Challenges to labour policy
There's a dire need to reinvigorate policies to address the numerous predicaments of migrant labour
While there is a policy vacuum at the Centre on migrant workers, Kerala offers a good model for how a state government should address the problems of incoming migrants and the Orissa government on addressing the issues of outgoing migrants
The flurry of news on migrant workers' issues in August-September has implications for a policy. First came the strike threat by 7-8 lakh migrant sugarcane workers in Maharashtra, who were demanding a doubling of the wages from the current Rs 200 per tonne. Powerloom workers in Surat, including five lakh migrants from Orissa, went on flash strikes demanding weekly holidays on Sundays and are threatening a strike demanding a wage of Rs 600 per day as against the current Rs 180-200 while rejecting the minimum wage of Rs 276, Rs 284, and Rs 293 respectively for unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled workers announced in April. But then there is no provision in the minimum wage law to ban employing workers at sub-subsistence wages in all occupations below a general minimum.
In August, Kerala's image as a migrant-friendly state got dented when during the floods, some locals refused to share space with the migrant workers in relief camps. In a laudable gesture, CM Pinarayi Vijayan immediately swung into action and arranged exclusive special camps for them. Many migrants in Kerala are from West Bengal and politicking with the Left started. One migrant worker from West Bengal died in the floods and the Kerala government promptly paid Rs 2 lakh ex-gratia. The Indian Railways arranged a special train to evacuate the flood-affected migrants to West Bengal. Mamata offered a free home visit, paid from the state exchequer to migrant workers earlier in April coinciding with the panchayat elections, and the move was aimed at getting their votes.
Migrants move from poorer regions to less poor regions, even cutting across national barriers, for bare survival. Projecting all of them as 'anti-national' and 'security threats' may be convenient vote-bank politics or diversion from real issues, and that's what the BJP is doing with NRC in Assam. Despite India becoming the largest recipient of remittances in the world and despite 85 lakh Indian workers earning in Gulf countries, the BJP government's double standards on this issue came to light when India's Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador told UN General Assembly on 14 May 2018 that UN should "make a clear distinction between legal and illegal immigrants". But then, in 2013, the Saudi government declared 1.34 lakh Indian workers 'illegal' and sent them back, and UAE sent back another 1.5 lakh Indian workers keen on continuing remittances of Rs 55,000 crore, the BJP government underplayed the assault on Indian workers by these states in the Gulf. But poor Muslim migrants in Assam became "enemies" to be deported.
Women migrants, especially domestic workers and beauty parlour workers, are highly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, however, there's a lack of any official policy and related intervention. Poor and unsafe working conditions, debt bondage as in Sumangali Thittam in Tamil Nadu, lack of healthcare, nutritional deficiency, absence of educational services, absence of crèche and proper sanitation facilities, proper housing with privacy for women, absence of leave for visiting home, and lack of cheaper transportation or cheaper facility to transfer money, etc., are other issues.
While there is a policy vacuum at the Centre on migrant workers, Kerala offers a good model for how a state government should address the problems of incoming migrants and the Orissa government on addressing the issues of outgoing migrants.
At the Central level, though the Aadhaar system has been in place for two years, the proposal for PDS cards' portability between states to help poor migrants has not made much progress. Modi's 'Housing for All' scheme claims that 2 crore houses for the urban poor would be provided by 2022 at an outlay of Rs 13 lakh crore. A sub-plan for migrant workers under it would offer rented housing to seasonal migrants for 2-3 years at an affordable cost. The housing ministry itself proposed only an allocation of Rs 6,000 crore but not a single rupee has been allotted in this budget. The health insurance schemes being operated by state governments for migrant workers would be subsumed under the Ayushman Bharat, but not all migrant workers would be covered.
Orissa is the first state to register the outward migrant workers from 2015 onwards and has launched the "shramik sahayata" app, allowing villagers to register online before migrating, and has established helpdesk kiosks including a phone line for migrants. They are also exploring the option of issuing credit cards to migrant workers to escape bondage to pay off their occasional loans and return.
The Ministry of Labour and Employment announced in the first year of Modi government that it was planning to introduce a tripartite scheme to address the problems of internal migrants with the participation of source-state and destination-state of migrants and the Centre, which could have addressed all these problems of migrant workers concertedly. But even as the term is nearing the end, the scheme is nowhere in sight.
The Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 remains ineffective. The Act lists the responsibilities of employers and contractors and the rights of workers to wages that are equal to those of the local employees, the right to return home periodically without losing wages, and the right to medical care and housing at the employment site. The government itself has not come up with schemes to meet those standards. There has not been a single noteworthy incident of any state government, including the Left governments, invoking the Act to address any problem of migrant workers covered under its ambit.
The multiple Left trade unions, with "all-India" and "Indian" tags, seem to be bereft of competent leaders capable of launching an exclusive all-India organisation of migrant workers, which apart from taking up their industrial disputes can also run its own service centres and offer security to them.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)
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