The Author of this blog is Ms. Amulya Anand, a student of 3rd year, BA LLB(Hons.) at National University of Study & Research in Law, Ranchi

In light of the nation-wide lockdown induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, India seems to have awakened to the predicament of its internal migrants who work in the unorganized labour sector. It had occurred to no social media activist, journalist, opposition politicians or those in power, central government or the state government that an instant nationwide lockdown would end up wreckingthe livelihoods of Bihar service providers working in places like Delhi, electricians and Bengali carpenters working in Kerala, Brick Kiln workers of Chhattisgarh working in Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan vendors working on the streets of Delhi[i].

Unlike those who are privileged to use social media as platforms to raise the voices, the labourers might not have the access to similar services that allow the free spread of information and education. Therefore, migrant labourers aren’t aware of their right to protest and demand for deportation services from the government. While the rest of the nation was ordered by the government to stay at home and practice social distancing in light of the pandemic, it is though these workers were told, “stay on streets as you are on your own”[ii].

The union government ordered a three-week national lockdown as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic on March 24, 2020. A huge number of people gathered in Anand Vihar in the nation’s capital Delhi to take public transport and return to their respective hometowns. However, the migrant workers were unaware of the fact that the lockdown had hanged all public transport[iii].

An enormous number of migrant labourers and their families dismayed and powerless started undertaking their journey on foot. According to the media reports around 20 people died while tackling this journey, with the Ministry of Home Affairs permitting state governments to use their disaster response funds of Rs 29,000 crores. The collection would help states to supply support to migrant workers by giving them shelter, medical assistance and food[iv].

The question arises: whose job is it to account for the welfare of workers who migrate from their hometown to other states in search of work? Who is accountable for transportation of these workers, in order to have them return home safely? Would it be the duty of the central government or the state government? Is it the responsibility of the receiving state where these workers used to work or the sending state, from where these workers originated? Who should have taken the initiative to assemble the workers, manage them and helped them in returning to their respective homes[v]?

The answer to these question lies with the Ministry of Labour & Employment. The governance of the labour sector is a coexisting subject matter in our country, wherein both the state as well as central governments have the jurisdiction to act and legislate. The Parliament of India legislated The Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service Act) in 1979, which has been one of the most inadequately implemented legislations in our country[vi].

While the legislations has some useful statutes falling under the ambit of the department of labour in each state that observes and ensures the safety of the migrant labourers by protecting them from abuse and exploitation when they are enlisted, transported and furnished to employers in the unorganized labour sectors, the provisions have largely remained unacted for nearly 4 decades. As a result, many migrants began facing exploitation again and losing protection that was previously guaranteed by law for migrants in India[vii].

India’s labour laws have frequently been condemned for being too compound, antique and obstinate. The Central government initiated a new bill called the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions in 2018 which focused on 14 of the existing labour laws into a single legislation, that includes the Interstate Migrant Workmen Act, 1979. The 2018 bill expired because of the national elections but it was eventually re-introduced in the Lok Sabha on July 23, 2019. After a strong condemnation from the opposition, the Ministry acknowledged to send the bill to the Parliamentary Standing Committee for analysis[viii].

The Committee found that the bill is insufficient in its coverage of matters of interstate migrant workers, as confirmed by several state governments who were asked by the Committee. One of the blazing gaps, for example is in its chapter on Safety, there is an absence of deliberation regarding the safety of the migrant in the event of calamity or an emergency; the bills fails in clarifying- how they would be supported in deportation to their homes, or what would be the responsibility of the employers[ix].

The Committee challenges the prohibition of contract workers of the state and central governments and suggests to involve all unorganized workforce, which would mean expanding to an estimated 50 crores, unorganized workers including construction workers, security guards or railway porters who do not come under the membership or ambit of most trade unions. Trade unions who only work for organized sectors report for only 8 crores workers. It has also been recommended to smooth and enlarge the government’s labour department to reach out to the unorganized sectors[x].

The migrant labour crisis exacerbated by the nationwide lockdown has compelled the Ministry of Labour and Employment to write a different chapter for interstate migrant workers and encompass all workers from the unorganized sectors. The legislation needs to distinctly lay down action plans for better accountability and responsibility of state labour departments by cooperatively creating coordination systems that could respond to crisis like Covid-19 pandemic[xi].

Interstate migrant workers are a group of most unsafe workers in our country, where they end up feeling like in a situation of crisis, neither does the state where they work think of them as their own people nor the hometown from where they resides, they are out of detect and out of mind from the take-in charge state government. They are not only susceptible to deprivation of income but also homelessness, with no travel or food facilities manifesting old and the young children to extreme hunger and insolvency[xii].

As per the data of Union Ministry of Labour and Employment about two million migrant workers are wrecked across India. This is where decisions taken by states can have a remarkable effect on the lives of migrant labourers. Some states revealed higher standards of human morals while they expanded support to wrecked migrant labourers in their respective states[xiii].

The Indian Public Debate around migrant labourers largely avoids the main reason as to why migrant labourers have been so eager to go back home because their employers ceased to pay them wages. A recent survey report in May found that almost 8 out of 10 migrant labourers had not been paid at all amidst the lockdown[xiv].

Hence, the time has now come for a complete passing of obsolete legislation regulating migrant labour in India. What is thus needed is a direct articulation of a national policy of migrant labour in this era of digital technology. We also believe that with so many social programmes running in the country, the government should now create a comprehensive database, drawing on the databases of PM-KISAN, Ayushmann Bharat, PMUY, PMJDY and MUDRA for future social welfare initiatives.

[i] T.K. Rajalakshmi, Centre blames media “fake news” for mass migration during lockdown, Frontline (April 01, 2020), https://frontline.thehindu.com/dispatches/article31228357.ece

[ii] Staff Reporter, Man detained over social media post linked to migrant workers’ protest, The Hindu (April 15, 2020), https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/man-detained-over-social-media-post-linked-to-migrant-workers-protest/article31342883.ece

[iii]Umi Daniel, COVID-19 lockdown crisis for migrant workers: What states are doing?, Down to Earth (April 21, 2020), https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/governance/covid-19-lockdown-crisis-for-migrant-workers-what-states-are-doing-70584

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Somesh Jha & Arindam Majumder, Coronavirus lockdown: Centre may allow states to transport migrants, Business Standard (March 28, 2020), https://www.business-standard.com/article/current-affairs/govt-working-on-plan-to-transport-migrant-workers-unable-to-return-home-120032700671_1.html

[vi] Satvik Verma, Why India’s Legal and Labour System Needs to be Reconfigured to Really help Migrant Workers, The Wire (May 19, 2020), https://thewire.in/labour/india-labour-legal-system-migrant-workers

[vii] One Bureau, Govt. moves 2 Bills in Lok Sabha to overhaul existing labour laws, The Hindu ( July 23, 2019), https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/lok-sabha-labour-minister-santosh-gangwar-introduces-two-labour-reform-bills/article28688469.ece

[viii] Amir Ullah Khan, Why labour law is rejig is no reform, Live Mint (May 13, 2020), https://www.livemint.com/news/india/why-labour-law-rejig-is-no-reform-11589300644620.html .

[ix] One Bureau, Govt. moves 2 Bills in Lok Sabha to overhaul existing labour laws, The Hindu ( July 23, 2019), https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/lok-sabha-labour-minister-santosh-gangwar-introduces-two-labour-reform-bills/article28688469.ece

[x] M.D. Pradeep, B.K. Ravindra & T. Ramjani Sab, A Study on the Prospects And Problems of Unorganised Labours in India, Research Gate (July 2019),

[xi]Jawhar Sircar, A Long Look at Exactly Why and How India Failed Its Migrant Workers, The Wire (May 29,2020), https://thewire.in/labour/lockdown-migrant-workers-policy-analysis

[xii]K. Venkataramanan, Coronavirus lockdown| How can inter-state workers be protected?, The Hindu (May 10, 2020), https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/coronavirus-lockdown-how-can-inter-state-workers-be-protected/article31546299.ece

[xiii]Umi Daniel, COVID-19 lockdown crisis for migrant workers: What states are doing?, Down to Earth (April 21, 2020), https://www.downtoearth.org.in/blog/governance/covid-19-lockdown-crisis-for-migrant-workers-what-states-are-doing-70584

[xiv]Shivam Vij, India’s heartless capitalists deserve the labour shortages they are about to be hit with, The Print (May 11, 2020, 12.38 pm), https://theprint.in/opinion/indias-heartless-capitalists-deserve-the-labour-shortages-they-are-about-to-be-hit-with/418845/