Article by Kirti Tapadiya
(Student at Maharashtra National Law University, Nagpur)
and Kinjal Ora
(Student at Karnavati University, Ahmadabad)
“Labour has to make a choice: It can either insist on its rights by making higher and higher wage demands, ignoring the development of the country, the, well-being of the community, and the success of- the Plan. Or, while, claiming its rights, it can perform its duties towards higher production, and fit its wage policy with the requirements of development, accepting the fact that the welfare of the nation demands some restraint upon its monetary benefits.”
The first and the second Five Year Plans were formulated on the preface of the pivotal role of labour in the development of an economy. These socialist plans aimed at the equitable distribution of the wealth leading to a whole-hearted acceptance by the oppressed strata of the society. The under-privileged employment seekers have migrated to urban habitats in huge numbers. As per the 2011 census, almost 50% population in urban agglomerations are migrants and a fifth of them are interstate migrants. The progression of time diverged the Indian economy towards capitalism to keep up with the pace of the ever-growing global economy. Since then there has been a remarkable upsurge in the graph of India’s development since independence butas the saying goes, “Not all that shines is gold.” In 2020, unfortunately, the country still has a significant chunk of its population succumbing to poverty.
Representational image (Express Illustration| Prabha Shankar)
The current global health crisis has accentuated the plights of the underprivileged to sustain themselves. One such unfortunate section of the Indian Society is the labourer. The sudden unindicated announcement of the nationwide lockdown on 24th March 2020 by the Hon’ble Chief Executive of the country, changed the lives of labourers overnight. Around 92 percent of the labourers lost their jobs and most of them have been evicted by their employers. In the coming days, we witnessed the visuals of weary migrants painfully treading barefoot along roads to reach their homes miles away from their places of employment. These shows the facets of the Indian economy wherein a large chunk of the population survives on daily wages with almost no savings in hand. The latest statics on the migrant workers showed that around 42% of the already impoverished migrant households had no ration for sustenance. Quite substantial percentile of migrants neither has access to Public Distribution Systems nor the ration card.
The structure of our economic activities has evolved in such a manner that migrants whether from within or outside their respective state, have an integral role to play.In the past couple of months, there have had been substantial number of discussions in the media subjecting the misery of the migrant labours. This has also brought into attention the Interstate Migrant Workmen Act (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979. The act was formulated with an object “to regulate the employment of inter-State migrant workmen and to provide for their conditions of service and for matters connected therewith.” This document has been analysed by various experts who unanimously concluded the inefficiency of the act.
The act is full of loopholes. Firstly, the meaning of migrant worker under the act is very narrow in its sense. As per § 1(4), the act is NOT applicable to all individual migrant workers. It applies only to registered establishments and licensed contractors falling under other provisions of the act. The act ONLY considers the interstate migrant labours engaged by a means of an ‘agreement or other arrangement’ by a contractor. Secondly, the chapter IV of the act mandates the contractors to furbish the particulars of the interstate migrant to the specified authorities in both the states of recruitment and employment. Unfortunately, this has not been followed as the government clearly lacks the comprehensive data on the migrant workers. Clearly, 94 percent of such workers do not have a worker’s identity card. This simply means that in the eyes of laws such workers do not hold validity of being lawful ‘interstate migrant workers’ engaged in the development of an establishment. In case of malpractices like violation of minimum wages by the employer, the workmen have no rescue under the act. Thus, they are out of the bounds of legal protection. Thirdly, as per chapter V of the act, workmen would be entitled to regular wages, displacement allowances, journey allowances and other facilities inclusive of health, safety, and medication. But since, they are not rightfully employed to be recognised in the eyes of laws, they cannot avail the benefits of the incentives and allowances. Lastly, the lack of legal scrutiny further promotes the employers to perform gross negligence in providing workable conditions. Therefore, the labours constantly have looming threat of lives with no insurance backings.
As Swami Vivekananda once said, “An ounce of practice is worth twenty tonnes of big talk.”As a response to the crisis and the plight of the poor, the Finance Ministry has announced a relief package of Rs. 1.7 Lakh Crores under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojna to provide benefits to around 80 crores recipients. On May 28, 2020 the hon’ble Supreme Court exercised its right to take suo-moto cognizance on the ongoing migrant crisis under article 131 of the Indian Constitution, 1950. The apex court quoting the imposed lockdown as the humanitarian crisis asked the centre as well as respective states to make adequate shelter, food, water, and transportation facilities available to the migrants.
Quite a substantial number of migrants are suffering from identity crisis in the eyes of law to avail the benefits of various government relief packages. The lack of accessibility to avail the benefits is also a question of concern. Though, the government has initiated to smoothen the lives of the unfavourable, the results of the relief package are yet to be observed. This might be called as a short-term approach. The system needs to work towards a long-term vision for the labours as well. It is to be noted that though the lockdown has been lifted yet the lives can’t be said to have returned to the normal. People are fearful to step out of their houses. The past three months have also taken a toll on our economy. This shows that the construction and production sector won’t be near to the demand and supply equilibrium. Many employees have been laid of during the pandemic. The increasing gap between demand and supply cycle of the economy will have a direct impact on the poor migrant labours. For a long vision, it is recommended that government consider migrants as a part of the urban communities and does not exclude them while formulating urban habitats development policies. In the month of July, 2019 the hon’ble Minister of Labour and Employment introduced the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code in the Lok Sabha. The bill was then sent to the standing Committee. This code seeks to repeal 13 major laws on the subject matter and consolidate them to create an effective and holistic labour law for workers. Although the standing committee gave it report on February 11, 200, the bill is yet to be deliberated. Hence, it is suggested that the ministry learns the lesson time taught us all and prepare a pragmatic effective legislature to reduce the plight of the interstate migrant labours.
The Indian culture glorifies the importance of sacrifice and consequently, contribution of the labour force in the development of the country has been overlooked. While the builders of a great motherland have satisfied with less, it is time the, law recognises their contribution and gives them due remuneration. It is one thing to have a law and altogether a different matter for it to be effectively implemented. The recent hardships faced by the migrant labourers are proof enough to showcase the failure of our laws. Migrant workers must be able to believe that this is an inclusive nation ensuring life to all without any discrimination. As Indian citizens they are equally entitled to be allowed to live with dignity. The citizens of the great motherland India have let down the ‘builders of their booming economy’ and hence, they must not redo their past.
Mahatma Gandhi, Harijan, 06/07/1947.
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R.B Bhagat et al, The COVID-19, Migration and Livelihood in India, International Institute for Population Science, Mumbai, April 2020; See Also, https://censusindia.gov.in/2011census/migration.html,accessed last on 15/06/2020.
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 § 2(e), Interstate Migrant Workmen Act (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979.
Jan Sahas, Voices of the Invisible Citizens: A Rapid Assessment on the Impact of COVID-19 Lockdown on Internal Migrant Workers, April 2020, New Delhi
 § 13, Interstate Migrant Workmen Act (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979.
§ 14, Interstate Migrant Workmen Act (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979.
§ 15, Interstate Migrant Workmen Act (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979.
§ 16, Interstate Migrant Workmen Act (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979.
Centre to Strengthen Legal Framework to Help Migrant Labourers, The Weekly, 29/05/2020, https://www.theweek.in/news/india/2020/05/29/centre-to-strengthen-legal-framework-to-help-migrant-
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