By Raunaq Puri and Varun Agarwal
The mass exodus of migrant workers from cities to villages triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic shed light on the dismal working conditions and rights of migrant workers within India. Due to data-gaps, it is unclear how many inter-state migrant workers there are in India. According to the 2011 Census Data, there are almost 450 million internal migrants out of which around 40 million reported work as the primary reason for their migration. These workers face multiple challenges in the form of weak social security nets, delay in wage payment, lack of documentation, harassment by contractors, unavailability of food, housing, healthcare, lack of legal awareness and poor accessibility to skill training.
While relief packages are critical in providing temporary support to the workers, initiatives to address systemic issues that plague the migrant labour economy have not yet materialised. Daily Wage Worker Platform, in association with partner NGOs, conducted a survey covering 7000 migrant workers from September to November 2020, across states of Bihar, Odisha, and Maharashtra.
According to the survey data, between 85-90% of the workers belong to marginalized communities (SCs, STs and OBCs) which indicates a high possibility of socio-economic disenfranchisement at their source states owing to rigid social structures within rural settings that reinforce caste discrimination in the form of lack of opportunities which pushes workers to migrate to urban areas. Post migration, 60% of the workers gained employment through contractors out of which, 30% reported being harassed – physically, emotionally or verbally – by their contractors. Those employing the migrants are incentivized to under-report the number of migrants they employ in order to save on the mandatory social-security payments, relocation allowances etc. Between the lack of income prospects in source states and blatant harassment in destination in destination states, it seems like the situation of the migrant labourer couldn’t get any worse.
The lockdowns in 2020 laid bare and exacerbated the structural issues impacting workers on a regular basis. The data showed that 85% of the surveyed workers did not have any source of income after the lockdown and almost 50% reported difficulty due to food shortages. Many civil-society organisations documented the plight of the migrant workers during the lockdown – sharing their stories and doing on-ground relief work on a volunteer basis with crowdsourced funds. However, as the lockdowns were relaxed and economic activity started picking up, the conversation shifted again. The Government of India announced relief packages and economic stimulus in order to help with the process of recovery and in view of this, the voices of the migrant workers got lost again.
Despite the lack of income prospects within their source states, workers seem to be demotivated to migrate looking for work again. Besides the distress and uncertainty caused due to the lockdown, the same structural issues mentioned earlier continue to explain why workers are demotivated to go back to their previous jobs or migrate in search of new jobs. Interestingly, for the workers who were willing to relocate or migrate again, there was a strong demand for skill trainings, employment support through NGOs and basic amenities and rights covering fair wages, travel allowances, adequate housing and food security in the workplaces.
Sensex reached an all-time high of 50,000 in January 2021. India’s billionaires amassed greater wealth in the year 2020. While these are signs of economic recovery for capital markets, these are mostly profit driven – based on the revenues of large corporations that had resources to cope with the economic downturn. The plight of the workers, however, has not been as optimistic. To mitigate the distress and support the workers through an inclusive recovery process, it is important to implement policies that take into account the demands and needs of the workers who were hit hardest by the pandemic.
Addressing data gaps within the system so that workers are documented and identified for transfers and benefits, ensuring each worker has proper employment documentation, skill training and increasing legal awareness among workers should be some key policy goals. Moreover, broadening the social security net through portability of the Public Distribution System (PDS) and prioritizing workers in the vaccine distribution drive can help to erase the apprehension that workers currently have in terms of migrating back.