Of the three labour Bills passed by Parliament recently, one has a special dispensation for unorganised workers, who have surely been neglected by successive governments. The utter chaos and largely avoidable pain that migrant labourers, inter-state or intra-state, suffered after the sudden announcement of the nationwide lockdown in March this year is still fresh in people’s minds.
The Centre and state governments hardly have any updated records on who is a migrant worker and where exactly he/she is working at present. The well-meaning legislation of 1979, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, failed India rather miserably in its hour of crisis. One expected, therefore, that both unorganised workers and their most vulnerable section, the inter-state migrant workers, would be dealt with more sensitivity. After all, the latest labour legislations may be the final ones for several years to come.
We cannot blame only the government as these labour codes were finally screened and vetted by the multi-party parliamentary standing committee—but this was before Covid. Since inter-state migrants cannot vote in their guest states unless they are long-time residents, political parties may have lesser interest in these birds of passage. The terms ‘unorganised’ and ‘migrant labourers’ are, of course, not coterminous but the largest chunk of migrant workers belong to the unorganised category. The 2011 Census located 5.6 crore migrant labourers, while the finance minister’s estimate was eight crore.
The 1979 Act just fell through the cracks as the labour ministry’s machinery was overburdened with labour legislations benefitting the more demanding organised sector and could not prepare a comprehensive database of unorganised and migrant workers. But studies show that the organised part is only 10% of the total workforce, while the unorganised sector accounts for 90%. Within this 90%, not even the voluminous report of the 2007 Arjun Sengupta Committee on “Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector” could locate the very fickle percentage of migrants.
If we extrapolate its numbers, we find that unorganised workers may account for some 53.8 crore at present and organised workers just above six crore—within India’s present estimated population of 138 crore. Yet, even the latest labour codes focus almost entirely on the 10% in the organised sector, as always. Perhaps, the deadline of getting the laws passed in the Monsoon Session of Parliament meant that it was too late to insert special provisions for migrant labour. The latest Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code does, of course, have a promising chapter on unorganised workers. But it is all couched in so much bureaucratese that only lawyers or touts can navigate the system.
Section 112 of this Code provides for setting up “workers’ facilitation centres” to assist them, but we have many such pious intentions strewn all over our law books. We are not sure what happened to the labour ministry’s intention to undertake a census of workers in the unorganised sector announced in 2015. It promised to assign them unique identity cards, linked to Aadhaar, for getting social security benefits, health insurance and old-age pension. Frankly, unorganised workers really require an exclusive labour law instead of being boxed into the new Code dedicated to the organised sector. Or at least its migrant workers surely warrant special attention. Incidentally, while almost all the major old labour Acts have been subsumed by the new Code, the failed Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act of 1979 has not been tackled.
Nevertheless, we can still make a start with electronic registration of migrant labourers; Section 111 of the Code provides for this option. Since they are always moving around, a unique QR code can easily be used (as for digital phone payments) and their current location determined by any smartphone. At the next place, the same location identification process can be repeated. This means that the previously insurmountable problem of locating a migrant worker can finally be tackled. Emergency relief in the form of direct cash benefit and food from ration shops under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana could surely be linked to this coded card.
For additional verification, the migrant worker’s fingerprint could also be read by a smartphone. Of course, all such workers would not need to purchase or keep a smartphone, but they could access any one of the 50 crore smartphones available with every second adult in India—to mark their current location and address. This labour welfare Code provides for a lot of benefits but these can only be implemented when funds are available or the proposed cess is levied. Our major overriding concern is, however, to ensure that some identification system is in position so that if a nationwide or regional crisis ever befalls us again, migrant labourers do not go through living hell.
If only we knew who was where after March 25, relief could have been rushed to them there as soon as intentions and schemes were finalised. Most of them may actually have stayed back in their place of work and not scrambled to leave for home at any cost. Besides, migrants returning home may not have taken Covid-19 from urban habitats so deep into rural India.
Retired civil servant. Former Culture Secretary and ex-CEO, Prasar Bharati