Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 27 March 2023

Migrant workers’ issues recur

Source: By Abhishek Angad: The Indian Express

Rumours of migrant workers being assaulted in Tamil Nadu have triggered concern among manufacturers in the state. Officials have rejected the reports as fake news, and political leaders and the administration have appealed to workers to not pay heed to the rumoursBihar and Jharkhand have sent officials to Tamil Nadu to take stock of the situation.

However, there are several real issues that migrant workers continue to face around the country. There is inadequate coordination among states on a formal exchange of information on migrant workers. In the absence of data, it is difficult to track labourers during times of crisis.

What is the legal framework for migrant welfare?

The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 looks into the welfare of the labourers. The Act mandates that the establishment which proposes to employ migrant workers be required to be registered with destination states. Contractors will also have to obtain a licence from the concerned authority of the home states as well as the host states. However, in practice, this Act has not been fully implemented.

This Act has been subsumed into the four broad labour codes notified by the Centre: The Code on Wages, 2019; The Industrial Relations Code, 2020; The Code on Social Security, 2020; and The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020. These have not been implemented yet.

Are there any states which have tried to implement the Inter-State Act?

In 2012, with the help of International Labour Organisation, an MoU was signed between Odisha and Andhra Pradesh to track labourers migrating from 11 districts of Odisha to work in brick kilns in the then united Andhra Pradesh.

Kerala has set up facilitation centres for migrant workers whom the state refers to as “guest workers”. These facilitation centres maintain data regarding migrant workers arriving in Kerala as well as help migrant workers navigate any problems they might face. However, there is no data sharing between Kerala and the migrant workers’ home states.

What was the issue between Jharkhand and the Border Roads Organisation?

The Jharkhand government started thinking about migrant labourers’ welfare during reverse migration in the pandemic. The state found out that roughly 9 lakh labourers had returned to Jharkhand from across the country.

One of the employers, Border Roads Organisation – an arm of the Ministry of Defence – has recruited many labourers from Dumka for civil construction in high altitudes, predominantly in the Union Territory of Ladakh. The Jharkhand government subsequently engaged in talks between the state and the BRO resulting in signing of a Terms of Reference in 2020. The state wanted to eliminate what it considered ‘predatory’ middlemen. CM Hemant Soren even flagged off two trains full of labourers to work sites in Ladakh and Uttarakhand in June 2020.

However, the recruitment did not go as planned. The workers who were recruited with the help of the state government alleged ill treatment, lack of services and low wages at the BRO sites, claiming that this was the case because they went without ‘middlemen’ who traditionally take charge of the workers’ lodging and upkeep.

How has Jharkhand responded to the situation?

Jharkhand has started the Safe and Responsible Migration Initiative (SRMI) in 2021, which aims at enabling systemic registration of migrant workers for monitoring and analysis in the source as well as the destination districts. The priority of SRMI is to generate data and then map the labourers who move out to several states for work.

Arindam Banerjee, Co-Founder at Policy and Development Advisory Group (PDAG) — which leads the consortium which will implement the SRMI and also advises Hemant Soren government on policy matters — said that an MOU is expected to be signed between Kerala and Jharkhand wherein nodal officers will be appointed in both the states too look into the issues of migrant workers. He said: “SRMI will work towards achieving that in close synergy with the Chief Minister’s Office, Department of Labour and other stakeholders. To begin with, the Jharkhand government will have help desks—which will be known as ‘labour consulates’—in various states.”

As far as the BRO goes, he said “Subsequent meetings with Ladakh district officials has resulted in mates (middlemen) being registered as labour agencies. These agencies will then form a Union registered and verified by the authorities. The Union will then provide data on migrant workers data to Dumka district administration …We have been inching towards getting the data which will help us get them linked to various schemes.”

Banerjee added that “Currently, migrants can take the benefit of One Nation One Ration Card or Ayushman Yojna. However, we are aiming to add more benefits and check whether all systems are in place so that they can work safely.”

Have there been any concerns with how the state is operating?

Jharkhand Janadhikar Mahasabha – a civil rights organisation – said that the central government needs to coordinate efforts among states to ensure workers’ rights are taken care of and that only registration of workers will not help until they do not receive social security benefits.

“The Central government seems more focused on weakening labour laws in favour of companies. While the Jharkhand government has been significantly more responsive towards issues of workers, it is yet to address basic issues. For example, even now, the registration under the inter-state migrant workers’ act is negligible. Also, the state government should not play the role of labour contractors,” said Siraj Dutta, a member of the Mahasabha. Dutta said that it is the responsibility of the state and the union governments to ensure the implementation of labour laws, the provision of a proper working environment for the workers, and that the workers get decent living wages and social security.

Only registering workers in a database will not help unless worker rights are ensured and violations of rights are strictly dealt with. To start with, the Jharkhand govt should write to all concerned states to ensure these things,” Dutta added.