Knee-Jerk Responses and Political Slugfests Won't Solve the Problems of Migrant Workers

At this stage, political policies are being framed that may or may not have been conceived keeping the economic perspective in mind.

The COVID-19 crisis has  brought to the mainstream the historically neglected. One particular issue, which is both political and economic, is the question of how different states are treating the country’s migrant workers.

Migrant worker issues – unlike those concerning ‘local’ workers, who are potentially non-migratory – spill outside the traditional labour market and into the political domains. Migrant workers are typically seen as “job thieves” by local pressure groups in the host regions and also seen to contribute to rise in crimes, in what is a clear form of xenophobia.

Migrant workers are also seen by some as disloyal people, who don’t give returns to human capital investment to their home regions (‘brain drain’). But they provide human capital to their host regions and contribute to their development, while sending remittances to their home regions. This is why local pressure groups often clamour for populist, protectionist and restrictive policies concerning migrant workers.

At the same time, home states often interface with the host states to ensure protection of welfare of their respective constituencies of workers. Consequently, the dynamics concerning migrant workers are often complex and cannot be seen as pure economic and labour market issues. It is in these contexts we need to assess the pre-COVID-19 and the COVID-19 induced labour market policies.

The national lockdown and the consequent crisis in the labour market have prompted many state governments to address the pains of the inter-state migrant workers (ISMW) severally like offering direct benefit transfer (DBT) and some welfare measures.

The Uttar Pradesh government was the first to announce a DBT to migrant workers. It was also the first to go one step further in a move that has invited criticism.

Also read: After the Lockdown Lifts, We Need to Make Cities Liveable for Migrants

On May 25, 2020, chief minister Yogi Adityanath while addressing a webinar said: “Now, if any state needs manpower, (sic) the UP government will give the manpower (sic) social security…But, without prior permission, our people cannot be taken by other states.  Because the kind of treatment that was meted out [to UP residents (sic)]. Seeing that, we have taken the people’s social security in our hand.”

This statement received widespread criticism, both politically and by a number of experts. Raj Thackeray, the chief of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) retaliated by saying that labourers wishing to work in Maharashtra will have seek its permission.

On May 27, 2020, an official UP government spokesperson was reported to have said:

“The chief minister discussed the modalities for setting up the commission, as well. There will be no provision requiring other states to seek UP government’s prior permission for employing our manpower. The commission is being set up to provide jobs and social security to the workers. We will also link the migrants to the government schemes to provide them houses and loans etc.”

Even though the ill-conceived statement was withdrawn, presumably under pressure, by the Adityanath government, the minor political slugfest that it created is indicative of knee-jerk reactions by India’s political class. These statements, even as they were retracted, betray the “sons of the soil” mindset based on primordial identities like language, caste, race, etc.

States will have to work together. For instance, Bihar seeks to formalise the return of its migrants by signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between it and the host states.

Uttar Pradesh will establish a ‘migrant commission’ to provide jobs and social security to workers, while Bihar will provide for insurance, accommodation and other aspects of social security to emigrant persons from it. At this stage, political policies are being framed that may or may not be properly conceived from an economic perspective. But while their intentions may be good, states often ignore the central labour legislations and the constitutional rights of migrant workers.

Central role

The subject “inter-state migrant workers” is listed in the Union List in the Constitution of India.  The central government has enacted several labour laws to address the issues concerning the informal/unorganised workers in general since 1979.  The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act was enacted in 1979 to regulate the employment, wages and welfare of ISWM.

Also read: Will India’s Economic Recovery Be Quick? Modi Says So, But This Can’t Happen in a Vacuum

There are host of other laws like Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, Building and other Construction Workers’ (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 (BOCWA), Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, Minimum Wages Act, 1948 that also govern the ISWM.  However, these laws suffer are poorly conceived, badly and inadequately implemented and do not provide for universal coverage.  The Supreme Court passed severe strictures on the central and the state governments relating to issues relating to implementation of the BOCWA and the BOCW Cess Act, 1996.

Recently the finance minister admitted that the MWA covers only 30% of the workers in India. Even though the Wage Code has been published in the Gazette, it is yet to be implemented and recent press reports indicate that the minimum wage determination may be deferred this year due to the pressure exerted by the employers.

In all, despite several protective laws, the informal workers in general and construction and migrant workers in particular remain dis-entitled. Had they been implemented even a bit, the precarious workers like ISWM would have been better off.  The regional governments thus have done and seek to do as described above to fill in the “legal void” and rectify “governance deficits” which is laudable though late in the day.

Migrants on the open road in Ghaziabad. Photo: PTI

At the same time, another wrinkle to this issue is the response to higher urban unemployment and subscribing to “job thieves theory” by several governments. States like Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh have over the last few years made attempts to reserve “jobs for locals” of varying proportions in both government and the private sectors.

The private sector, which is otherwise shy of any kind of affirmative action is alarmed as much as the migrant workers. These actions affect the demand side of the labour market and threaten the jobs of migrants. On the other hand, the proposed state regulation of emigrants from UP affects the supply side of the labour market and threatens mobility and thereby jobs.

In both cases, state regulations could lead to sub-optimal labour market outcomes. Job reservations presuppose the existence of adequate and suitable supply of skills in the local labour market in the host regions, while movement restrictions presume robust demand for labour in the local labour market in the home states and both could be questionable.  Assume that home state does not permit its workers to migrate for some genuine reasons, can it provide jobs to the detained workers?  What if each state genuinely concerned take such retaliatory regulation policies? In a fundamental sense, sooner or later intra-state migration might be regulated as regional imbalances could trigger them. These are demonstrative of good intentions translated into wrong decisions.

Political dialogue over the labour market across countries, with different Constitutions, will be acceptable and even legitimate but may create problems within a country governed by one Constitution.  In this sense, these measures mean carving a nation within a nation and creating a bordered local labour market in a larger national labour market.  It is a kind of hukousiation (regionalisation) of labour market in India.  While China removed the hukou system to create a national labour market, we seem to be moving away from the national to the local labour market, which is both illegal and inefficient.

Also read: Rethinking Migration and the Informal Indian Economy In the Time of a Pandemic

Instead of these political solutions, the governments could do well to conduct extensive skill mapping in their regions and adopt suitable skill development policies and frame competitive employee compensation and labour welfare policies which would weaken the “push” factors for outbound migration.  A report by the National Skill Development Corporation in 2013 estimated deficits even in all the three categories of skill, but the deficit in the “skilled” category was highlighted as a policy input.  This means having adequate technical and vocational skills imparting institutions proportionate to labour force in the state.

A report by State Bank of India’s research team – which used the Subnational Human Development Index (SHDI) for states during the period 1990 to 2017 by Global Data Lab – shows that even though the Human Development Index (HDI) for UP and Bihar increased, their relative ranking remained the same at 24 and 25 respectively during 1990 and 2017 and they were at the lowest rung of the States.  They also need to address the real and pressing concerns that affect investment inflows and retaining capital like infrastructure deficits, adequate energy supply, access to market, etc. But the UP government today, wrongly in our opinion, believes that labour laws are rigid and there is a need to introduce sweeping changes.

Even as the state slugfest happens, the national law-making process is on as the NDA government is codifying the so-called numerous labour laws into four codes.

The Occupational Safety and Health and Working Conditions Code (OSHWCC) concerns itself with the issues concerning ISMW among others and the Parliamentary Standing Committee (PSC) has recommended that the ISHWCC should have a separate chapter on ISMW – that the provisions relating to their safety, health and working conditions should be specifically and clearly be spelled out. It has also expressed appreciation of measures like Sahayata Helpline, Migrant Labour Help Desk in five states, Seasonal Hostels for the Children of Migrant Workers, strengthening Anti-Human Trafficking Units, Study on reducing distress migration, Migration Support Centres, etc. taken in Odisha.

The Code also needs to be provide for pay equality between ISMW and the local workers for same work which was existent in the INMWA.  The Code needs to be a complete in all respects. The Code on Social Security needs to address the deficits relating to the unorganised workers and go beyond copy-pasting the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 and conceive a universal scheme which does not segment the labour market into BPL and APL categories through the welfare schemes.  Further, it will reinstate the unemployment insurance and assistance schemes.  The reports of the NCEUS (2006-2012) and the SNCL (2002) on these aspects need to be considered by law makers.  The complete ignorance of NCEUS despite its industrious work over the years speaks volumes of the political mindset irrespective of the party in power. The whole concept of labour welfare cannot be limited only to labour laws, it must be multi-pronged.  It should include amending the laws like the National Food Security Act, 2013 and reforming the PDS under it.

We need laws for the agricultural workers as the NCEUS (2006) recommended. It is surely time to introduce Employment Guarantee for the workers in the urban economy where the count of precarious workers is high and growing.

There are two important powerful lessons that should be learnt  from the COVID-19 crisis. Firstly, India’s labour laws are inadequately conceived and there is a huge deficit whether they related to the so-called organised or the unorganised workers. It is an unforgivable blunder that there has been utter neglect, even gross indifference, shown in the field of implementation of these laws.

Other measures concerning informal and precarious workers also revealing gaping holes, as the government itself has admitted with regard to the lack of a database of migrant and other unorganised workers.  It is time to move away from the economically inefficient and politically populist, to something concrete in order to prevent a labour crisis from unfolding.

K.R. Shyam Sundar is professor, XLRI, Xavier School of Management. Rahul Suresh Sapkal is assistant professor, TISS.