Since 1947, when India attained independence, the Indian economy heavily relies on the Primary sector for providing the boost in terms of growth along with the employment opportunities it provides and the elixir of this sector is the “migrant workforce”. When it comes to “migrant workers” as per the estimates they form 20% of the workforce in India and substantially contribute to almost every sector of the economy, especially in the informal sector and that of Micro, Small, and Medium enterprises (MSME) (ie.) 50% of the Indian economy.
Across the world, the violation of labour rights by employer companies is a grave concern. Migrant workers are especially vulnerable due to the fact that they lack social security along with economic freedom. There are certain risks involved when such workers are rendered unemployed. No doubt that Indian migrants form a significant proportion of those impacted.
However The living and working conditions of the average Indian migrant, despite their significant numbers, frequently do not meet the standards of decent work, and there appears to be limited political commitment toward their improvement. As per the data of 2011 estimates a magnanimous number of 139 million are interstate migrants predominantly from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Gujarat, and Delhi.
THE ONSET OF THE PANDEMIC
The issue of migrant workers in India has come into the spotlight, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they face dire circumstances of being stranded, hungry, and forgotten. Migrant workers formed a substantial part of India’s labour force and were severely impacted by the lockdown, unable to return to their home villages due to the shutdown of public transportation.
Many were forced to undertake arduous journeys on foot, spanning long distances, and faced extreme hardships including lack of food, water, and shelter, resulting in hunger, dehydration, and exhaustion.
Living conditions for migrant workers in India have long been a prevalent issue, with inadequate access to basic amenities such as clean water, sanitation, and electricity in their temporary rehabilitation areas. They are also vulnerable to exploitation, low wages, and unsafe working conditions, often lacking job security. Furthermore, the well-being of their families back in their villages, who depend on remittances sent by the migrant workers, is also impacted.
Despite the significant numbers and challenges faced by migrant workers, there has been insufficient political commitment and measures to address their plight. Many violations of their human rights, including lack of access to decent work, basic amenities, and social security, often go unnoticed. This highlights the urgent need for attention, policy reforms, and social awareness to protect and uphold the well-being and rights of migrant workers in India.
OBSERVATIONS OF THE GROSS JEOPARDISING OF HUMAN RIGHTS OF THE MIGRANT WORKERS
The month of February 2020, brought with itself extremely precarious preconditions for the poor migrant population, struck with the unplanned and unprecedented lockdown announced by the government, the lack of a proper social security net acted as a last nail in the coffin. This covid-19 induced migrant crisis was exacerbated firstly by the irresponsible and exploitative mechanisms displayed by employers in the form of massive wage cuts.
The workers were also rendered helpless by the nature of their contracts ie. the informal sector and these contracts between workers and employers are unenforceable. Other factors that played a negative role are that migrant workers are not backed by proper unions and are seldom united, owing to lack of education rendering them more dependent upon their contractors and providing them with less bargaining power in case of any exploitation.
It was also reported that the rampant lack of affordable housing facilities made them more vulnerable and ergo faced most of the wrath of the lacunas in the Indian employment system. A common scenario is that workers are unable to get access to justice mostly due to a lack of awareness of their rights and the convoluted judicial system.
Although the government of India issued advisory promising food, shelter, and basic wages it all went ineffective in protecting them Secondly Discrimination and vilification of migrant workers, it was reported umpteenth times that migrants were treated as outsiders. Due to forceful eviction, they were forced to put their life at risk. Several complex issues such as the safety of women and pregnant women are often shrouded with inconsiderate measures by the authorities.
Many of the workers were met with social stigma leading them to live a deplorable life of isolation and hostility. Often lack proper medical facilities and cooperation from the system exacerbated their beleaguered situation.
Lack of inclusivity in the legal domain, several laws like the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979; Payment of Wages Act, 1936; The Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, etc were often misused by the employers. The main reason for this is the exclusivity of these workers from mainstream society and the difficult implementation of government schemes and programmes.
- POSITIVE ROLE OF THE CIVIL SOCIETY
In a democratic society like India, often the presence of NGOs and civil societies can act as an integral pillar in the process of eradicating such human rights violations. By the sheer expansive presence of these, a substantive transformation can be brought about at the grassroots level, involving the contribution of those who are oppressed in the process of government policy formulation.
- UNIVERSAL SOCIAL SECURITY NETWORK
As was witnessed during the lockdown period migrant workers struggled with their basic amenities such as that food, shelter, health facilities, and minimum wage requirements. A major problem was also encountered in the procurement of subsidised food by below-poverty-line cards due to the entries made in the database of other states. Therefore a holistic database is the need of the hour covering a slew of facilities for migrant workers.
- AN OPEN JUDICIAL SYSTEM
If a major setback was felt in rendering justice to the oppressed in case of gross injustice to the migrant workers was owing to an opaque judicial system. Expensive court proceedings dissuaded workers from further seeking judicial redressal. Proactive measures like judicial activism are indispensable and can act as a panacea to fight this system’s opacity.
- A STRONG POLITICAL WILL AND AWARENESS AMONG THE MASSES As fathomed through various national and international reports, government laxity in preparing for a predicament like this was glaring, and lack of proper and timely advisories and programme implementation at the grass root level were other arenas which were simply gross travesties of justice and universal human rights to everyone. A major component in the propagation of an equitable society is the active involvement of people and other stakeholders to prevent the ghettoisation of any community in any fashion possible.
Globalisation has instilled a process of massive rural-to-urban migration and thus augmenting the economic progress and growth of the country. India is currently at the tipping point and is poised to reap the momentous benefits of its demographic dividend.
However, in order to effectively and efficiently tap into the providence a robust mechanism is an imperative prerequisite. Empowerment of migrant workers, and women in the true sense by employing various tools of both government policies and sensitising the masses is indeed a sine qua non. A ubiquitous cycle of universal access to healthcare facilities, education leading to a high-quality standard of living, and purchasing power parity is all virtuously interlinked.
A major learning from this entire situation is alluding to a wide gap in the basic human rights of migrant workers and the entire legal framework governing these rights. Thus policymakers ought to take a pragmatic approach towards the pathetic plight of the migrants and any lackadaisical approach will be the last thing that India can afford.