As thousands of migrant workers walk across India in a desperate attempt to reunite with their families, States are competing with one another to provide greater relaxation of labour laws to appear ‘industry friendly’. U.P., for instance, has cleared an ordinance exempting businesses and industries from labour laws , except for a handful, for three years. The Centre has done the same through its many circulars and clarifications issued during the lockdown. The worst affected are the migrant workers .
The lockdown has clearly established that migrant workers are the backbone of India’s economy. The sudden announcement of the nationwide lockdown on March 23 left an estimated 13 crore migrants with no way to return home and no money. However, the State and Centre remained quiet about ensuring adequate relief to them or ways for them to return home. When the lockdown was relaxed from April 20, the Standard Operating Procedure issued permitted asymptomatic workers to return to their worksites where they were to reside, but not to their home State. This denial, trade unions alleged, was because industry heads were worried that there would be labour shortage when industries reopened; that if migrant workers returned home, they may not come back to work immediately. However, the same industrial heads did nothing to ensure that these workers were given adequate food, shelter and their dues during the lockdown. Recently, Karnataka cancelled Shramik trains after the Chief Minister met prominent builders in the State.
The April 29 order permitting inter-State movement of migrant workers was just eyewash. It permitted only “stranded workers” to leave, with the Centre clarifying that workers “otherwise residing normally at places, other than their native places for purposes of work” are not “stranded”. Yet another circular said that the workers, who have no money left, would have to pay for their train tickets . It was clear that all these were deliberate attempts to prevent workers from leaving the State. Railways and inter-State travel are within the Centre’s control. The Central government could have ensured that travel was free. Effectively, the Centre once again sought to protect industry at the cost of the workers’ rights, while appearing as though it was doing its best for the workers. The dispute about payment of fare also provided a ready excuse to the States to prevent workers from crossing borders.
Through their various actions, the States and the Centre are consistently and systemically violating the fundamental rights of migrant workers. Article 23 of the Constitution prohibits “forced labour”. The Supreme Court, in PUDR v. Union of India (1982), held that “the word ‘force’ must... be construed to include... force arising from the compulsion of economic circumstances which leaves no choice of alternatives to a person in want and compels him to provide labour or service even though the remuneration received for it is less than the minimum wage.” It would also run afoul of the International Labour Organization’s ‘Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience Recommendation, 2017’ which requires states to ensure marginalised groups “freely choose employment” while rebuilding after any disaster. Thus, the various Home Ministry directives and State ordinances would be violative not only of India’s own Constitution but also its international commitments.
Full coverage | Lockdown displaces lakhs of migrants
Industry leaders, ministers and bureaucrats have denied workers the dignity and respect they deserve as fellow humans. Workers are being treated as a resource to be exploited by industry and state. The workers have no autonomy. This autonomy over self is at the core of dignity, a fundamental right. Until we develop a plan that respects this invisible 13-crore force, there can be no real revival of India’s economy or society.
N.S. Tanvi is an Advocate at the Madras High Court