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Migrant workers’ law in focus as crisis intensifies

By Chetan Chauhan, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON MAY 28, 2020 11:36 PM IST

About 200 jobless migrant workers have died in accidents while cycling or walking back to their homes since the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed in late March. Their plight has put a spotlight on the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act enacted in 1979 to protect the rights of migrant workers. States like Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have proposed to register migrant workers, a provision that is already in the law. The Centre plans to bring changes to the law through a new code. Here is an explainer on what the law entails, reasons for its ineffectiveness, and what the government now proposes:

Why was the law framed?

Many socialist leaders in the Janata Party government of the 1970s were concerned about the exploitation of migrant workers hired from poorer places like Odisha and Bihar for construction projects. They were often paid very low wages and contractors would rarely keep promises made to them. A committee constituted on the recommendation of labour ministers of states in 1977 when the government fell, recommended a law to regulate the employment of inter-state migrant workers. It said the Contract Labour Act, 1970, was unable to protect their rights. Parliament eventually passed the new law in 1980.

What protection did the law provide for the migrant workers?

The law covers establishments and contractors that employ migrant workers and provides for their registration either with the Central or the state governments. The registration depends on with whom--the Centre or the states--the establishments are registered with. The law requires contractors to get licenses from states where they intend to bring labourers from. With 15 days of hiring, each contractor is required to provide complete details of migrant workers to the registering authority. Contractors have to maintain registers for all migrant workers and provide them a passbook containing details of their employment. The establishments have to provide a displacement allowance of 50% of the wages and fares in addition to wages during any disruption period. They are also required to provide accommodation and health facilities. The law prohibits employment of migrant workers without registration and state governments are required to appoint inspectors to ensure its implementation.

What are the penal provisions in the law?

The law provides for a jail term of up to a year and a fine of Rs 1,000 for any violation of the law. It gives labour inspectors powers to conduct inspections and take testimonies from workers any time and two-year jail for any obstruction to their work.

Why has the law been ineffective?

Experts say most governments forgot about the law after the economic liberalisation in the 1990s as there was an increase in the flow of migrant workers to urban areas and fast-emerging industrial towns. The number of migrant workers has increased significantly since. As per the 2011 Census, India had 56.6 million migrants workers mostly from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh. According to state labour bureaus, less than 5% of the migrant workers are enrolled with government agencies. Odisha, however, has a helpline and facilities for children of migrant workers. There is also no provision for companies to file annual reports on migrant workers employed and allowances paid to them. The law is based on the powers of inspectors, which could be misused.

What are the lessons learnt from the Covid-19 pandemic?

The Centre introduced the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code in Lok Sabha in July 2019 to subsume and replace 13 labour laws including the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act. The code retains some provisions of the law like contractors having to obtain licenses, the displacement and journey allowances for workers. Several other provisions, including the penal ones, have been excluded.

A parliamentary panel has recommended a separate chapter on migrant workers in the code and said that every state should have a helpline for migrant workers. It noted the Code should have initiatives similar to those Odisha has adopted for migrant workers like a toll-free helpline, help desk, seasonal hostels for the their children as well as strengthening of the anti-human trafficking units and the setting-up of migration support centres.

The Union labour ministry plans to accept the panel’s recommendations and have special social security for migrant workers. Officials say the provisions of the Code will apply to all migrant workers including domestic helps and those working in small factories.

Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have sought to make registration of migrant workers mandatory with labour departments and to extend schemes such as subsidised ration under the Public Distribution System to them in the states of their employment through the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ scheme. Many states have also decided to continue with helplines for workers started during the lockdown.

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