Plight of Migrant Workers, the Duties We Have Grossly Failed to Render and the Road Ahead

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The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global emergency on 30 January 2020. The struggle for the world began then. India, as well, reported confirmed cases of COVID-19 on 4 March 2020.

As a result, India announced a lockdown on 24 March 2020 with only a 4-hour notice. Indeed, the nationwide lockdown was to curb the transmission of the virus. However, this turned out to be a disaster as people rushed in huge numbers to buy essential commodities. What is imperative to note here is that it defeated the purpose of social distancing.

Particularly, the people who have suffered the most are the daily wage and migrant workers. They form a huge part of the unorganized sector of our economy and almost 10% of the workforce. This article, hence, attempts to shed light on the plight of migrant workers and the duties which we have failed to render. The same is done in light of the legal provisions. In the end, the article also attempts to devise a road map for the future.

The Backdrop

On 26 March 2020, the government announced a Financial package. But, there was no mention of migrant workers in this package. Due to the lockdown, the workers started their journey on ‘foot’ on 27 March 2020. Since then, the struggles have only increased. Many of them are dying on roads of hunger, dehydration and unfortunately, the cruelty of our system.

The Legal Aspect of the Issue

Violation of Right to life with Dignity

The condition of the labourers grossly violates the right to dignity. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution guarantees the that an individual has the right to live with dignity. In Naz Foundation v. The Government of NCT and Others, the Hon’ble Supreme Court observed that,

The Constitutional protection of human dignity requires us to acknowledge the value and worth of all individuals as members of our society”.

The facts justify the violation of the right. Many migrants started the journey of thousands of kilometres on foot. Most of them did not have food, water and other essentials. There have been many deaths reported and various unreported. Moreover, Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN) conducted a survey with 16,683 migrants. The survey revealed that the workers stranded in labour camps remain locked and deprived of food. Additionally, most of them had cash worth less than ₹100.

Violation of Article 14

The plight of the migrant workers also violates Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. It reads as,

The State shall not deny to any person equality before the law or the equal protection of the laws within the territory of India”.

For instance, the UP police released warrants for the prosecution of whoever helps the stranded migrants. The suspension of key migrant laws in the state is an example of discrimination. Their brutal treatment is a prima facie violation of their right to equality.

Neglect of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act

The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979, deals with the employer-employee relationship. The relationship between the contractor and the migrants are the same. It lays down the duties and responsibilities of the contractors. They have to ensure that the rights of the migrant workers are not violated. Further, it asks the contractors to pay the wages on time to the workers.

SWAN revealed that many workers hadn’t received their wages since January. This is a tactic used by employers to stop them from going back home.

Violation of Freedom to Movement

Article 19 guarantees the freedom of movement to Indians except under special circumstances. The lockdown was one such circumstance. But the MHA allowed the movement of migrants within states on 19 April 2020. Subsequently, on 29 April 2020, the MHA allowed inter-state movement of migrant workers by buses. Yet, many migrants were in the labour camps and not allowed to leave in the name of economic needs.

Disposal of Petition by the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court dismissed a petition directing employers to pay the migrants. The dismissal was on the grounds that the government has taken measures in this aspect. Various petitions asked High Courts to stop the movement of migrant workers on roads. Dismissal of these was also on the ground that the state needs to take action on these matters.

The Suo Motu Cognizance

Suo motu cognizance is a form of the portrayal of judicial activism by the Supreme Court of India. On 26 May 2020, a three-Judge bench took suo motu cognizance of the plight of migrant workers. The bench comprised of Justice Ashok Bhushan, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice M R Shah heard this matter. After analysing the circumstances, the Court passed an order. It read that the State and Union Territories are to send a detailed report by 28 May 2020.

We take suo motu cognizance of problems of migrants in all parts of the country, stranded. Media reports have been showing the conditions of migrants walking long distances. They have also not been getting food and water promised by the administration. The administration stopped them at highways. They then proceeded on-foot or other modes of transport

stated the three-judge bench.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court ordered for the provision of transport facilities for the migrants. They should also get food free of cost. The government had started the Shramik trains and bus use for migrant workers. This was a welcome move. But soon, reports of selling of tickets at hiked prices surfaced online. With so many migrants stranded pan India, this cognizance comes as a ray of hope. This will further validate the fact that the Judiciary is the protector of democracy.

Road ahead

The problems faced by the migrant workers shows the sign of where the nation is heading. There have not only been violations of Fundamental Rights but Human Rights as well. The Judiciary is the beacon of hope and it holds the future of democracy. Hence, the suo-motu cognizance by the Supreme Court is a ray of hope. There is a possibility that the conditions of these workers may improve.

What needs to be done is that we need to work on a better policy for the interstate migrant workers. There should be yearly surveys by the State Governments to know the influx and need of these workers. These surveys can lead to framing of better policies and laws that are tailor-made. There must be the prevention of suspension of key labour laws as they are the need of the hour. The role of a vigilante citizen is a must for the functioning of democracy. We must be aware of our rights and duties and spread awareness about the same.


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