Interview on Migrant Workers and Labour Laws in India

Job Loss

In an interview to Edu-Almanac, an education e-magazine for students and educators, I spoke about the migrant labour crisis in the pandemic and suspension of labour laws in some states of India.

Part of the interview can be read here

Q. What according to you is primary reason behind exodus of migrant labourers in the wake of COVID-19 crisis?

The primary reason for the exodus of the migrant labour was loss of job and income together with lack of social protection or support from the government or private sector during this time of crisis. We always knew that there are a large number of migrants in our cities. In Gujarat, Surat in particular is seen as a city of migrants. There are permanent migrants who have lived in the city for long periods and are unlikely to leave the city. But our concern here in this time of crisis is with circular migration.

Circular migration is temporary and repeated and is generally for employment. It follows a similar pattern year after year, within the state and across states. Inter-state migration in India was estimated at 9 million (Economic Survey of India, 2017). This is most likely to be the temporary variety. The Census of India 2011 estimated internal migration of intra-state migration at a total of 139 million. Of the total migrants, inter-state migration consisted of about 56 million in 2011, which is the focus of the media today. Obviously the number would be large a decade later in 2020.

In the time of the lockdown these circular migrants found themselves without jobs. The self-employed among them were unable to continue their manufacturing, trade or service activities. The reasons were both the demand and supply side problems. On the supply of labour, the workers were not allowed to travel to their place of work during the lockdown. On the demand side the employers had to shut down the units and many resorted to firing the workers or cutting their salaries. From the supply side the employers also faced the problem of access to inputs. On the demand side the cut in salaries of a large proportion of employees and inability to perform self-employed activity during lockdown led to lack of money in the hands of the people. This led a reduction in demand for goods and services, particularly of non-essential items.

The migrant workers found themselves in a fix, with no work and dwindling cash in their hands for survival. The cost of living in the city, such as rent or payment for utility services such as electricity, had not declined with decline in income. How could they make ends meet? And so the migrant were left with no alternative than to proceed home to their native states. This led to the exodus of the migrants that we have been witness to.

Q. Don’t you think the condition of labourers was always deplorable in our country with ineffectiveness of Migrant Workmen Act of 1979 and absence of Basic Income Provisioning for labourers from unorganised sector?     

The condition of temporary circular migrants has been deplorable in spite of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979. This is at least partly due to the fact that enforcement of laws is poor in India. The Act calls for the registration of all contractors dealing with migrant workers and the registration of all migrant workers. It calls for inspectors to check on the contractors and the conditions of the workers. However, these provisions are not strictly implemented.

The Migrant Workmen Act is to be subsumed under the new labour code, Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019. This code subsumes and replaced 13 labour laws and is supposed to strengthen the rights of migrant labour. It remains to be seen if this labour reform will help improve the conditions of the migrant workers.

Labour market reforms will remain incomplete if some form of Basic Income Provision and social security cover is not worked out for the workers. Ideally, such Basic Income Provision should be universal and not targeted, as this would increase the chances of implementation.


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