Home > Opinion > Columns > Opinion | The migrant crisis has exposed how we truly treat our workers

The migration of thousands of workers trying to reach their home states has woken up the State, media and the middle class to a new category of citizens: migrants. Ever since the lockdown was announced in the last week of March, they have travelled long distances, dodging the police in state after state, to reach their homes. While some managed to complete the journey after walking hundreds of kilometres, others died midway.

This has started a new quest to identify and estimate the number of migrants in each state, although the goal remains elusive, since no state has any such database. That apart, it is also a futile exercise. Migrants are primarily workers who have moved states in search of work. There are also many who have moved districts within a state. But the distress story of migrants is not about the people per se. Rather, it is a story about how India treats its workers. Some of these would be people who migrated recently, but many others would have migrated months or years ago. In many ways, a majority of our workers in urban metropolitan areas that have seen an exodus are migrants. But while some have attempted to move back to their home states, there are thousands others who have not been able to do so. Their condition is no different from the ones who are walking on the highways of this country. Perhaps they are worse off. But we won’t know because we don’t seem to care for our workers.

It is well known that a majority of workers work in abysmally difficult conditions. More than 90% of our workforce is employed as informal workers, with no social security. This proportion hasn’t changed even after three decades of “reforms". What forced these migrant workers to move back was not just the yearning for their villages and small towns, which they voluntarily left to eke out a better life for themselves and their families, but the sheer apathy and lack of social security they experienced at these centres of growth. Their journey back will not give them a better life. They face greater unemployment, lower wages, and an uncertain agrarian economy. But they hope to get respect, dignity, and have caring people around.

In this humanitarian crisis, the response of the government has been limited to facilitating their travel back home through Shramik trains. No effort has been made to restore the incomes they lost for no fault of theirs. Even the additional quota of rations is to be offered only to 80 million migrants. It should be universal, at least in the urban areas witnessing an exodus.

A human catastrophe of this size should have sparked a debate on the condition of our workers and the need for providing them a social security cover. Instead, state governments have “reformed" labour laws to take away some of their basic rights. Access to paid leave, security of tenure, basic working facilities such as sanitation, overtime and a standard eight-hour workday are not just the foundation for labour rights, but also the basic duty of a democratic state to any human being. The proposed labour laws are an affront to the basic dignity of a labourer as a citizen and a human being.

But then, we are also a country where government-approved floor wages are almost half the minimum wages suggested by its own committee, where the government through its rural guarantee scheme continues to pay wages that are less than market levels, and employs women at the forefront of its fight against malnutrition but pays them honorariums that are less than half the minimum wages.

Our track record on implementing a skeletal set of labour laws is also nothing to write home about. Despite the existence of these laws, the proportion of contract workers who can be fired at will has doubled in the last decade. The share of wages in value-addition in the manufacturing sector has declined to one-third in the last two decades. Real wages of regular workers have declined by 3% per annum between 2011-12 and 2017-18. There are innumerable other examples to show that the work conditions and livelihoods of workers have continued to worsen despite protective laws being in place and the economy growing at a rapid pace.

At a time when governments should be thinking of strengthening labour laws and social security provisions for workers, their dilution in the name of “reforms" is nothing short of a cruel joke. It is no surprise, then, that Indian workers are moving back to their home states in such large numbers, even if only to a future that is, unfortunately, equally uncertain.

Himanshu is associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at the Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi

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