Perception, Legality and Politics of the Migrant Worker Crisis in Lockdown

‘Walking back home’ from industrial centres has let the labour force script itself back into the nation’s narrative.

Fatigued by their long journey on foot, 16 migrant workers returning home to Madhya Pradesh from Maharashtra where they worked in a steel factory, fell asleep on the railway tracks and were crushed to death by a goods train on Friday, May 8.

In another incident, five migrant workers died when the truck that carried them and many others from Hyderabad, Telangana, to their homes in Uttar Pradesh, overturned on the night of Saturday, May 9.

Contrast these tragedies with the recent dilution of labour laws in three states to push forth economic recovery. The cumulative picture is of a blatant disjunction between the reality of the worker-migrant and the policy adopted to tackle the crisis of ‘the labour question.’


The recent dilution in labour laws has led to a crucial shift in the way the plight of the worker-migrant has so far been understood in the foreground of the COVID-19 induced lockdown. Until now, for much of the mainstream media and to a large extent the middle-classes, the worker-migrant was a figure of aberration. A group that did not follow the strictures laid out for the lockdown, they were questioned and even ridiculed as irresponsible, opportunistic and insensible. Their divided social and household locations – sharing a tenement in the city and having a ‘home’ in the village, which is an outcome of the nature of the labour market – was downplayed to create an image of their reckless behaviour.

Such a view ignores the fact that the chief distinctive feature of migrants is the sharp dissociation between the site of work – a factory, small enterprise, household, or service sector businesses located in an urban centre – and the place of social reproduction, which is still located in the villages and small towns of states such as UP, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Bengal, and Odisha. The urban poor traverse two worlds: urban insecure employment and ideal rural ‘refuge’ and stability.

‘Walking back home’ from urban and industrial centres, which has been widely called ‘reverse migration,’ allowed the worker-migrants to script themselves back into the narrative of the nation. This crisis is a product of the immediate concern due to the pandemic, but it exposes long-term patterns and some structural fissures that remained hidden under the powerful narratives of ‘development’ as encapsulated in political campaign phrases such as ‘Shining India,’ ‘Achche Din (Good Days)’ and ‘Sabka Vikaas (Growth for All),’ the last two used aggressively by the Modi government.

A pandemic of this scale is usually feared because it exposes the limitations of public health. In India, however, COVID-19 has exposed the condition of the labour force. More than 100 million workers have reportedly lost employment. The nature of data collection does not allow us to know the exact number of migrant workers in this pool. Of the total workforce of India, around 90-92% (about 450 million) is informal, which means they work without social and employment security.

Also read: How Much Will Sitharaman’s Plan for Migrant Workers and Farmers Really Help?

A conservative estimate of migrants in this informal workforce would be more than 100 million (some estimates suggest up to 140). The growing informalisation, particularly in occupations of urban centres based on migration, reflects the casualisation of labour. The current labour strategies of survival by walking and withdrawing can hardly be understood in terms of ‘temporary displacement.’

Declining labour standards exhibit this trend in a fairly long-term framework: a 2015 research paper in Seminar, pointed out that in the organised manufacturing sector, the share of profits have tripled from 20-60% of net value added, whereas the labour share has fallen by exact same proportion since the 1980s. Almost in the same time scale (1980s-2012), as Prabhu Mohapatra points out, ‘contract labour’ (through the subcontracting system) in the manufacturing sector has risen from 7-35%.

The pandemic-induced lockdown has not created this ‘crisis’ of labour. It has instead taken the lid off the idea of ‘usual times’ and exposed the structural forces of disruption that are part of the story of three decades of India’s economic growth: urbanisation, gendered patterns of work and migration and the emergence of the biometric state, all of which have been robustly promoted by corporates and the state.

Migrant workers from UP and Bihar wait for transport at the Ahmedabad railway station. Photo: PTI

One shift had become discernible by mid-April, the end of the first phase of the lockdown. From a figure of aberration, the worker-migrant became the emblem of impending starvation. Twenty-two hunger deaths have so far been reported amongst the migrants. This did not mean the end of the collective controlling, policing, forced collective sanitising and wilful policy neglect that has characterised their plight so far. A number of experts found the announced relief packages too little and too late. Today, the fact that even after more than 50 days of the lockdown, the migrants are determined to go back to their villages and in the process meet death, proves the failure of governance.

A direct question arises here: Why was a dedicated Vande Bharat Mission not adopted for them? Is it because they are still regarded as a little less than the other citizens of an India in which class trumps the notion of equality?

While the individual decisions of the migrant workers to undertake long journeys on foot were borne out of desperation, the consolidated effect of their refusing to stay where they were, exposed the link between labour and work security. In leaving their sites of work, they revealed the absence of provision for social security. While walking to their homes, they brought hunger, food and the faulty and leaky system of food distribution into prominence. These ‘reverse migrations’ are simply long journeys undertaken by workers to avoid hunger in the city.

The imbalance of power between capital and labour and the limitation of the state’s welfare mechanisms were all put into question when migrants walked on the highways and expressways of the prosperous new India. When the usual users of these spaces of modernity claim to be #MeTooMigrant, as the recent viral hashtag on Twitter suggests, it shows both the insensitivity of the middle and upper classes and a mockery of the labour question. A simple yardstick will be enough to debunk such an otherwise ‘sympathetic’ claim: Are middle-class migrants faced with hunger and starvation in the same way as worker-migrants? If not, the hashtag deserves a remorseless burial.

Also read: COVID-19 and a Valuable Lesson from Grassroots India, Ignored


With the recent changes in legal provisions for labour in the states of UP, MP and Gujarat, two questions acquire importance. The first is the relationship between law and labour. We need to ask why the political leadership felt it necessary to change labour laws when complaints and expectations hinged on the demand for adequate food, systematic cash transfers and other measures of immediate relief.

With the changes in labour laws, hiring and firing in firms operating with 50 to 100 workers has been made easier (to allow labour ‘flexibility’), inspection of factories and workplaces has been relaxed, the issue of licenses has been made easier (in effect this means less time examining relevant papers and hence leading to wilful or genuine bureaucratic lapses), working hours of shifts have been increased from eight to 12 (which means a hard-won labour right in the 20th century has been lost or reversed in the 21st) and the role of unions has been minimised. These changes have a time limit of three years and are clearly intended to aid capital by creating a regime of deregulation. In states such as Tamil Nadu, where such a formal announcement of labour law changes has not been made, the nexus of the state and companies in retaining migrant workers at the workplace on minimal food and arrears of wages has been recently unearthed by citizens’ groups.

The fairly popular view that such a deregulated mechanism will actually push growth upward is gravely fallacious. The withdrawal of the ‘restrictions’ imposed by labour laws will not help labour and capital find a natural relationship based on the forces of demand and supply. The view that regulation symbolises the over-presence of the state and deregulation creates ‘natural conditions’ for economic growth without the presence of the state does not consider that regulation and deregulation, as much as formal and informal, are two modes in which state and capital operate together. In other words, while they appear the antithesis of each other, in reality, no economic activity is devoid of the presence of the state.

A migrant worker carries his 5-year-old son on his shoulders, New Delhi, March 26, 2020.

What appears to be deregulation is a specific kind of state intervention which is premised on the theory that a ‘free hand’ to capital will eventually boost economic growth and that will also be beneficial to the worker. It does not require wading through a web of theories to realise that a law usually has two components of regulation. One deals with punitive aspects – say, the provisions applicable when a contract is breached, and the other deals with social security aspects, of which the state and its legal apparatus are alone the guarantors.

An increase in working hours, the relaxation of inspections, and ‘flexibility’ in terms of hiring and firing mean that in essence not only are the punitive aspects of the law now in the hands of private capital, but the state willingly ceases to stand as the guarantor of the rights of the workers. The economic growth that will emerge from this model, if it does, will be premised upon expansive and deep casualisation of labour. A layered system of sub-contracting will emerge in which the responsibility from the top keeps attenuating, leaving workers at the bottom with unpaid or reduced wages at times. Any future moment of crisis, such as the current one, will once again bare the schism; perhaps it will be even worse.

Also read: Reactions to the Death of 16 Migrants Have Exposed Our Dangerously Low Empathy Quotient

If the question of labour in the last 40 days of the lockdown has made hunger and ‘relief’ the most pressing needs of the hour, why was this occasion chosen to tamper with laws dealing with capital-labour relations which do not directly deal with the issues at hand? Rather than making more efficient rules and mechanisms for dispatching and securing quick relief for the workers, why is capital’s hand strengthened? Why did the plight of labour invoke a response that, rather than strengthening the mechanism of social security, commits to diluting the role of legal protection? This set of laws now made inapplicable was anyway applicable only to the minority of the workforce (about 10% of the formal workforce), as migrants are usually in occupations in which labour laws do not apply.

Similarly, as Professor K.R. Shyam Sundar has pointed out, the severity of the inspection raj is a myth. The proportion of registered factories that have been inspected has declined steeply from 63.05% in 1986 to 17.88% in 2008.

Clearly, many aspects of legal impediments to ‘ease of doing business’ have been informally negotiated over the years to such an extent that now only the protective aspects of regulations further need to be dismantled. It appears, therefore, that targeting the minority organised workforce without extending universal social security to the vast informal workforce is simply the introduction of a legally framed system of greater informalisation. It is ironic that while civil activists and rights groups fight to formalise one crucial sector of the informal workforce – domestic servants, others are using the milieu of the pandemic to dismantle the legal scaffolding of the formal workforce.


The second question arising from the current labour crisis in India is on its possible transformative potential.

In 2015, German chancellor Angela Merkel predicted that the refugee crisis would be the defining feature of the decade. Certainly, it has changed the contours of European politics. From the rise of right-wing politics to questions on borders and resources to the creation of groups supporting refugees, politics has been dominated by the blurred, hyphenated category of the refugee-migrant.

The word ‘crisis’ points to the potential of the old being severely questioned and the new being uncertain. In this regard, India possibly shares the same uncertain political space as Europe. However, the statelessness of the contemporary European refugee-migrant or the deterritorialised migrant of the past, as philosopher Thomas Nail points out, appears to be the element that differentiates the contemporary worker-migrant of India. Within the boundary of the nation-state, the latter is stranded between two ideas of home; they walk back from the less secure place to the more (even if only imagined) secure one. It is therefore difficult to postulate that homelessness will create more radical forms of politics of which the migrant will be the central figure.

From the viewpoint of the labour question, there is a temptation to read resistance in the act of worker-migrants ‘walking back.’ This reverse flight could be seen as a mode of solidarity and resistance. A brisk walk through history helps us recognise that such an en masse flight of artisans or labourers has always been a potent mode of resistance. In the phase of industrial, factory-based production, the overt forms of resistance have ranged from breaking machines to withdrawing from work by going on strike. Is the current ‘walking back’ an act of resistance of this nature?

Also read: Crushing Labour Laws Amidst Successive Industrial Accidents Is Serious Insult to Injury

While the crisis has exposed the undercurrents of structural economic imbalance, the crisis itself has not manifested because of the ruptures intrinsic to the relationship between capital and labour. The workers are not fleeing the cities because of complaints against work conditions, wage arrears, or any other work-related demands or grievances. Rather, an externally propelled dislocation has exposed, rather than created, a subterranean structural crisis. Thus the question arises: if we have to read resistance in ‘walking back,’ who are the workers resisting? The state? Capital? Urban municipal settings? At present, the answer seems to be none.

Migrant workers rest on a railway track during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in in Mumbai, India, April 2, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Prashant Waydande

However, seeing the worker-migrant as an economic agent alone creates a tunnelled vision on the potential of the crisis. The discontent is real, the exodus is real, the suffering is real. Will this marginalisation, hunger, starvation and arduous journey spark the process of political subjectivity? The wider media-created image of the worker-migrant and the callous sympathy displayed through trends like #MeTooMigrant view the migrant as a political subject. The politics of loathing as well as of help and support can combine as a catalyst to this process.

Part of the inability to read resistance lies in the ways the figure of the worker-migrant has been dealt with in Indian society. By and large, it has remained a hidden entity, partly romanticised and partly villainised. It has not yet emerged as a political subject of its own. It has not yet become part of the vocabulary of political action or analysis.

It has indeed appeared as a political constituency either as an object of violence (Bhaiyas in Maharashtra), or as a social or economic ‘outsider’ (a longer history can be traced through the presence of ‘Madrasis’ in Maharashtra or ‘Biharis’ in Delhi), and as a vote-bank group (most recently seen in the Delhi elections of February 2020). But the internal migrants of India have not so far worked as a political category; as a consolidated agentive subject in the arena of politics.

One potential transformative value of this ‘crisis’ could be in the emergence of the worker-migrant as a political category, forcing not only a change in the nature of policies but also the narrative of politics. The question is not of them only becoming an electoral bloc with a political consciousness that would thrust them into the political play of power negotiation. The idea is if their political subjectivity will allow us to question those areas of citizenry practice which subsist on asymmetries of power, not in terms of compassion, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta, academician and contributing editor to the Indian Express, evocatively argued in his column on May 13, 2020, but as part of the idea of justice.

Nitin Sinha is a senior research fellow at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin. He has recently concluded a research project on the history of domestic servants.