The Impact of COVID-19 on Migrant Workers

Author: Bhumitra Dubey, 1st Year, B.A LL.B, Dharmashastra National Law University.

Introduction

The constitution of India is the first and foremost law that protects and provides various rights to these migrant labour such as Article 39[1], 41[2] and 43[3] of the constitution, to ensure that citizens have a right to adequate means of livelihood, equal pay for equal work for both men and women, economic necessity, protection of their health and strength. These obligations fall under the Directive Principles of State Policy which are considered to be fundamental in the governance of the country. But, the pandemic of Covid-19 virus has created such conditions that run opposite to these obligations. As starting from the Wuhan region, Coronavirus spread in almost every region of the world that results in a global predicament. The outbreak of this virus posed restriction in public life. The lockdown in the countries to restrict the spread of coronavirus results in many problems like degradation of economy, the closing of educational institutions, unemployment, non-performance of contracts and many more. However, social distancing has become the real antidote in this dark time. Thus, the nationwide lockdown has been declared by the Government which created a severe dislocation in the lives of its migrant population and making this the biggest migration which the country has seen since India and Pakistan became independent states in 1947[4].

How defects in Laws affected Migrants during COVID-19?

As there are no adequate laws for migrant workers so they faced many problems in this pandemic especially unorganized workers. Like in the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 which defines Inter-State migrant workman as a person who works under a licensed contractor.

This definition excludes large no. of unorganized migrant workers[5] as most of them are not routed through licensed contractor so they became jobless in this pandemic and with no means of earning a living, they have to pay high rent in those expensive cities without any job. A Petition was filed in SC stating that workers suffered a lot because contractors want full wage and landlords pulled these workers from houses after the government orders so they have no option left except demanding to return to their native villages but the official said that exodus of migrants to their village may burst the village.

It is the responsibility of the Centre and State government under Section 61 of Disaster Management Act[6], and Article 21[7] of the Constitution to provide the transport facilities to travel back home but the government is not able to release these large no. of workers because of the strange nature of this virus.

According to the Economic Survey of India[8], there are around 139 million internal migrants and mostly, all of them come under the Below Poverty Line as they do not have proper food to eat. Even in COVID Pandemic, they have no smartphones to download the government app so they cannot take full advantage of the assistance provided by the Government.

For the Unorganized worker’s Government passed the ‘Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act (2008) which gives compulsory registration and portable smart cards to provide basic amenities to these workers. But there is no proper implementation of this Act as Central and State did not execute it properly. And only about 5% to 6% of people are enrolled for social security benefits under it[9].

In the 2019 Labour Ministry introduced the Social Security Code Bill, which covers entirely 50 crore workforces, but this Bill is still pending in Parliament so because of no effective law, migrant workers became the utmost target of this pandemic.

Migrant workers want to travel back home, however, there are no jobs for them in their villages thus one more problem arises that how these workers get money for their livelihood.

Efforts taken to tackle the Problem of Internal Migration

In Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 22 states that everyone has a right to social security so the government under various schemes provide proper social security to these Migrant Workers in this pandemic as: –

Under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana[10] scheme, Ministry of Finance announced ₹1.70 lakh crore and economic stimulus package to provide economic relief and free ration for the next three months to the families of below poverty line and other targeted groups.

MGNREGA and BOCW Act- Government decided to provide Rs 52,000 crore through direct benefit transfer (DBT) mode in the accounts of construction workers which form the majority of migrant’s workers under Section 60 of Building and Other Construction Workers Act, (BOCW)[11].

The Government also tried to employ these workers in lockdown for their livelihood under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), 2005 which involves the construction of farm ponds, digging wells, horticulture-related activities through maximum four to five workers so they can work easily by maintaining proper social distance and if work is not allotted to any person within 15 days of demand then that person is entitled to allowance.

In Munn Vs. Illinois[12], Justice Field said: “By the term life means something more is meant than mere animal existence”. In Chameli v. State of Uttar Pradesh[13], the court further added that the Right to life included the right to food, water, and a decent environment. The court observed a certain connection regarding an organized society that means that the right to live as a human being is not ensured by meeting only the animal needs of man. So various steps taken by the Government to freely supply basic amenities by introducing Below Poverty Line cards (BPL).

Now in Covid-19 pandemic, Government introduced ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ Scheme, to provide these workers food and non-food items so that beneficiary will be able to get the benefits across the country using the same ration card to purchase subsidized food grain from the Public Distribution System under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) from any fair-price shop in the country.

There are various other schemes by which the Government tries to provide benefits to these migrant workers like Pradhan Mantri Shram Yogi Maan-Dhan Yojana to ensure old age protection for unorganized workers. Atal Pension Yojana launched for pensions under the National Pension System. Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana for the life insurance scheme. Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana for the accident insurance scheme. Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana for health-related facilities[14].

In Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation[15] The Court said Article 21 guarantees to the citizens of India the right to earn a livelihood that the State cannot deprive a citizen of his livelihood except following just and fair procedure established by law. And in this COVID pandemic, the Government under law of Olga Tellis tried to compensate those whose livelihood would be affected by this lockdown. And under Section 10(2)(I) of Disaster Management Act[16], all States government provides temporary shelters, food and basic needs to migrant labourers and if these migrant labourers wish to move to their respective home’s towns so first, they shall be quarantined for 14 days.

Suggestions

  1.  India, as the biggest lockdown in the world, is one of the few countries in the world which has not yet announced an economic stimulus package. There is an urgent need to announce Universal Basic Income like the US or any other scheme which directly transfer Rs 5,000 to Rs 6,000 in the account of poor workers.
  2. To drive these workers to their home towns, I think our government should give the contract to some of the reputed big private transport company of each district and on other side distribute transport registration form to each police post of all the areas of that district so that these workers fill those forms with all details like phone no., landlord and village address, of their respective areas and call them for check-up then turn by turn those private transport companies drive them to their home by buses. So, in a day large no. of migrants will reach their home after the proper procedure.
  3.  To make separate official records of all the migrants of the country which would help in tracking their movement and provide better social security to them.
  4.  To make a specific institution or any regulatory body for these migrants like Inter-State Migration Council, which will monitor the issues of these workers and frame policies for their help.
  5.  Many workers not able to register under various acts for getting benefits such as ration card, BPL card, Aadhar Card etc due to illiteracy, so there is need to make the system simple like the US, where only one social security no. keeps track of taxes, allows health care and gives access to basic rights for which a citizen is entitled.
  6. There is a need to make separate laws for unorganized workers.

Conclusion

During COVID-19 pandemic, India faces many challenges of internal migration so there is the utmost need of sympathy and understanding of the society for these most marginalized sections of the society who are dependent on daily wages for their living by formulating proper policies and programs to improve their condition. The study observed that the migration of workers is an integral and vital part of human development and migration will increase in the future, not decrease. So, we should tackle the issue in a way that shows how to manage, not how to stop. I believe that instead of various definitions in separate conventions which overlap and fail to provide rights to some categories of migrant workers, it would be better to make all these into one document. Such an action avoids repetition and sets a strong system which will easily clarify what type of migrants are protected.


REFERENCES

[1] INDIA CONST. art. 39.

[2] INDIA CONST. art. 41.

[3] INDIA CONST. art. 43.

[4] Tove Romo Grande, The coronavirus leads to the biggest internal migration in India since 1947, Norwegian University of Life Sciences (April 10, 2020, 12:47 PM), https://partner.sciencenorway.no/epidemic-india-nmbu/the-coronavirus-leads-to-the-biggest-internal-migration-in-india-since-1947/1670038.

[5] unorganised worker means a home-based worker, self-employed worker or a wage worker in the unorganised sector and includes a worker in the organised sector.

[6] The Disaster Management Act, 2005, No. 53, Acts of Parliament, 2005 (India).

[7] INDIA CONST. art. 21.

[8] Ministry of Finance, Government of India, 2017. “Economic Survey 2016-17”.

[9] Prasanna Mohanty, No one knows the size of India’s informal workforce, not even the govt, Labour reforms (July 15, 2019, 10:39 AM), https://www.businesstoday.in/sectors/jobs/labour-law-reforms-no-one-knows-actual-size-india-informal-workforce-not-even-govt/story/364361.html.

[10] Under Income Declaration Scheme, 2016.

[11] The Building And Other Construction Workers Welfare Cess Act, 1996, NO. 28, Acts of Parliament, 1996 (India).

[12] Munn Vs. Illinois, 113 U.S. 94 (1877).

[13] Chameli v. State of Uttar Pradesh, (1996) 2 S.C.C. 549 (India).

[14] Vivek Kumar Singh, The ‘nowhere people’ of COVID-19 need better legal safeguards, The HINDU (April 22, 2020, 10:04 AM), https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/the-nowhere-people-of-covid-19-need-better-legal-safeguards/article31400344.ece.

[15] Olga Tellis v. Bombay Municipal Corporation, (1985) 3 S.C.C. 545(India).

[16] The Disaster Management Act, 2005, No. 53, Acts of Parliament, 2005 (India).


DISCLAIMER: Views and opinions as expressed in the Research Articles are solely of the author and any member of the core team of the website shall not be liable for the same.

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