Despair to dignified opening

Migration Commission
By Dr. Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

The current migrant workers crisis triggered as a by-product of COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many problems in the national labour situation, involving both host employers and guest workers, and both home-State of the workers and the State where they are employed.
Noteworthy in this context is the announcement by the Government of Uttar Pradesh to constitute a Migration Commission in the State under the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979, to integrate migrant workers with the State’s economy and provide them employment within the State.
Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, evidently alarmed by the magnitude of the migrant crisis, also said that if any State wants migrant workers from UP, it would have to seek the permission of the UP Government after demonstrating their ability to guarantee income and social security to the workers. Legality and practicability of the condition are doubtful, but surely the object is to protect migrant workers from being exploited within or outside the State. It also shows that the government wants to assume a pro-active role to safeguard the interests of these workers.
UP Government has set up the Workers (Employment and Livelihood) Welfare Commission named Kaamgar Shramik (Seva Ayojan and Rozgar) Kalyan Ayog to find suitable employment for the workers within the State. The final figure of migrant workers returning to UP is not known, but definitely very large above 25 lakh.
This announcement is a result of a feeling that UP’s migrant workers are not given care in this crisis period in some States. Through the Migration Commission, UP Government intends to ensure basic rights and security like insurance and ration cards to migrant workers. Skill data about migrant workers are being collected to fit available workers with available jobs.
While press reports and political leaders are busy gathering and circulating stories of the plight of migrant labourers’ fleeing from their host States back to their home, States and social activists are taking up human rights issues, the root problem of fitting labour with employment and extending some amount of protection to contract labour and guest workers is ignored. Migrant workers are part of the country’s workforce deserving rights and protection like any other workers with just one difference that they frequently change their employer and their workplace. It is a constitutional right of every citizen to live and work in any State.
Migrant crisis has provoked State governments to plan for providing employment to these workers within the State. Among the social problems that have emerged from the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic, the one relating to migrant labour seems to be the most serious and biggest.
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is in favour of a short-term and a long-term plan. He has announced the Rozgar Setu (Employment Bridge) scheme to help skilled workers among migrant returnees to secure jobs. Such workers are being identified to absorb them in suitable positions in factories, workshops, infrastructure projects, etc. The State government will act as the bridge between the migrant labour and employers. Shram Siddhi Abhiyan has been launched to provide work for unskilled labourers.
In Bihar, massive data collection on the workers’ skills and proficiencies is undertaken. In Haryana efforts are on to hasten resumption of economic activities so as to absorb migrant returnees. Uttarakhand has launched the Mukhyamantri Swarozgar Yojana (Chief Minister Self-Employement Scheme) for the benefit of returning workers. Rajasthan has announced skill training programmes; Gujarat is offering increased salaries to the returnees; and Punjab is surveying new job opportunities.
A rare instance of Jharkhand government arranging flight for some 60 migrant workers in Border Roads project who were stranded in Leh to return to Ranchi is reported. This government is also trying to fly back its migrants stranded in Andamans and north-eastern states. Nagaland is drawing up strategies to create job opportunities to migrant workers.
Not all State governments are keen on receiving back their workers who migrated in search of livelihood. Some have even openly without hesitation expressed their dissent to arrival of trains carrying migrants, and readiness to send back guest workers to their native States.
Southern and western India constitutes most of the host States and north and north-eastern States are providing bulk of guest workers. The present unexpected exodus is a big jolt to both sets of States. Policy makers should wake up and use the challenge as an opportunity to devise plans to set right development inequalities in the country which is the root cause of mass and chain movements of unorganised labour taking place in India.
A plan to find work for migrants is being worked out in UP. Low cost shops and houses are planned in villages. A “skill map” of lakhs of migrant workers is drawn which will help creation of skill specific jobs. Yogi himself conducted interaction session with the workers to inspire hope and confidence among these migrants who had undergone tremendous sufferings. Several workers who had gained skill and experience in construction work, and as drivers, gardeners, painters, etc., have registered for jobs with the government. Recently announced package for MSMEs is expected to come to the rescue of these workers.
The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act 1979 to regulate the service conditions of inter-State labourers under the Indian Labour Law was intended to protect workers whose services were requisitioned outside their native States. It applies to establishments with five or more inter-state guest workers and to contractors involved in hiring them. It has been used widely in Odisha. A key element of the plan was to allot Unorganised Worker Identification Number (U-WIN) which was prescribed through a law in 2008, but it hasn’t come into regular practice. The result is incomplete and unreliable data on migrant workers.
The law had many positive features like provision for equal wages with local labour, displacement allowance, home journey allowance, suitable residential accommodation, medical allowance, termination after contract period without liability, etc. It also prescribed the role and responsibility of employers, contractors, and the State government. It is now planned to make registration under this Act attractive by including social benefits like pension and healthcare.
Our problem today is to ensure that reverse migration does not cause increased unemployment and another wave of migration to places of work once the pandemic subsides.
The plight of migrant workers under lockdown has arisen from deficiencies in labour conditions which have forced reverse migrations. There is need to redefine the term “migrant workers” and launch an effective plan to register them and cover them under labour and other welfare laws available to other workers. It is time to enact a new law as the current legal framework seems to be inadequate to protect the workers who have a right to seek employment outside their native States.
A good deal of economic growth comprising urbanization, modernisation, and development depends on migrant labour. The ordeals of this group today are a sad reflection of the deficiencies of our labour laws. We have to transform the present condition of migrant labour from despair into a dignified and rewarding opportunity as part of inclusive growth. Otherwise, appalling conditions at home will await the workers.—INFA