Local voices living behind the labour lines - India

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Migrant workers are most vulnerable

By Ashok Jha

Migrating for work has been a tradition in India for time immemorial; people are constantly moving from one end to the other in order to survive. It’s natural for people to move to greener pastures to earn more and make their lives more prosperous, but when this is forced upon people, its colour changes and it becomes painful. The lopsided development of India has caused precisely this and put many people at risk of trafficking and forced or bonded labour.

Most development in India has happened in and around the big cities and the villages have been overlooked. This has led to huge numbers of labourers from rural areas moving to urban centers, creating a problem of unmanageable proportions. The huge influx of workers has put tremendous pressure on urban infrastructure forcing these workmen to lead a subhuman life in urban jungle. With no infrastructure to support them it becomes harder for workers to uphold their rights and seek support and protection. Migration is not a problem per se, but outdated and inappropriate government policies, and a lack of implementation of labour laws, has left migrants incredibly vulnerable.

Most workers who migrate to other cities or towns in search of a livelihood are illiterate, poorly educated, unaware of their rights and do not carry proper identity documents. This leaves them open to exploitation and often unable to challenge employers or contractors who abuse them. While some do carry Voter Identity cards issued by the country’s Election Commission, or Aadhar Cards (identity cards issued by the Government of India), these do not carry information about their work, have their telephone numbers on it or say what work they are doing. This hinders their search for work and housing and even stops them accessing basic health care or social facilities.

Fulena Paswan, 25,  migrated to the National Capital Region (NCR) to look for work almost 15 years ago. He is originally from the Begusarai district, Bihar, which is among the poorest states in India, and he belongs to one of the Scheduled Castes (SC), which are the most deprived castes. He pulls a cycle rickshaw in NCR Ghaziabad and earns around Rs. 300 (£3) per day, he lives in a nearby jhuggis (slum) and does not have any identity card save the Voter ID card. When asked what he would ask the government to do for him, he said, “Certainly I will ask them to provide me some identity document. In absence of this, I am not able to get my wards [children] admitted to any school, I can’t access low cost ration shops, can’t apply for a gas connection and cannot apply for a bank account.”

The issue of migration is huge, and as far as the number of migrant workers is concerned, independent agencies and experts do not agree with the government census data. The National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data disputes the census data and puts the size of migrant workers in India at 326 million which is 28.5 per cent of the total population of India (2007-08). Well known experts Priya Deshingkar and Shaheen Akhtar estimate that there are at 100 million short-term migrants in India (2009). These workers return home regularly, unlike long-term migrants, who migrate for long periods of time, often with their family.

It’s very difficult to estimate the total number of migrants as they are a floating masses of people and their movement is difficult to record. The sector they are mostly employed in is the informal sector, as labour in this sector is contractualised workmen do not stay in one place for long. They keep changing their work place and even the sector of their works. Brick kiln workers, building construction workers, farm labourers, mining labourers, ice cream vendors are a few of the sectors that are called informal and are largely unregulated by government.

In the absence of knowledge about their rights, many workers are taken for a ride by the labour contractors. They are made to work on low wages (even lower than what government has fixed for them) and are often not paid in time. Most of these labourers do not know how to keep their accounts so they have to believe their employers as far as their wages are concerned.

Many migrants workers in the NCR report being routinely harassed by the local police who extort money from them. For example, if any crime takes place, the first person the local police apprehend is a poor labourer who does not carry any identity documents. They are easily caught and become easy target for police extortion. In the absence of any kind of identity document, their harassment continues unabated.

Most of the non-formal sector workers have no social protection of any kind, even if the law of the land has made provision for that. Since the officials of the Labour Departments, who have the responsibility to enforce these laws, are hand in glove with the industry, poor labourers do not get anything. Workers are also not paid any compensation if there is an accident while they are at work. They are not paid medical expenses even if their sickness is due to the kind of work they do, and they have to spend their own money on their treatment. Police do not record FIR (First Information Report) against employer if an accident or any kind of abuse happens with the labourers. Due to working in hazardous industries the workers fall sick regularly and finally are out of job. They have to return early and once back home they are not able to work to feed their families. Government machinery is failing to enforce law and deliver justice to the poor labourers.

Gulab Khan, is from the Other Backward Class (OBC) and comes from a village in the Teekamgarh district, Madhya Pradesh, which is dominated by upper caste people and finding a livelihood locally was difficult. He migrated to the NCR nine years back to look for work,  he also lives in a slum and earns his livelihood by pulling a rickshaw. He seems a bit more informed than some of his colleagues, as he has Voter ID and also possesses Aadhar Card, but he does not have a local identity document. When asked what he would like to ask for from the local authorities, he said, “Certainly I would ask for a local identity proof of residence. In absence of this, I cannot apply for a gas connection and have to cook food on kerosene stove which costs us a lot. I cannot get my kids admitted to any school.”

There are a few things that the government can do to address the problems that migrant labourers face, to start with, they can bring these issues into national policy discourse. State machinery must be made more responsive towards the needs of migrant labours, an inter-state authority or a similar body should be established to take care of the problems encountered by migrant labourers who go to seek job in other states. They could also introduce a mechanism, in collaboration with different state governments, that solves the identity issue and saves migrants from harassment.

The government should also consider amending the Inter-State Migrant Workers Act, 1979 (http://clc.gov.in/Acts/shtm/ismw.php#9), which is not properly able to address the problems of migrants crossing the boundary of their states. This act has many provisions aimed at making migration less painful; the main aim of this act was to protect the interest of migrant workmen both at source and destination. The act is supposed to regulate employment of inter-state migrant workmen and their conditions and services. The act requires that any contractor supplying five or more than five inter-state migrant labourers to employers will have to obtain a licence to do that. Adherence to this act is not followed strictly by contractors and as a result workmen are exploited by employers as well as the contractors. This provision of the act is abused with impunity and workmen are taken to other states without the contractor obtaining a valid licence.

Both state governments and Federal Government are the stake holders under this act and this leads to the confusion regarding the implementation of the act. To implement the act effectively, the states are supposed to sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Fedaral Government, but not all states have done so. Another problem is that the act talks about stopping migration, which is entirely wrong; stopping migration is not possible, instead regulations should be put in place that make life less painful for migrants. The act is around 35 years old, situations of labour market and that of contract labours have since changed drastically, and it needs suitable amendment to make it more contemporary to make it more effective.

The government should also allow for the portability of social entitlement (this includes entitlements under the Public Distribution System (PDS), health schemes and other social benefits including insurance facilities); presently a Below Poverty Line (BPL) cardholder loses entitlement once the boundary of the district of his residence is crossed.

Laws governing contracts should also be enforced more strictly, there needs to be quick resolution of the legal disputes involving compensation and wage disputes and labour departments should be made more responsive and given more teeth.