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Migrant workers deserve their due

  • A lack of rights and the social capital to demand them have resulted in a system where there is little incentive for our constitutional arms to implement laws intended to benefit them.
  • We need a system that creates appropriate incentives to ensure that these laws are implemented properly on the ground.

The covid-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront the apathy with which migrant workers are treated by the state. Estimates suggest that around 600,000 migrant workers are stranded on the road currently due to the lockdown and around 400 million informal workers are at the risk of falling into deeper poverty. Surprisingly, a review of recent legislative discussions would reveal that the benefit of migrant workers was on top of the mind of the government. So, what went wrong? In effect, the pandemic has exposed the complete disconnect between those in power and the ground realities. It is time to turn good intentions to reality.

A couple of months ago, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labour was deliberating on the conditions of inter-state migrant workers in one of its meetings on the Occupational Safety, Health, and Working Conditions Code, 2019 (Code). The Committee appreciated the schemes of the Odisha government such as toll-free helplines, dedicated helpdesks, seasonal accommodation and support centres for migrant workers. It also noted the Kerala government’s health insurance scheme for migrant workers. Being impressed with such initiatives, the Committee exhorted the central government to legislate similar schemes in the Code.

With the benefit of hindsight, it can be safely stated that limited efforts were made by the Committee to test if such schemes were being implemented properly or whether migrant workers were facing any challenges in accessing the benefits. Presumably, claims made by respective state governments were believed on face value without any deeper investigation. As a result, when the pandemic struck, these schemes failed to provide the desired support to migrant workers. Of course, Odisha and Kerala are just two examples, and the condition of migrant workers of other states is similar, if not worse. Most such workers are stuck far away from their families without adequate income, accommodation, food or medical support.

There are other examples as well of initiatives that were supposed to benefit migrant workers, but failed. For instance, the Inter-state Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 (Act) provides for the registration of establishments engaging migrant workers, and licencing of contractors arranging them. It treats migrant workers at par with other workers in terms of wage rates, holidays, hours of work and other conditions. The Act also entitles them to benefits towards displacement and travel, among others. The reality, of course, is far from ideal. Migrant workers lack legal identity in their host state and are typically excluded from state aid. Their wages are usually half of formal workers. Financial, healthcare and other employment benefits are negligible, and inhospitable working conditions as well as accommodation are a norm. We saw this through our eyes in an empirical research project looking at good and better jobs, which has thrown up some new facts.

These examples make it clear that policies, laws and schemes intended to benefit migrant workers are not being implemented properly. What’s the reason? The problem lies in misaligned incentives for those in power. Unfortunately, lawmakers in the country think that their job is over once a statute is passed. Ensuring that citizens benefit from the laws is supposed to be a function of the executive, and providing recourse is expected to fall in the judiciary’s realm. However, none of these great pillars of democracy have the appropriate incentives to perform their respective functions. As a result, we end up in a situation that the building blocks of our society, i.e. migrant workers, are treated with utter disdain.

Lack of legal identity, inability to exercise franchise in the host state, deplorable conditions for work and living, and the absence of social capital prevent migrant workers from highlighting their concerns as a collective voice, thereby failing to draw attention of the political class. As a result, lawmakers have little incentive to do the hard work of envisaging challenges, which migrant workers may face in benefiting from the Act. They end up legislating well intended provisions without taking into account the resources required for their implementation. They do not even bother about implementation, leaving it for the bureaucracy.

The executive also does not have any incentive to implement the provisions of the Act, as they benefit from being under the influence of establishments. Like we see in many instances, the Act does not hold them accountable for failing to implement its provisions. Neither does it require the reporting of the grounds for this to the public or the legislature.

The pandemic has exposed the key deficiency in our governance framework; i.e. a lack of incentives to design and implement appropriate legislative provisions. Migrant workers will need to be treated at par with other workers and citizens in their host states, with portability of their votes, so that they are able to participate and influence the political process. Only when this happens will lawmakers have the appropriate incentives to think about migrant workers while legislating and fixing accountability for their implementation. The state needs to do away with historical biases and treat migrant workers as their constituencies to ensure migrant workers get their due.

Pradeep S. Mehta is secretary General, CUTS International.

Amol Kulkarni of CUTS International contributed to this article.

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