In March, about 90 unoccupied migrant workers’ huts were burnt down in Bengaluru. In yet another instance, a 12-year-old girl died after walking 150 km from Telangana. Child Rights activist Achyuta Rao charged the collector and the Child Protection Unit. He also demanded compensation. Does compensation even suffice a child’s death? How often do we look away from these instances? The legal framework of India has always reformed, but how often has it helped the subjects?
Thus, with a meagre source of income and a hungry stomach, employer-centric laws have added fuel to the fire. However, Court orders and PILs have raised a strong voice for alleviating them. Some governmental steps, like cash transfers and stimulus packages, have also provided relief. However, what if this relief does not last them long enough? Amidst COVID-19, where should the blame game end?
Unorganised sector workers like migrant workers have always remained non-entities for the Government. Lack of opportunities and changing jobs are the biggest reason for migration. Internal migration was never a policy priority for the Government.
Fortunately, significant relief came from the Supreme Court order dated 9th June 2020. The order juxtaposes the concerns of migrant workers. It further said that they should not get prosecuted for lockdown violations.
What has worsened their plight is that orders and schemes are falling short. What legal framework can bring change without robust enforcement mechanisms?
Existing Legal Framework: What Needs to be Changed?
The Labour Law fabric of the country is not immune to loopholes. In 1979, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act was passed to eradicate migrants’ concerns. Better implementation of this law could have led to a pool of migrant labourers’ data. Licensing and registration, along with inspection, were mandated under the law. Higher compliance costs on MSMEs and other enterprises led to its failure. These costs include- allowances, accommodation, and healthcare.
Another major failure of the current framework is also the numeric division. Reducing the number by one gives the employer a clean chit. There is an urgent need to rationalise this law. Reducing compliance burden can incentivise employers to get registered.
The Unorganised Workers’ Security Act, 2008 mandated issuance of ID cards. It is sad to note that even after 12 years, no centralised database exists.
The Occupational Safety, Health, and Working Conditions Code, 2019 also brought reforms. The Code has initiatives like Shramik Sahayata Helpline and Migrant Labour Help Desk.
However, mounting concerns over implementation and enforcement never let migrants get their share. Moreover, lack of eligibility for schemes and inadequate data has made laws futile. Law formulation and implementation are one thing, but who tell them their rights? They are affected worse because of illiteracy and insecurity of losing their jobs.
When asked about the migrant crisis, Mr Ashish Azad, Advocate of Supreme Court, replied:
“The legal reform has made laws more employer-centric. No action is ever taken against employers for delayed wage payments. The Government has a social responsibility. Judiciary should have taken suo-moto action at an earlier stage. Even in PILs, one has to go through the locus standi torment.”
The inefficacy of laws has compelled the Union Government to strengthen them. In addition to that, the Employees’ State Insurance Act offers some relief. The Centralised scheme will entail the benefits of social security schemes to them.
Tussle Over Wages
An Order dated 29th March 2020, by the Ministry of Home Affairs gave economic relief to migrants. The order directed all establishments to pay wages without any deductions. This was to last during the lockdown. Landlords were also prohibited from taking rent from these migrant workers. Even so, over-riding concerns exist over the legality of the order. Implementation remains a far-fetched dream.
Mitigation of economic concerns of migrants will increase the compliance burden on employers. The Government must take measures to harmonise the employer-employee tussles over wages. One such measure is Ireland’s Wage Subsidy Plan. Under this, about 70% of wages will get refunded to employers.
Delayed wages are also a significant concern. At times because of job insecurity, migrant workers never raise their voices.
Current Legal Battles against Migrant Crisis
Primary legal battles are:
The appeal was to shift the stranded migrant workers to the nearest shelter homes. The Petitioner prayed for immediate action. Nevertheless, SC passed an order expressing contentment with government measures.
The petitioner requested to issue directions for ensuring minimum wages to migrant workers. The Ministry of Home Affairs directed employers to pay wages to migrant workers. They were also directed to pay these without deductions.
The petitioners prayed for free transportation for migrants. The SC ordered for free travel packages. The SC also took suo moto cognisance after the Aurangabad train tragedy. The order directed for immediate transport arrangements for migrants. The court also highlighted the Centre’s inadequacy in dealing with the crisis.
International Community’s Response to COVID-19
The ILO has adopted a three-pillar policy framework. These are, protecting workers at the workplace, stimulating the economy, and supporting income.
Some forms of relief provided by various countries are:
· Expanded access to Paid Sick Leave
Ireland, Singapore, and South Korea have introduced paid sick leaves. The UK has mandated paid sick leave from the first day itself.
· Occupational Safety
JTUC-RENGO in Japan has facilitated hotlines. It has also established childcare centres for working parents.
· Social benefits and unemployment benefits
· Financial Support Schemes
In France, tax reliefs are also provided. All companies will defer payment due during the pandemic.
Conclusion and Recommendations
A debilitated legal framework and adversities of COVID-19 have worsened migrant workers’ plight. Accordingly, a legal fabric with better implementation and enforcement is necessary. Timely payment of wages is essential. Otherwise, migrants will suffer. Still, India can rescue its migrants by taking a lesson from international measures.
There is a need to create a central database to analyse the situation. The NMIS (National Migration Information System) is one such effort. The NMIS is a national portal that facilitates monitoring and smooth movement. In addition to that, a unique feature is that of contact tracing. Furthermore, this feature will help locate the workers’ exact locations and nearest shelter homes.
This crisis can end with better awareness of rights and eradication of the fear of losing jobs. Furthermore, helplines and hotlines under the labour reforms seem perfect. Yet, information related to helplines needs to reach the ground level. The Radiophone Project by Sesame India and Little Bird in China has helped expand their reach.
Thus, the Government can surely rescue migrant workers with such measures, despite COVID-19.
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