December 18, 2021
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Migration blues

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Rights of Migrant Workers in India

Good morning. When it comes to labour laws, India admittedly isn’t the best. The Covid-19 pandemic, if anything, very clearly showed us the plight of the workers who, in the eyes of the nation, barely even existed. That’s right, we’re talking about migrant workers and what rights they are guaranteed, as per the Constitution.

So, who is a migrant worker? A migrant worker is anyone that moves to a new place, inside or outside their home country, to pursue their work. Usually, migrant workers don’t plan on settling down in the place they move to. This, more often than not, puts the workers in vulnerable positions as they tend to lack any real social security and economic freedom.

Now that we’ve got that covered, let’s look at legislation. As per the Indian Constitution, all workers are guaranteed labour rights in this nation; and that includes migrant workers. The Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy clearly mention so in the following three articles:

  • Article 16, a fundamental right, says that each citizen has the right of “equality of opportunity for employment or appointment under the state.”
  • Article 43, a directive principle, guarantees a “living wage” to workers and makes sure that the “conditions of work [ensure] a decent standard of life”.
  • Article 43A even requires the state to “secure the participation of workers in the management of undertakings”.

When it comes to legislation purely for migrant workers, the waters get a little murky but the following acts do ensure some standards to migrant workers.

  • The Payment of Wages Act, 1936 – As the untimely payment of wages is deemed as a kind of exploitation, this act ensures that workers receive “regular and prompt” wages for their work. It also prevents the imposition of any “arbitrary fines” on migrant workers’ wages.
  • The Employees’ Compensation Act, 1923 – This is our version of workers’ compensation. It ensures that, incase of an injury caused by accidents at work, the worker gets paid by the employer even when they cannot work. Migrant workers are most definitely included in this.
  • Minimum Wages Act, 1948 – This covers all workers, migrant, local and those of the unorganised workers. This act, as the name suggests, reviews, revises and fixes the minimum wage rates in the states.
  • The Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 – The main objective of this act is to “ensure social security, good wellbeing and to protect the unorganised sector workers from several contingencies.” It does so by issuing smart identity cards to workers and providing available data on social security schemes. A large portion of migrant workers in India work in the unorganised sector so this remains an important piece of legislation for them.
  • The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961 – Yes, migrant workers do have maternity benefits but, as it turns out, this seems to be the easiest to overlook in the Indian scenario. If the person has worked in the establishment for at least 80 days in 12 months, they are eligible for a maximum of 12 weeks of paid maternity leave.

The meatiest act directly pertaining to migrant workers in India is the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979. Spread over 7 chapters, this act is applicable to all contractors and establishments that employ more than 5 migrant workers.

According to this act, the employers have to be registered with the local authority and must have a “certificate” saying that they are allowed to employ migrant workers. Contractors must also provide the workers with the “terms and conditions of recruitment” which should cover their hours of work, wages, nature of work, etc. The law also states that the conditions of work must be the same for both local and migrant workers. It also ensures displacement and journey allowances for the migrant workers.

All of that seems great, right? Clearly, with laws like this, the state of migrant workers in this country should be a lot better than its reality. Well, in law circles, the law mentioned above is considered to be a “dead letter law”. This means that the law very much exists but still, the public seems to ignore it. Therefore, it becomes a dead letter. The problem here is implementation, folks.

The crux of the matter is the incessant ‘othering’ of migrant workers in the country. Despite them being the practical backbone of our labour force, we’re looking at dead letter laws and terrifying oversight. And now, the government has even proposed a major restructuring of labour laws in India. Something the labour unions are sure will dilute the little safeguards the workers already barely have.