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Webinar: Civil Society's Response to the Migrant Worker Crisis

By Charmi Saujani

Government and private sector efforts to support migrant workers have had limited impact to date. The bulk of relief efforts are being led by NGOs, local residents and individuals who have come forward to support migrants and daily wage workers during the lockdowns. Daily Wage Worker Platform in partnership with Bridge India organized a webinar on ‘Civil Society’s Response to the Migrant Worker Crisis’ on 15th July with a panel of enthusiasts including Rahul Roy (member of Gurgaon Nagrik Ekta Manch), Noel Madichetty (Director at Don Bosco Network), Vaishnavi (Volunteer in Stranded Worker’s Action Network) and Siddhartha Prakash (Founder of Daily Wage Worker Platform-DWW) with Priyanka Dahiya (Co-founder of DWW) as the moderator.

The webinar started with each panelist introducing the organization they represent and how they have responded to the current crisis. Starting with Rahul, he talked about how Gurgaon Nagrik Ekta Manch was shaped at the start of this crisis in March and took various initiatives to bring a positive impact starting with the setup of an information system/hub to collect crucial data about the distress among the workers. They distributed 27,000 dry ration kits, each would last around 10 days in a family of 4-5 members, thus supporting 1,25,000 people. Later, collaborating with a school and caterer, they served 20-25000 cooked meals everyday summing up to 20,00,000 meals. Moreover, setting up research & advocacy teams two significant reports were produced. Furthermore, these teams added IVR systems to their working to generate information for their research and to strategize the organization's working system. Helping migrants go back to their villages is also present in the list of their initiatives.

Vaishnavi introduced SWAN, a group of 180 volunteers across India, which formed on 29th March in response to the crisis. They have worked to provide immediate relief to the stranded workers and have built a lot of public dialogue around their work with many policy and advocacy platforms. Their main intervention was to provide cash transfers to the workers from donors. They managed to help 35,000 workers by disbursing Rs. 55,00,000. These cash transfers helped the migrants meet all the expenses including phone recharges, drinking water, travel costs, accessing toilets etc. even when other NGOs were helping them receive rations.

Siddhartha explained the formation of DWW, its Dharavi project’s success and the shaping of the Swaasthya project which is in collaboration with Operation ASHA, Smile Foundation and The Medics. The pilot seeks to provide 30,000 migrant workers with emergency healthcare packages including screening, diagnosing, providing free medicines, counselling about COVID-19 and social distancing and referral to local hospitals to get proper aid if required.

Lastly, Father Noel represented the Don Bosco Network which has worked on the mission of ‘self-reliant life of dignity for all’. Starting in India in 1906, the network now comprises 500+ institutions reaching one million people- specifically the youth- with centers, aka ‘migrant desks’ in 72 cities. During the current crisis, the network has helped 2.5 million people with ration kits, health kits, counselling and more with main centers in Kerala and Chennai. Don Bosco Network has a focus on job placement which is strong in Kerala & Tamil Nadu and is to be expanded all over India. With DWW, they plan to distribute booklets to promote awareness among migrant workers about their rights and legal entitlements from government schemes and employers.

The Q&A section gave significant information about the organizations' experience through the crisis. The organizations shared the challenges faced by them in which the top one was the lack of transparency and communication from the government’s side which hindered the planning and operations of these organizations. With challenges they learned many lessons, such as the need for looking at the workers as an important resource of our country and the need for public-private partnerships to improve the condition of these workers. Rahul pointed out the realization of how close these workers are to starvation and how distress is an ever-present danger in their lives.

On the question of creating employment for these workers, Father Noel shed light on the need for a data driven system by which the skills of the workers are matched to the manpower needs of the destination city so they can find a relevant job. The difference in responses to this crisis in all states was reasoned by Vaishnavi, who highlighted the varying capabilities and functioning of all states and different levels of out-migrations. Later, Siddhartha stressed on the fact that the lack of legal awareness and enforcement of the rights of migrant workers was the root of the crisis. Workers are unaware of the several laws including the inter-state migrants act and building and construction workers act that provide several benefits. There are no redressal mechanisms in place to ensure migrants are paid, have access to decent working conditions and insurance.

In their closing remarks, the panel urged the government to take responsibility for securing the welfare of migrant workers. Civil society has played its part. It is time for the PM and CMs relief funds to start disbursing the money collected for the benefit of the vulnerable migrant workers. The private sector must allocate the 2% of its annual profits under CSR to support migrant workers. The scale of these resources can go a long way in providing for the workers during the crisis. Migrant and daily wage workers comprise 90% of India’s total workforce. Their welfare is key to the country ever achieving self-reliance. Without them, India will fail to rise again.

Watch the full webinar here:


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