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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 20, New Delhi, May 1, 2021

Do we really need a separate national policy for migrant workers? | Kingshuk Sarkar

Saturday 1 May 2021

by Kingshuk Sarkar*

As Covid pandemic intensifies, possibility of reverse distress migration of informal workers has again become an imminent apprehension. The question is whether we can avoid tragic circumstances this time around. A draft national policy on migrant workers is in public domain and is being discussed. The basic issue of entitlement of a worker needs to be addressed rather than the migrant identity alone. 

The second wave of Covid is hitting the country hard with number of infections increasing every passing day. The spectre of second nation-wide lockdown is looming large on the horizon. There are apprehensions of reverse migration happening again as few states have already resorted to partial lockdown. Unpleasant memories particularly visuals of plight of migrant workers witnessed a year back are haunting us again. The question facing us whether we can avoid large exodus of migrant workers this time around. Whether we have learnt our lessons? Do you need a national migrant workers’ policy? Do we need a separate policy for migrant workers at all? These are questions that are very relevant in the present context.

Draft Policy and Working Group Report 

There is a draft national policy on migrant workers formulated by the Niti Aayog available in public domain. There is also a government working group report on the same subject released in 2017. [1]

The draft national policy prescribes two types of approaches: one focussed on cash transfers, special quotas, and reservations and the other emphasized “enhancing the agency and capability of the community and thereby remove aspects that come in the way of an individual’s own natural ability to thrive”.

The draft policy nullifies handout approach and prefers instead a rights-based framework. Policy advocates “to remove restrictions on true agency and potential of the migrant workers”. The goal, it says, “should not be to provide temporary or permanent economic or social aids”, which is perceived as “a rather limited approach”.

Migration, as perceived in the draft, “should be acknowledged as an integral part of development” and “government policies should not hinder but seek to facilitate internal migration”. This is in conformity with the approach recommended in the Report of the Working Group on Migration, released in January 2017 by the then Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation. The report pointed out that the movement from agriculture to manufacturing and services was inherently linked to the success of migration in the country [2].

The 2017 report opined that protective legislation for migrant workers was not effective since last two decades and has become irrelevant in the present context. According to the report, ‘’migrant workers should be integrated with all workers as part of an overarching framework that covers regular and contractual work.

The report highlighted the inherent limitations of the Inter-State Migrant Workers Act, 1979, which was conceptualized and designed keeping in mind a migration architecture based on network of contractors both in home and destination states. Migration during 1970s was thought of mostly as escorted migration facilitated by layers of contractors and sub-contractors. ISMW Act 1979 was enacted to protect migrant labourers from exploitation by contractors by ensuring their right to non-discriminatory wages, travel and displacement allowances and decent working conditions.

However, the pattern of migration underwent significant changes over the years particularly since 1991 when India embarked on the path of liberalization and globalization. Migration landscape in present context is mostly open where people migrate on their own from both urban and rural areas in search of livelihoods to places which have better economic prospects. Such migrations mostly happen through informal network which includes friends, relatives and acquaintances. Contribution of agriculture to GDP has steadily fallen over the years as expected but it still provides livelihood to disproportionately very large number of people. There is huge disguised unemployment in India’s primary sector. Labourers released by agriculture could not be absorbed in the same proportion by the secondary and tertiary sector. Many such labourers ended up as urban informal sector workers in relatively big cities. A significant part of such informal sector workers are migrant workers. Among migrant workers, those who could not find wage employment ended up as self-employed workers surviving by engaging themselves in petty economic activities. They sell vegetables at roadside, run tea or cycle repairing shops or ply rickshaws. These are the migrant workers who suffered the most during the last lockdown.

The NITI Aayog’s policy draft also provided explanation in similar line and prescribed that ISMW Act 1979 should be amended keeping in mind present-day realities of internal migrations. Policy draft lays down institutional mechanisms involving all stakeholder namely ministries, states, and local departments for effective implementation of programmes for migrants. It identifies the Ministry of Labour and Employment as the nodal ministry for implementation of policies and play a lead role in coordination and convergence among the stakeholders. It talks about creation of a special unit to help convergence activities of this ministry. This unit would manage migration resource centres in high migration zones, run a national labour Helpline, link worker households to government schemes and inter-state migration management bodies. Migration focal points should be created in ministries and labour departments of source and destination states should work coordinate among themselves.

The 2017 report also called for a comprehensive law for these workers which would integrate migrant workers’ right with broader labour rights. This was in line with the recommendations of a 2007 report by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector under the Ministry of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises [3].

Further the draft policy advocates measures to stem migration as far as possible. This is an area where draft policy differs with 2017 report. The draft suggests source states to raise minimum wages to “bring major shift in local livelihood of tribals that may result in stemming migration to some extent”. Draft Policy lays down the role of the community building organizations (CBOs) for better grass root level access and implementation of the various development schemes at village level. The long term plan should be alleviating distress migration as far as possible. Panchayet has a very important role to play here. Draft policy suggests that Panchayats should maintain a database of migrant workers, issue identity cards and pass books, and provide “migration management and governance” through training, placement, and social-security schemes.

Need to create a database

Both the 2017 report and the new draft policy stress the need for credible data. Lack of data hinders policy formulation. There is no credible data for informal labour of which migrant work a part. There are only rough estimates but no specific data. In absence of a credible database, it becomes very difficult to put in any contingent or long term plan/policy. The draft calls for a central database to help employers “fill the gap between demand and supply” and ensure “maximum benefit of social welfare schemes”. Occupational Safety Health Working Conditions Code 2020 provides for a central database for inter-state migrant workers. All inter-state migrants can register themselves online in the portal to be provided by the central government through self-declaration and Aadhaar number [4].

 Supportive interventions 

The draft policy suggests that the Ministries of Panchayati Raj, Rural Development, Housing and Urban Affairs, Tribal Affairs may collate available migration data to help create migration resource centres in high migration zones. Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship may focus on skill development of returnee migrant workers such that they may find meaningful livelihood opportunities and entrepreneurial openings within the local limit.

The Ministry of Education should initiate measures under the Right to Education Act to mainstream migrant children’s education, to map migrant children, and to provide local-language teachers in migrant destinations. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs should address issues of night shelters, short-stay homes, and seasonal accommodation for migrants in cities. The National Legal Services authority (NALSA) and Ministry of Labour should set up grievance handling cells and fast track legal responses for trafficking, minimum wage violations, and workplace abuses and accidents for migrant workers.

Immediate questions

As imposition of lockdown becomes a distinct possibility in the present context (already partial lockdowns in several states have been imposed), reverse migration is apprehended. Already there are instances of migrant workers returning back from states like Maharashtra and Gujarat. The question is whether we are prepared this time. In case of contingency, would we be able to respond better and take better care of migrant workers? We have not heard much on this from the government. There are no declared policy announcements till now. Even if there is any roadmap, we don’t know about it.

Do we need a policy at the first place?

Migrant workers are part of the informal labour force. Last year, the entire informal migrant labour force suffered as they lost livelihood opportunities because economic activities came to a halt. At best, informal workers earn minimum wages which is just enough for subsistence. They can’t save much and there is no job or social security. When lockdown was imposed last time, migrant workers lost jobs and could hardly survive beyond two weeks with their meagre saving. After a point, they could not stay any more as they were not a position to pay rent. Also, there was no guarantee when lockdown was going to be withdrawn. Employers mostly didn’t provide any succour. Informal migrant workers didn’t have options but to return back.

Migrants in formal sector didn’t suffer that much as they had job security and enough savings to fall back upon. Many of them got the opportunity to work online enabling them work from home. Even if they were laid off, they received lay-off compensation as postulated in the Industrial Dispute Act 1947. Also, they had access to certain social security instruments like provident fund etc.

The point here is that a standard decent job will enable a person survive a lockdown situation. An informal migrant worker can’t as s/he does not have access to decent working conditions. Wages are too low, sometimes even below that of the prescribed minimum wage. Work is characterized by absence of job and social security. Employer-employee relation is blurred. There are significant number informal migrants who are self-employed and there is no tangible employer in cases where there are layers of intermediaries. International labour standards are almost entirely absent. In informal workspace, decent working condition is an alien concept.

Sufferings of informal migrant workers during the lockdown last year can be attributed to absence of decent working conditions and adequate compensation mechanism. As a citizen of this country, one is free to settle and practice any permissible livelihood anywhere in the country. Exigencies like Covid pandemic and subsequent lockdown should not lead to distress conditions as witnessed last year. Such plight indicates labour market and administrative failure. Identity of a migrant should not matter that much as far as basic survival is concerned. Identity of a worker belonging to informal sector is important in this context. If decent working conditions would have prevailed in majority of cases, migrants would not have returned back.

Thus, what needed is restoration of basic labour rights rather than a separate policy for migrant workers. If the interests of workers in general are protected, that of migrants would be automatically ensured as migrants are sub-set of a larger set. Migrants have few additional needs but overall the core factors are all related to legislative protections and rights. If these are protected to a certain extent, explicit separate migrant worker policy might not be needed.

The policy framework discussed at the beginning, is mostly relevant as secondary enabling factors. They provide the broad contour. Migrants do have certain special needs and those are needed to be catered too. But core issues are universal and not specific to migrant workers alone. Migrants are to be seen as part of broad informal labour diaspora. Decent work and compensation mechanism are the priority areas in dealing with the well-being of the world of informal migrant workers. A holistic inclusive labour policy will take care of migrants’ interests too.

Views expressed are that of the author and not necessarily that of the organization he belongs to.

*(Dr Kingshuk Sarkar is an independent researcher and also works as a labour administrator with the Government of West Bengal. He earlier served as a faculty of the V V Giri National Labour Institute, Noida and NIRD, Hyderabad. He can be contacted at kingshuk71[at]hotmail.com) 


[1Explained: What is NITI Aayog’s draft national policy on migrant workers? by Karishma Mehrotra (February 24, 2021, Indian Express https://indianexpress.com/article/explained/niti-aayog-migrant-workers-policy-covid-lockdown-7201753/

[2Jitesh Jha. Working Group on Migration recommends legal framework for protection of migrants’ interests (March 2, 2017) https://www.jagranjosh.com/current-affairs/working-group-on-migration-recommends-legal-framework-for-protection-of-migrants-interests-1488434295-1

[3Report on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livliehoods in the Unorganised Sector (2007) http://dcmsme.gov.in/Condition_of_workers_sep_2007.pdf

[4The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 No. 37 of 2020 https://labour.gov.in/whatsnew/occupational-safety-health-and-working-conditions-code-2020-no-37-2020

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