About 200 migrant workers have perished in tragedies during the lockdown.(PTI Photo)
About 200 migrant workers have perished in tragedies during the lockdown.(PTI Photo)

Explainer: Migrant workers to get social security in the new avatar of 1979 law that was not so effective

The need for effective protection cover for the migrant workers has been brought to sharp relief by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By Chetan Chauhan | Edited by Abhinav Sahay
UPDATED ON MAY 28, 2020 06:35 PM IST

There is a national law, the Inter-State migrant workmen (regulation of employment and conditions of service) Act, 1979, to protect migrant workers in the time of crisis such as the present Covid pandemic. Despite legal protection, about 200 migrant workers have died during the 65-day lockdown in accidents on roads and rails while on their way home. Several state governments such as Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have proposed to register migrant workers, a provision which is already there in the law, and the Central government now plans to modernise the regulation through a new code. Here is an explainer on what the law entailed, reasons for its failure and what the government now proposes.

Why was the law framed?

Many socialist leaders in the Janta Party government were concerned about exploitation of migrant workers from poorer states such as Odisha and Bihar, where contractors called Sardars or Khatadars lured workers (called Dadan labourers) for large construction works outside the state at very low wages and never kept their promise, said objectives of the migrant workmen law. After a recommendation of labour ministers of all states, in 1977, a committee was constituted to propose a law for protection rights of migrant workers. The committee recommended a law to regulate the employment of inter-state migrant workers as Contract Labour Act of 1970 was not able to protect their rights. Parliament passed the new law in 1980.

What protection the law provides for migrant workers?

The law covers every establishment and contractor that employs migrant workers and provisions for their registration either with the Centre or the state governments depending on whether the establishment is registered with the state or Centre. The contractor is required to get license from the state he intends to bring labourers from. Within 15 days of hiring, each contractor is required to provide the complete details of the migrant worker to the registering authority. The contractor has to maintain a register of all migrant workers and also provide them a passbook containing details of the employment. The establishments have to provide displacement allowance of 50% of the wage and journey fare in addition to wages during the disruption period. The establishments are also required to provide accommodation and health facilities. The law also prohibits employment of migrant workers without registration. The state governments were required to appoint inspectors to check whether provisions of the law were implemented or not.

What are the penal provisions in the law?

The law provides for jail term of up to one year and fine of Rs 1,000 for violating any contained provisions. The law also says that the owner of the establishment employing migrant workers can be prosecuted for violations under the law. As the labour inspector is the principal implementer of the law, the law gives him powers to conduct inspections and take testimonies of the workers at any time. It also provides for 2 years of jail for obstructing his work.

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Why the law was not very effective?

The experts said most of the governments forgot about the law in post liberalization era as there was an increase in flow of migrant workers to urban centers and fast emerging industry towns. The number of migrant workers increased between 1991 and 2011 Census with India having 56.6 million inter-state migrants in 2011. Most of them were from the Hindi speaking belt of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. According to reports of the state labour bureaus, less than 5% of the migrant workers are enrolled with any state government agency with the only exception of Odisha, which has a helpline and facilities for children of migrant workers. Officials said that there is no provision for companies having to file annual reports on migrant workers employed and allowances paid to them with the labour departments. The entire law was based on powers of inspectors, which could have been misused.

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What are the lessons learnt from Covid pandemic for welfare of migrant workers?

The Central government has introduced Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019, in Lok Sabha in July 2019, which aims to subsume and replace 13 labour laws including the migrant workmen Act. The code retains some provisions of the migrant workmen act such as contractor having to obtain a license and pay displacement and journey allowance to workers. However, several other provisions including the penal ones were not retained.

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