Preventing another migrant-worker crisis

death of migrant workers coronavirus

Despite tremendous mechanical advancements, manual labour still remains the unflinching backbone of many cardinal industries in the modern world. No matter how ‘automated’ an industry becomes manual-labour would always be a critical resource particularly if the industry is functioning at primary or secondary (manufacturing) sector level. Although, the tertiary (services) sector contributes more than 50% to the GDP of India, but the fact that this sector absorbs much lesser work force than the other two sectors combined together speaks volumes about their importance from the point of view of employment generation.

The outbreak of Covid-19 brought havoc for all sectors of economy but to the labour sector, particularly to the migrant laborers, it ushered unprecedented disasters. Migrant laborers work mostly in informal sectors of the economy and constitute a large chunk of total workforce in India. The aleatory nature of lockdown announced on 25th march, 2020 enforced abrupt restrictions and didn’t allowed migrants to move back to their native places, soon they ran out of money and when they decided to move back transportation was already off the roads. With no worthwhile assistance from the government, police intimidations, hunger and starvation which forced large majority of them to walk back home on foot (many travelled hundreds of miles in scorching summer heat) which culminated at the tragic death of many workers making the migrant-laborers-homecoming the starkest humanitarian crisis to sprout out of the Covid-19 lockdown in India.

A particularly heart-wrenching incident occurred on 8th may when a freight train ran over a group of migrant laborers who were on their way back home and had stopped to sleep for a while on a railway track, killing 16 of them instantly. Besides this incident, a total of around 200 laborers have died while on their way back home due to starvation, intense-heat and infections. The plight of migrant-laborers outside India as well was and remains gloomy, particularly in the Middle-East.

The government drew huge flak over its handling of the crisis, which many experts suggest was avoidable. When a single person (actor Sonu Sood) could make arrangements for the return of hundreds of migrant-laborers, we can fairly imagine what could have been accomplished and how much hardships faced by the migrants could have been avoided if the government responded on time with appropriate arrangements for their return back home.  In this article, we will delve over the reasons why migrant laborers migrate at all, and what could be done so as to prevent the recurrence of the crisis.

Labour migration is a dominant feature of developing economies like India, wherein laborers migrate towards industrially thriving parts of a country for a specific period of time. Intertwined with this feature is an unemployment variant called ‘seasonal unemployment’ which emerges when migrants return back to their native villages. Estimates suggest that around 23 million laborers returned back to their native villages post the pandemic outbreak.

Uneven development of cities and regions in which one area is prioritized over the other can be cited as the prime reason for such migrations. Economically alluring metropolitan cities often attract workforce from far and wide regions leading to mass migrations. India being a geographically vast country is severely affected by this uneven development. We have cities as contrasting as Alirajpur (with over 70% poverty rate) and Goa (with mere five percent poverty rate).

If the government is serious about curbing this problem, it should initiate working towards ‘even development’ of major regions of all states so that the manual laborers do not have to leave behind their homes to find a better livelihood. Granted, it is a ‘long term solution’ and requires exhaustive planning but it is also an effective and sustainable way of avoiding the possible re-emergence of the crisis in future. Since all of the rural households do not own agricultural lands, government should work towards promoting cottage industries and reviving small scale local industrial setups. Easy credit and financial facilities also need to be provided to such people who are willing to take the initiative. The wages provided under governmental work-schemes as MNREGA also need to be raised and brought at par with that of any regular unorganized sector of metropolitan cities. In short, all such opportunities be provided to the rural and sub-urban workforce which makes them prioritize working in their native lands over migration.  But it is a long-term solution, as already stated, and demands myriad resources and intense planning to materialize. In the meanwhile, the government can turn its attention towards other problems as well which can be fixed in relatively shorter periods of time.

Another reason for the crisis is the lack of governmental-regulations pertaining to the informal sector of the economy. As a matter of fact, many reports were published where-in it was revealed that the employers were simply denying wages to the migrants citing pandemic outbreak as a reason and majority of the workmen accepted the excuse without any argument. As such, it became important for the government to allow certain factories and manufacturers to ‘work’ despite the lockdown-restrictions so that they can pay allowances to the hired workforce. Also, many positive changes were made by several state-governments to reduce the severity of the crisis like Madhya Pradesh government’s decision of eschewing certain provisions of the Factories Act 1948 or the ordinance of Uttar Pradesh government which exempted many businesses from a number of labour laws. All of these steps were taken so that manufacturing units can function hassle free and maintain their workforce as well. However, all these initiatives were helping manufacturing ‘businesses’ mostly and didn’t concerned the laborers directly. It was only recently that GOI turned its focus towards the migrant-laborers with the launch of ‘Rojgar Setu’ portal and registration processes was also initiated by many state governments.

Most of the migrant-laborers are uneducated, therefore unaware about the laws. Basic educative programs can be initiated by the government on rural and village levels where-in they should be enlightened about the legal provisions governing informal sectors. As such, they wouldn’t be bamboozled by the employers. The laws governing informal-sector also need to be made stringent so that the units hiring migrant laborers wont harbor this feeling that they can easily ‘get away’ even after deceiving the laborers.

Such comprehensive educative programs also need to be introduced for laborers who intend working oversees, where they have the higher probability of being exploited. According to an ILO report, there are around 200 million Indian laborers/employees working oversees with 9 million of them concentrated in the gulf-region alone. In total Arab World hosts more than 38 million foreign laborers. Recently, reports regarding non-payment of south-Asian laborers since months who were working on stadium-projects related to FIFA world cup scheduled to be held in Qatar, 2022 made rounds in the media proving it beyond doubt that laborers working oversees are also susceptible to severe exploitation.

There is also an immediate need to revive the labour-laws so as to make the legal provisions of the country compatible with the present realities which is characterized by large scale migrations. Laws such as the Inter-State-Migrant Workers Act, 1979 (which requires inter-state-migrants to find work through a contractor) act as impediments for migrant-laborers in finding work and needs to be revoked. Theoretically, that is from the purview of the labour law, it often remains obscure for governmental agencies as to who actually is a ‘laborer’ or a ‘worker’. As a result while formulating policies, many of the unregistered workers employed in informal sectors are left behind. That is the reason why policies were formulated for MSME setups while the workers employed in cottage industries were exempted. It is important that all workers, including the migrants, get not only registered but also recognized as constituting the workforce of the country. There should be no ambiguity, at least not on the part of the government, with regards to ‘who’ is a laborer. That is the only way to ensure that policy-benefits are disseminated to every segment of the workforce.

There also exists a dire need to rejuvenate the informal trade unions in the country so as to make them more inclusive. Since it is always beneficial to have a plan-B, labour unions should create a contingency fund by pooling in the miniscule contributions from the workers themselves which can be used in emergency situations as these. The current migrant labour force crisis should serve the function of an educator to us regarding the fragility to which our migrant-workforce is exposed. The economic-well being of a country is reflected not merely by the figures in its GDP GDP but by the trickling down of the benefits to the lowest strata of the economy.

The writer is student of management at AMU and can be reached at [email protected]  



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