Inadequate safety net
Despite having laws to protect them, both India and China have failed in their own respective manners to protect the rural migrant workers from the ravages of COVID-19
Thanks to COVID-19, for the first time, miseries of migrant workers were snowballed. China and India are the global leaders for using rural migrant workers to produce low-cost products and services. With the outbreak of COVID-19, China is dithering with the woes and India is groping in the dark. Ironically, both countries have laws to protect them. China enacted laws to protect migrant workers and schemes to provide social welfare benefits. India has laws to protect them, but no social welfare benefits. China has more rural migrant workers than India — indeed fifteen-time more. In 2017, China's rural migrant workers were 287 million, as compared to 19 million in India. According to a survey, most rural workers migrated to Mumbai and Delhi from Bihar, Orissa, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand.
China has three welfare schemes for rural and urban migrant workers. They are health insurance, workers' compensation and old-age pension schemes. India has none. The COVID-19 outbreak sent the Indian Government into a tizzy. The alarmed Government, fearing a loss to the vote bank, announced 'Occupational Safety, Health and Working Condition Code 2020'. For the first time, migrant workers were provided with social welfare benefits. The code included benefits of the public distribution system, provident fund and employees state insurance schemes. The COVID-19 outbreak forced the National Health Authority of India to coordinate with state governments to enlist migrant workers under 'Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Scheme' — a health insurance scheme on all India basis.
Why is it then that the woes of Chinese rural migrant workers sparked during COVID-19, despite the country having several welfare schemes? According to Global Times — an official Chinese media outlet — nearly 25 million rural migrants or 10 per cent of total rural migrant workers, would lose jobs in China this year. One of the main reasons was the low enrollment of rural migrant workers in the welfare schemes. In 2017, only 22 to 27 per cent were the participant rates of the rural migrant workers in three welfare schemes. Besides, the wage rates and wage growth rates are lower than urban private companies. One of the veiled facts is that only 35.1 per cent of rural migrant workers signed formal employment contracts with employers, according to a survey. The trend declined from 42.8 per cent in 2009.
Migrant workers are indispensable for India's economic growth. In almost all major sectors, migrant workers played a key role. Infrastructure, labour-intensive industries and export-oriented industries are the cases in point. Notwithstanding, bare attention was given to their welfare and protection. It was only after the outbreak of COVID-19 that the plight of the workers hogged the limelight, which became a wake-up call for the authorities. Politicians upped the ante and the policymakers were on their toes to mitigate the ire. This is despite the fact that the country has a law which was conveniently forgotten. The law was never implemented and neither it acted as a major vote bank.
India enacted the principal law much before China did. It enacted the 'Inter-State Migrant Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Act' in 1979. China did it in 2010. The main aims were to protect the workers from exploitation by employers. Every contractor or employer has to obtain a license from the state authority where the worker belongs and from the authority where the worker is employed. The act stipulates that the remuneration to be paid, fixation of wages and other essential services to be provided should be explicitly mentioned in the contract agreement. In addition, suitable residential accommodation, adequate medical facilities and protectable clothing are to be provided. The act lays down that the inspectors from the home state should visit the working place to ensure the compliance of the law, which was rarely followed.
Nevertheless, there is a caveat. How far the new code bill will succeed to deluge social welfare benefits to the migrant workers will depend on how the new code is strictly enforced. The new code bill puts the onus on employers to extend the benefits given in the establishments and abide by the provident fund and employee insurance facilities. Given the mandatory provisions of licensing where the contractor who supplies the worker, should obtain a license from the state government where the worker belongs and from the state government where the worker is working, it leverages a major scope for vested interests and collusion between employer and contractor, which unless is strictly enforced, may deprive migrant workers of the benefits.
The construction industry is an industry which witnessed rapid growth by the active participation of migrant workers. One-third of the migrant workers are engaged in the construction industry. It attracts both skilled workers (masons, carpenters) and unskilled workers. It contributes 7.5 per cent to the GDP. The garment industry is another strong pillar of Indian industry, which employs big migrant workers.
Exasperated China invoked a stricter law to protect the migrant workers from the default of payment of wages during the outbreak of COVID-19. According to a decree by the State Council, signed by the Chinese Premier, both government officials and employers are responsible and punishable for the default in payment of wages to the migrant workers.
On September 22, the Indian Parliament passed the 'Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020'. It subsumed the 'Inter-State Migrant Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Act' of 1979. It will be a leg up for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's scheme for employment opportunities to the returnee migrant workers, entitled 'Garibi Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyan'. He announced an amount of Rs 50,000 crore for building durable rural infrastructure under the scheme.
The writer is an Adviser, Japan External Trade Organisation (JETRO), New Delhi. Views expressed are personal