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International response to the migrant workers crisis in India

by Charmi Saujani

There are an estimated 139 million migrants in the country, according to the World Economic Forum. When the international organizations saw how the pandemic revealed the poor conditions and exploitation of migrant workers in India, they responded in different ways. We have tried to compile some of the responses below to know more about the world’s perspectives around the Indian migrant crisis.


A recent paper titled ‘Migration and the invisible economies of care: Production, social reproduction and seasonal migrant labor in India’ (July, 2020) was published in the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) journal, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, and has revealed the plight of the vulnerable Indian migrant labor force during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The paper, co-written by Alpa Shah, Associate Professor of Anthropology at LSE and Dr Jens Lerche, Department of Development Studies at SOAS, has shone a spotlight on this exodus and also explored the complexities behind this group’s invisibility – both nationally and internationally. The researchers looked at how these workers are exploited as a minority by big businesses, thus leading to extreme political, economic and social inequality.

International Labour Organisation

With over 90 percent of the Indian population working in the informal economy, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) had predicted that as a result of the crisis and subsequent lockdown, about 400 million workers will fall deeper into poverty while forcing many of them to return to their places of origin in the rural areas. ILO's Director, Decent Work Team for South Asia, Dagmar Walter, had shared some of her insights in the matter with news media and had suggested actions that could be taken to ease out the pain.

"This situation also demands effective social dialogue mechanisms, among the ILO constituents - government, employers and workers. For any responses to be effective, they have to be built on trust among the constituents and trust requires consultation and collaboration. The second important dimension is the International Labour Standards – ILS which assumes greater significance in the current situation and provides a strong foundation in preparing policy responses needed for sustained and equitable recovery.” She signed off with - “ILS encapsulate the idea of a human-centred approach to economics and development, and balance the needs of stimulating demand, supporting businesses and protecting workers. For example, Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience, Employment Policy Convention C.122, the Protection of Wages Convention (C.95) states that if an employer goes out of business-employed workers shall be treated as privileged creditors for unpaid wages.

ILO had advised the need for countrywide coordinated and coherent measures to respond to COVID-19 pandemic across three pillars:

1. Protecting and supporting jobs and incomes for workers - especially informal workers, vulnerable groups such as women, aged, disabled workers and others.

2. Protecting workers at workplace and frontline workers in healthcare, essential services and outreach workers.

3. Protecting businesses, especially small and micro-enterprises.

United Nations (UN)

UN experts said that the Indian Government must urgently comply with a Supreme Court order to ensure the wellbeing of more than 100 million internal migrant workers suffering hardship after COVID-19 measures forced them to travel long distances home. Many of these travels were by foot.

“We are appalled at the disregard shown by the Indian Government towards internal migrant laborers, especially those who belong to marginalized minorities and lower castes. Instead of ensuring the protection of their rights, the Government has failed to address their dire humanitarian situation and further exacerbated their vulnerability with police brutality and by failing to stop their stigmatization as ‘virus carriers’,” said UN Special Rapporteurs on the right to housing, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, and on extreme poverty, Olivier De Schutter.

“While we applaud the Indian Government’s efforts so far to provide ‘relief packages’ for people living in poverty, and to schedule extra train rides, these have been clearly inadequate and insufficient due to the vast majority of internal migrant workers not qualifying for relief packages, and the lack of coordination among state governments for the transportation of internal migrants,” the experts said.

The UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, responded to the Indian migrant crisis by talking about the quarantine efforts, treating migrants with respect and the need to stop stigmatization. She said that although the strain on police services are understandable, the officers must continue to show restraint and abide by the international standards on the use of force and humane treatment in their efforts to respond to the pandemic. While welcoming steps to address the deadly crisis, she noted the importance of ensuring that measures responding to COVID-19 are “neither applied in a discriminatory manner nor exacerbate existing inequalities and vulnerabilities”. For example, special measures should also take into account the particular situation of migrant women, who are among the most economically vulnerable and impacted by the situation. She highlighted the importance of weighing all measures against the right to privacy and avoiding measures that would unduly stigmatize people within the community. “This is a time for domestic solidarity and unity. I encourage the Government to draw on India’s vibrant civil society to reach out to the most vulnerable sectors of society, to ensure no one is left behind in this time of crisis”, concluded the High Commissioner.

Other responses

Sai Balakrishnan, Faculty associate at Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs and an assistant professor of urban planning at the Harvard Graduate School of Design wrote a blog on ‘India’s Migrant Crisis: Trapped in a COVID Spatial Rift’ on Epicenter - at the heart of research and ideas, Harvard University. She maps the pathways of migrant labourers and describes the policies that created an east-west divide. This map illustrates the spatial rift, i.e. the regions where India’s migrant labor force live, (mostly in the east) and where they must travel to work, which is the economic corridors in former Green Revolution regions.

The ‘Financial Times’ South Asia bureau chief Amy Kazmin was pretty pointed in her critique. She noted that the state is “extending minimal support for India’s poorest through food aid, tiny cash transfers, and enhancing funding for a rural workfare scheme.”

These responses give us the conclusion that the lockdown and the ensuing migrant crisis have brought to the fore the urgent realities of “the return of the social question”. They also highlight the unfulfilled obligations of the Indian state to restore dignified work to its most vulnerable citizens.


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