Migrants question implementation advisory on protecting wages, jobs
Nanhe Lal, 52, was busy setting up a makeshift tent on Monday in the fields on the periphery of his village in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur district. The tent, he said, would serve as his personal isolation ward for the next two weeks.
Lal was among thousands of migrant workers from Delhi who took to the national highways on foot, soon after the nationwide lockdown was announced on March 24, in their desperation to get back home and safety—a feat he finally accomplished on Sunday night.
The exodus of workers, headed to their native lands, has been witnessed across the country over the past few days. For a country like India, which has an internal migrant population of around 37% (according to the 2011 census data) the movement of migrants was of such a scale that many likened it to the exodus triggered by the Partition of 1947. Photographs by media houses and agencies showed massive gatherings at state borders, highways and bus terminals, with people desperately looking for a way to get back home.
On Sunday, the Union home ministry directed states to ensure that no employer sacks these workers or deduct their wages during the lockdown period, through an advisory. The direction was welcomed by the migrant workforce but its potential for enforcement was beyond their imagination.
HT later reached out over the phone to a dozen migrant workers from different states and told them about the Union home ministry’s directive.
Lal was one of them. “How is that possible? We don’t have any records. How will I prove I have been sacked or my salary has been deducted?” Lal said.
They said the direction was welcome but wondered how it would be implemented on the ground even as Delhi’s labour minister Gopal Rai assured workers that his government will ensure that no worker is sacked or not paid because of the lockdown.
Delhi has around 1.5 million migrant labourers engaged in the unorganised sector which perennially suffers from an arbitrary—or rather malicious—record-keeping system in terms of employees on payroll.
“How can any government which till date could not ensure that we receive the stipulated minimum wages suddenly enforce a crackdown on employers for terminating our employment or not paying us during this lockdown?” said Amar Ahirwar, another migrant worker who does loading and unloading of heavy machinery in Delhi’s Mayapuri industrial area. He has now reached his village in Madhya Pradesh’s Morena and quarantined at a government centre there.
Rakhi Sehgal, a labour rights activist and researcher, said, “India has plenty of labour laws but for ages, they were not enforced efficiently. The result—hundreds and thousands of wrongful terminations, wage disputes, inhuman working conditions, etc. The lack of enforcement is why no migrant labourer today trusts the news that government will act against employers for wrongful termination and/or salary cut during the lockdown.”
Even if the government has the right intent, how will they transform it into action, a senior official in Delhi’s labour department asked. He further said, “The task of crackdown will lie with the states. Let us take Delhi as an example. The department has 20 field officials against a sanctioned strength of 72, only five case officials against a sanctioned strength of 20. Five joint commissioners preside over courts, against a sanctioned strength of 13. Who will do the enforcement?”
Animesh Das, a member of the Delhi government’s minimum wage committee, said, “The government should do four things. First, make record-keeping in the unorganised sector less arbitrary by issuing mandatory identity cards to labourers. Second, digitise the wage mechanism to strengthen the record-keeping process. Third, create a strong complaint registration mechanism for labour disputes that arise out of the lockdown. And, fourth, strengthen the labour law implementation machinery in general.”
Gopal Rai said, “Right now, the priority for migrant workers is food and shelter. As far as the enforcement of the government’s directive is concerned, we will do everything to ensure that no worker is terminated or suffer a salary cut because of the coronavirus lockdown.”