Opinion | The ‘nowhere people’ of COVID-19 need better legal safeguards

The migrant workers’ plight during lockdown is a trigger to ensure they aren’t left high and dry again during tough situations

Updated - April 22, 2020 10:04 am IST

Published - April 21, 2020 11:15 pm IST

Migrant workers at a bus terminal in New Delhi in a desperate bid to reach their villages.

Migrant workers at a bus terminal in New Delhi in a desperate bid to reach their villages.

Post-COVID-19, whenever that happens, one of the most enduring images of it would be that of the multitudes of migrant workers who became, all of a sudden, nowhere people, no one’s people. For the policymakers, it would be a trigger to rework a strategy for them and to ensure a better legal framework which doesn’t leave them high and dry yet again during tough situations.

It is in this context that we need to revisit the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979. It was drawn up after repealing The Orissa Dadan Labour Act, 1975. Based on a very specific background, it couldn’t perhaps see much beyond the then-existing migrant workmen system. The ISMW Act defines inter-State migrant workman as any person who is recruited by or through a contractor. This definition keeps away any migrant workman out of the ambit if he is not brought in through a licensed contractor.

It is common knowledge that most of the migrant workmen are not routed through licensed contractors. This small catch, in the definition, has been sufficient to exclude bulk of the migrant workmen from getting any benefit out of the Act.

Furthermore, the Act is only applicable to any establishment in which five or more inter-State migrant workmen are employed. In reality, only a miniscule proportion of migrant workmen are placed under such establishments these days. So, if the establishment doesn’t come under the purview of the Act, its migrant employees, numbering less than five, cease to be migrants, legally, even though they may actually be one!

‘Inadequacy of Act’

The current crisis has comprehensively exposed the inadequacy of the ISMW Act. While it has become anachronistic, the need for legal safeguards and welfare measures for migrants has become even more pressing and urgent.

The Unorganised Workers’ Social Security (UWSS) Act, 2008 was enacted to provide for social security and welfare of unorganised workers. The Act defines unorganised workers as home-based worker, self-employed worker or wage worker in the unorganised sector.

The Government of India has, in the recent past, introduced a host of social security schemes. Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Maan-dhan Yojana is meant to ensure old age protection for unorganised workers. Atal Pension Yojana has been launched under the National Pension System. Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana is a life insurance scheme. Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana is an accident insurance scheme. Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana aims at providing health cover. The UWSS Act itself has two very vitally useful features, viz., (a) Registration of unorganised workers, and (b) Portable smart I-card with a Unique Worker’s Identification Number. The coverage of these useful provisions and schemes, however, is still sub-optimal.

The entitlements and benefits for the migrant workers have an unquestionable economic, legal and moral basis. In the present context, the following suggestions may require urgent consideration:

Repealing of the ISMW Act, 1979 forthwith and replacing it with a new Act, or alternatively, enlarging the scope of UWSS Act to include legal entitlements, to define the migrant workman as a subset, to provide for contingencies of livelihood loss and to make the Act legally enforceable.

Universalisation of registration and issuance of Aadhaar-based UWIN (Unique Worker’s Identification No.) ought to be done. It will serve multiple objectives.

Schemes like MNREGA, PDS and Ujjwala need to be made portable. Geofencing of different benefits can be done so that a migrant workman can choose location-wise benefits for himself and his family from a matrix available.

A comprehensive database of the migrant workers’ source and destination, demography, employment patterns and skill sets would not only help in skill development and providing for social security benefits, but would also be useful in planning for mass transit of migrant labour, and preparing for any contingency plan in abnormal situations.

Issues related to migrant workmen have complex Centre-State and inter-State dimensions. The Inter-State Council, set up under Article 263 of the Constitution, may be a more appropriate forum to effectively and comprehensively deal with larger issues related to migrant workmen.

It’s time to initiate a legal lattice that means business to the migrant workmen, and say goodbye to the antiquated law of 1979 that seems to have outlived its utility. It is better late than never.

Vivek Kumar Singh is a civil servant who has earlier worked as Labour Commissioner, Bihar. Views are personal.

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