Migrant workers form the largest workforce engaged in the informal sector in India. They are mainly concentrated in 53 million plus urban agglomerations that comprise 140 million of 377 million urban population of the country, equivalent to 43 percent of total urban population as per the 2011 Census. Over the years, successive governments have cared little about the numbers, workplaces, working conditions and identities of these workers and a majority of them remained invisible, unnoticed and ignored due to inadequate implementation of government laws and policies. The Interstate Migrant Workers Act 1979 enacted to regulate and protect the rights of migrant workers has been historically neglected and poorly implemented in India.
Migration or mobility of citizens for work is a fundamental right enshrined in the Indian Constitution. The Migrant Workers Act 1979 permitted the functioning of middlemen to ferry migrant workers and supply them to factories, construction sector and manufacturing units. This led to millions being recruited, shipped and employed in informal sectors in urban areas. Real state, brick-kilns, stone crushing, hybrid seed production, cotton ginning, spinning mills and apparel factories today employ 90% of their workers through a well-organised labour trafficking business network of contractors and middlemen across states. They are far from being regulated or inspected by enforcement agencies. The construction sector in India is one of the largest providers of wage employment to both skilled, unskilled workers, employing 49.5 million people. The modern textile industry in India employs more than 35 million workers and India as the second largest brick producer, employs an estimated 2.3 million migrant workers. Historically, brick kilns have been in news for rampant use of forced labour and debt bondage.
The pandemic has for the first time in India brought the issues of migrant workers to the centre-stage of public discourse and streamed indistinct and painful images of migrants leading to widespread anguish and public outcry. People actually “saw” hapless migrant labourers and those engaged in low paying, dirty, dangerous, demeaning jobs on the street with no job or a place to stay. As per government sources, close to 6.7 lakh migrant labourers equivalent to the total population of Republic of Bulgaria moved back to their source states. However, we have no information as to how many among them are women, men, children and youth, or under what conditions were they stranded. No details are available on children employed in factories, debt migrant labourers, sex workers, domestic workers and garment workers allegedly forced to work in distress conditions.
A research brief released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in May 2020 indicates that loss of employment and livelihoods in developing countries may produce conditions ripe for trafficking. Returnee migrants have their own sordid story to tell. They have become neo-untouchables in their own villages. A recent rapid assessment being carried out by Human Liberty Network in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar highlights that income shocks have increased vulnerability to debt bondage and trafficking. There is lack of access to job cards under MGNREGA and benefits under government schemes. Loss of livelihoods and diversion of government resources towards Covid-19 has also resulted in lack of nutritional and preventive health services to the most vulnerable.
News stories now indicate that even as many migrants remain in source states, some have started moving back to the metros and cities they abandoned, simply because they need a livelihood. As the pandemic prolongs, they may be forced to accept lower wages or whatever work comes their way, falling further into the trap laid by unscrupulous middlemen and traffickers. “Employment and Decent Work for peace and Resilience Recommendation, 2017” by ILO mandates that Governments ensure marginalised groups “freely chose employment” during rebuilding and rehabilitation measures post any disaster. Most victims of trafficking in India disproportionately represent people from traditionally disadvantaged gender, caste, religious groups and people living in last mile regions. It is ironical that they have to bear the cost of the pandemic. It is imperative that the Government addresses this situation through a well-calibrated mechanism of employment, food, health, social and human security.
While it is crucial for returnee migrants to reclaim their lost jobs in the cities, it is the responsibility of the Government to start working towards creating healthy, non-exploitative and decent working and living conditions for them. Suspension of labour laws through notifications and ordinances by some state might help the industries but will have adverse impact on the rights and privileges of migrant workers. The world of work for informal and migrant workers needs to be reshaped through urgent multi-stakeholder collaboration and targeted interventions among communities, state governments and CSOs to improve livelihood, social entitlement, social protection, nutrition and health access and thereby reduce vulnerability to debt bondage and human trafficking.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.