Shri Apurva Chandra
Union Labour Secretary
Dear Shri Apurva Chandra,
The preamble to the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 defines its primary objective to be “to regulate the employment of interstate migrant workmen and to provide for their conditions of service and for matters connected therewith“. This Act is by and large in consonance with the tenets of ILO’s Convention No 143 on migrant workers, to which India is a signatory. India is a Member of the ILO. The law was enacted by the Parliament to protect the interests of the migrant workers.
Article 1 of the ILO Convention states that “each Member for which this Convention is in force undertakes to respect the basic human rights of all migrant workers“.
In other words, The Act on migrant workers in India is meant to safeguard the interests of the migrant workers, not for facilitating “ease of business”, a common cliche these days intended to tilt the laws in favour of private business houses.
Memories of the widespread human rights violations that occurred across the States in India during the infamous Covid lockdown last year are still fresh in our memory. The trauma undergone by the migrant workers in different States had been well documented by several institutions and it had also become a subject of judicial scrutiny. However, the migrant worker crisis during the second Covid wave this year seems to have received much less attention, though the impact of the wave has been far more intense and correspondingly the human rights violations that occurred in the case of migrant workers have been as debilitating as during last year’s lockdown.
During the interregnum period between the first and the second Covid waves, some States like UP, MP and Gujarat hurriedly amended the Rules framed under the main migrant workers legislation, not so much for safeguarding the rights of the migrant workers but for helping the private companies that employ them.
For example, in December, 2020, the Government of Gujarat notified far reaching amendments to the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) (Gujarat) Rules, 1981. A senior Gujarat official, who explained the amendments during a press meet on the subject, blurted out that, “to help the industry hit hard in the present situation and to attract fresh investments, the government has announced a series of relaxations and more will follow.” The Gujarat government apparently felt more deeply concerned at the impact of last year’s lockdown on the private businesses than its impact on the lives of the migrant workers affected by it.
A close look at the Gujarat amendments would reveal that they dismantled the essential legal framework that governed the relationship between the contractors and the unorganised labour sector, the contractors having been given a carte blanche to requisition the services of inter-state migrant workers without any means to regulate their conditions of service.
The amendments had nothing to do with the primary objective of the main Act and certainly not in consonance with India’s commitment to the ILO to safeguard the migrant workers’ rights. They were meant only to dilute the intent of the Act and grant undue benefits to the private employers of the workers! It is surprising how the Union Ministry of Labour, which ought to be the custodian of the welfare of the migrant workers, remained a passive spectator (probably a willing party) to the changes.
The result of these amendments are there to see in Gujarat today, where the migrant workers were deprived of their legitimate rights during the recent second Covid lockdown. This has come out clearly in a comprehensive survey conducted by Aajeevika Bureau, a labour rights organisation, as reported in detail at https://www.indiaspend.com/employment/how-relief-and-support-systems-failed-migrant-workers-again-757006.
An excerpt from the report is reproduced below.
“During Gujarat’s partial lockdown, lasting from April 28, 2021 to June 11, 2021, little or no work was available, workers said. Weekly earnings fell by 30%, and 60% of the migrant households interviewed said they were left with cash and dry ration for less than 15 days. Up to 27% of the respondents said they had health problems, including Covid-19 infection. Access to vaccines remains a constant worry too.
Durgaram (he uses one name), a community leader who works with migrant workers in Narol, Ahmedabad, recounted the troubles of a group of seasonal tribal migrants who had been contracted to operate a boiler machine at a garment factory in the same area.
“About Rs 3 lakh were due to them for over six months and the employer was coercing them to stay only to ensure the periodic upkeep of the factory’s boiler. This when the rest of the factory was not operating,” said Durgaram. The workers were forced to let go of this amount and take up daily wage work at another local plant so they could feed themselves. They have now filed a case for non-payment of wages against their employer at the local labour court.
The survey found that workers who remained in Ahmedabad expected relief mainly on two fronts–ration supply (57%) and cash transfers (49%). When asked about relief expectations, Savita Dube, who works in a stitching unit said: “Dilli mein, humne samachar mein suna, ghar- ghar ration dene ja rahe hain. Yahan pe kabhi aesa kuch nahin hua (We heard in the news that in Delhi there is going to be door-to-door distribution of ration. Nothing of the sort has ever happened here [in Gujarat]).”
One should remember that the above findings, though drawn from a limited sample, may hold good not only for the 1.5 million migrant workers in Ahmedabad but also for the large numbers of migrant workers in the other cities of Gujarat.
In the specific case of Gujarat, the existing legal provisions to safeguard the interests of the migrant workers have been diluted. Even within the ambit of the diluted provisions, the Gujarat State authorities have failed to act in a manner expected of them to protect the migrant workers’ interests. The concerned authorities could have ensured that the employers pay the employees what is due to them for the work already done. Apparently, the authorities have turned a blind eye to this. They failed to reach out to the migrant workers and extend help to them.
In the midst of a raging Covid crisis, the migrant workers’ lives and livelihoods were threatened. Apparently, the Gujarat government failed to rise upto the expectations of the Prime Minister, who emphasised the need to safeguard the lives and the livelihoods of the workers (“jaan bhi jahaan bhi’).
When the crisis unfolded during the lockdown last year, the apex court took notice of it suo moto and directed the States to register each and every migrant worker so that their rights and welfare could be monitored and safeguarded. The Gujarat government appears to have ignored that direction. In another case, the apex court has directed the States to implement the idea of “one-nation, one-ration card” so that a worker migrating from one State to another for work may not forego his/ her rations. The State government seems to have ignored that direction too.
What has been reported from Gujarat may be somewhat similar to what is happening elsewhere in India, more so in those States where the provisions of the migrant workers law have been diluted to suit the interests of private industry. The plight of the migrant workers in India is a matter of serious concern. Their parent States do not seem to care for them. The States where they are employed consider them as mere pawns in the game of operating industrial units and construction businesses.
one is never certain as to the possibility of future lockdowns and their impact on the lives of the unorganised workers.
As the Ministry in charge of labour welfare, your Ministry is expected to coordinate the efforts of the States towards promoting workers’ welfare. Unfortunately, your Ministry too seems to have failed in discharging that obligation.
Now that an institution like Aajeevika Bureau has studied this matter in some depth, your Ministry should, in my view, take it up and cause an independent investigation into the lapses in terms of implementation of the migrant workers legislation and ensure that each and every migrant worker in Gujarat and elsewhere gets his/her dues. One should remember that the migrant worker crisis in India is the largest of its kind anywhere in the world. In a democracy like ours, it is unacceptable that human rights violations should be allowed to take place on such a large scale.
It is also time that your Ministry intervenes in the matter of the amendments introduced in UP, MP and Gujarat in respect of the migrant workers Act and Rules and persuades the concerned States to revisit the amendments in order to bring the Rules in line with the welfare of the workers.
E A S Sarma, Former Secretary to GOI, Visakhapatnam