The Union Ministry Labour and Employment is examining suggestions from Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal to amend the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service Act), 1979, and bring under its purview individuals who migrate on their own from one state to another in search of jobs.
Currently the Act, which safeguards the rights of migrant labour, does not apply to an establishment that employs less than five workers.
It also does not apply to those migrants who migrate on their own or those who move within state boundaries. A Labour Ministry note said that in this way "a significant proportion of migrants are excluded from the purview of the Act."
There are some of the anomalies that states like Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal, the three largest source of migrant labour, want amended. "The states want the clause for the requirement of minimum five migrant workers to be removed so that the rights of individual migrants are also protected," said RNP Singh, assistant director in the ministry, who supervises the Act's implementation.
According to the Labour Ministry note, contractors circumvent the law quite easily by splitting the number of workers into groups smaller than five. "The contractors, inter-alia, split their establishments in such a way so that license is not required as envisaged under the Act for employing more than five migrant workers. The contractors also evade the provisions of the ISMW Act by registering migrant labour with the local employment exchange and then contend that ISMW Act does not apply," the note said.
Singh said the implementation of Act is the responsibility of state governments. "Though it is a Central act, its implementation, starting from registration, is to be done by the states. We can only issue directives or write letters to chief ministers, chief secretaries and state labour departments urging them to implement the provisions," Singh said.
Harsh Mander, who has done extensive research on migration and the homeless, said that it is possibly the least implemented Act in the country. "For the workforce it is like bonded labour for three reasons. First, the contractors pay them advance money, binding them. Then, the wage is much below stipulated minimum wages, and thirdly, the workforce does not have the freedom to change jobs," Mander said.
At times, Mander added, as is currently happening in Assam – and earlier happened in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab – migrant workforce make for the "softest targets who are also ethnically discriminated." May be the need of the hour is to include police protection for migrant workers in the Act as well.