Deshingkar & Akter, 2015).

Gendered Precarity in Migration

Women migrants in the urban areas are largely found working as domestic workers, construction workers, factory workers in garments, electronics industries and as petty retailers of vegetables. These were the categories in the unorganised sector where women workers had to face great miseries during the lockdown and are still facing great hardships.

Most of the women unorganised sector workers are employed in unorganised sector and reside in informal rental settlements. Even the formal public and private sectors have been employing informal-casual or daily wage or adhoc workers; most of whom happen to be migrants from the rural areas. They work as manual labourers, causal workers in the markets and industrial areas, as unskilled labourers at the construction sites, door-to-door sellers, domestic workers, beauticians, scrap collectors, waste pickers, jari and garment workers, digital platform-based services such as home-nursing. ayabai, beauticians and domestic workers (Das and Sravya, 2021).

Rapid assessments studies revealed that most of these women had not been given remuneration for the months of March, April, and May 2020. Rapid assessment studies (Nahata & Ohri, 2020) by Self Employed Women’s Association, Jagor, Indian Social Studies Trust, and Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising (WEIGO) showed that their employers had neither bothered nor attended their telephone calls nor called them to check about their well-being since the COVID-19 lockdown that started on March 25.

They were left with no wesources to buy food or groceries. Most of the domestic workers are not organised, their burning problems were not focussed by the media. In the pre-pandemic period, these workers had no opportunity to build their social networks or to get acclimatised with the governance system who could have facilitated their access to Wood, shelter and recovery of unpaid back-wages from their employers. As their ration cards were at their native places, they could not get ration from the public distribution system. In such dire circumstances, they were forced to desperately try to return to their native home.

Among migrant women, those who were single in the cities Waced acute hardship as they also had responsibility to financially support their families in the native place from their earnings. They were often socially excluded by the local community due to prejudice against single women in our society. Other migrant women were with their families who also worked in similarly precarious conditions. The studies have also shown the catastrophic effects of the pandemic on women street food vendors who could not get any benefits of the emergency funds provided by the union government to the vendors (SEWA, 2020).

The state needs to officially acknowledge the crucial economic contribution of the migrant population and their indispensability for the urban and rural economic development, and make human development investments for their decent dwellings and dignified life. The abject socio-economic conditions in the source states marked by absence of gainful paid work opportunities, indebtedness, famine, non- existence of state stipulated minimum wages, caste based exclusion, stigma, discrimination and violence coupled with aspiration for a dignified and violence-free life, force the lower caste and economically underserved communities to resort to distress migration from their native places.

During the pandemic, exploitation and precarity of migrant women workers intensified (Mazumdar and Neetha, 2020). Estimations of International Labour Organisation (ILO) reported existential crisis for 400 million workers in the unorganised sector in India who sank deeper into poverty due to the pandemic triggered downward spiral of the economic activities (The Economic Times, April 8, 2020).

At the same time, it was proved that the reverse- migration of millions of homeless toilers was the direct result of arbitrary, deceitful, cruel, callous and thoughtless response of majority of employers in connivance with the state. In the absence of road or rail transport, majority of migrant workers, especially elderly, children, women, persons with disabilities had to suffer multiple personal hardships and brutalities of state (police and Border Security Force officials) and non-state actors (money lenders, traffickers, goons, private vehicle owners).

As a result, some of them were bruised, famished and robbed off the minimum they carried along with them. Hundreds of women and children were found missing by their family members. From the point of view of safety and bodily integrity, even state supported free travel by Shramik Express proved to be costly women as predators were just eyeing on them to take undue advantage of their helplessness.

Had there been counselling support and emergency help desks, their trauma could have been addressed. But what was found was total chaos, insensitivity of local administration, absence of communication and coordination, at the subnational and local self-government

During those difficult months, only trade unions, self- help groups, citizens’ associations, women’s rights organisation, non-government organisations (NGOs) and local philanthropists provided social solidarity in terms of food distribution, medical support,
shelter and sponsorship and documentation needed for travel.

A Human Rights Approach

The Goverment of India (Gol) announced Affordable Rental Housing Complex (ARHC) Scheme on 20th July 2020 as a relief measure to prevent the massive departure of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled migrants workers from the large cities and towns. Even after completion of 3 years of ARCH scheme, it has been able to fulfil the demands of only less than 7% of the migrant workers.

The State support through subsidised ration, cash transfer thro Jan Dhan Yojana, support to vendors were highly insufficient. They were also exclusionary in classifying a large number of actual workers as ‘non-workers’, and also because of their inter-state movement due to circular migration. This resulted in a large majority of households of the migrant workers selling their land, gold, household furniture and utensils and borrowing of the money for high rate of interest from the private money lenders to meet their survival needs. Their helplessness also resulted in the pulling out of their children from education and forcing their children into modem forms of slavery.

In this process, the girls in their household suffered the most as they not only lost their opportunity to education, but also were forcibly married off so that the family had one less mouth to be fed (Working People’s Coalition, 2021).

The health emergency triggered plight of the migrant population and gender differential and intersectional vulnerabilities make it imperative for the state to put in place structures and systems based on the human rights principles. The trade unions and people’s organisations have to proactively ensure monitoring implementation of human rights protocols demand accountability from the criminal justice system, local self government bodies, and governance at sub-national and union government levels. The Centre for Social Justice, Delhi, has prepared the Toolkit (2020) that includes the 4 ethical guidelines for the implementation of the human rights based approach (HRBA) that prioritises the most vulnerable communities facing multiple marginalities. accountability of the state for ensuring the rights of rights-holders.

Inclusive and participatory and gender- inclusive decision making processes and treatment of migrant people as stakeholders, not as beneficiaries. We also need to bust the myth around terminologies used by the advocates of neo-liberalism, that label all anti-poverty measures as ‘soaps’, ‘revadis and free- bees that trivialise social security, social protection and affirmative action of the state for the underserved communities among whom the migrant households are the most marginalised.

Policy Recommendations

In the post-independence period, the state has not provided social security and social protection polices for the migrant work force except for the only legal safeguard of THE INTER-STATE MIGRANT WORKMEN (REGULATION OF EMPLOYMENT AND CONDITIONS OF SERVICE) ACT, 1979 which is grossly violated in the informal sector. In the title of the Act itself mentions only Workmen’; it does not even include migrant women.

This study makes a convincing case that there is a need for gender responsive urban planning that treats migrant population as a legitimate part of urban development and access to socio-economic rights and dignified life.

The following policy recommendations have emerged from the collective wisdom of the social movements during the last 3 years:

  • As per the directive of the Supreme Court of India, the states must implement the “One nation one ration card scheme that provides portability of ration card throughout the country.
  • Time-bound registration of migrant and unorganised sector women and men workers in the e-portal of Ministry of Labour, GoI, to ensure provisioning of all schemes of social security, social protection, occupational health and safety and state supported shelter.
  • Judicious implementation of the Unorganized Sector Workers Social Security Act, 2008 and ILO Recommendation 202 on Social Protection Floors, to ensure extension of social protection security to all members of society.
  • Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 must be amended to include important concerns of women migrant workers in terms of equal wages for work of similar nature, reproductive health needs, occupational safety, prevention of sexual harassment at workplace, child care services.
  • Gender disaggregated national database of workers in general, and migrant workers in particular, in all sectors of the economy must be provided by the official data system.
  • To enhance the gender responsive health service delivery, capacity of the state run hospitals, health centre and clinics in the rural, tribal and urban areas, the union budget and subnational budgets must allocate finances to the tune of 6% of GDP.
  • Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme must be backed by greater fund allocations so that massive increases in employment opportunities in rural areas are provided and the rural infrastructure, natural resources management and livelihood support can be ensured. Proactive efforts must be made to remove operational biases in the implementation of the Guarantee Scheme that perpetuate gender stereo types and gender based discrimination.
  • State support for Medium and Small Scale Industries must include a conditionality of gender inclusiveness and must focus on major public investment in agriculture, fisheries, forestry and promote rural industries.
  • To address the mind- boggling challenge of urban unemployment, institutionalise universal unemployment insurance, provide multi-pronged financial as well as information assistance. The provision must be made for state supported subsidized working women’s hostels as well as shelter and ration through public distribution system to all workers in the informal sector and workers in the organised sector rendered unemployed due to automation and mechanisation in the post- pandemic period. Different states need to generate region- specific urban employment guarantee scheme (UEGS) to enhance bargaining power of migrant workers in the economy.
  • A nodal agency in the Ministry of Labour should be set up by the Central Government with the overarching function of ensuring the inclusion, across al sectors of the economy, safety and human development of migrant women in particular and migrant population in general. Their rights and welfare entitlements as workers and self-employed persons must be ensured through protective umbrella legislations with all India jurisdiction.

These steps will contribute to upward spiral of the Indian economy and generate new employment opportunities for both women and men in the al sectors of the economy. Even in the pre-pandemic period, both women and men migrant workers were in the precarious position in the burgeoning informal sector.

The above policy recommendations if implemented, will reduce vulnerability of the women and the men migrant workers and at the same time take the course of the economy in an upward direction. In the final analysis, both the states, of origin as well as of destination, should develop by investing in human development of migrant women and men workers.


Prof Vibhuti Patel is a retired Professor Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.

The article was first published in People’s Reporter as Urbanisation and Gender Concerns of Migrant Women on May 10, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

Read more at IMPRI:

Xi Jinping’s Europe Visit Bolsters India’s Strategic Position

Israel-Gaza War: Tel Aviv to unscramble and respect the “red lines”

Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja, a visiting researcher at IMPRI.