Visionary approach needed over quick fixes in new migrant law
A legal framework which enables social interventions and confidence-building measures to reduce violence and crime should direct the processes for creating a new legal regime.
Discussions on Kerala’s proposed new act on migrant labour resurfaced in the context of the heinous crime of rape and murder of a five-year-old Bihar girl committed by a migrant worker in Aluva. However, there’s a need to address a host of issues related to the insecurities concerning the social, cultural and economic lifeworlds of migrant workers, while also laying special emphasis on checking the tendencies of crime. A legal framework which enables social interventions and confidence-building measures to reduce violence and crime should direct the processes for creating a new legal regime.
The Inter-state Migrant Workmen Act of 1979 became effective nationwide in 1987. The Act defines “contractor” mainly as any person who hires labourers for his or her establishment work. But most labour suppliers in the construction sector remain uncovered and unregistered.
An inter-state migrant worker in Kerala is someone employed under a contract or arrangement with a contractor or principal employer. Government figures refer to the number of workers in certain welfare schemes. This data is just a small share of the actual number. The discrepancy stems from the outdated and inadequate definition within the law, which does not adequately address the contemporary labour arrangement processes, where the invisibility of the worker is the prominent reality.
The responsibilities of contractors vis-à-vis the registration of workers as per the Act have not been updated for the last four decades, during which migration patterns have evolved, with changes in the seasonal, cyclic and residential movements. Health and safety provisions for migrant workers are insufficient, especially during epidemics. Significant revisions are needed to address contemporary problems of migrant workers and ensure wage protection and welfare benefits, including health schemes.
The number of migrant workers in Kerala remains unclear, with varying reports doing the rounds. The Kerala labour department’s RTI response to the columnists stated there are 5,16,000 migrant workers in the state, while the State Planning Board pegged it at 34 lakh. The writers, through their fieldwork, have identified a serious problem in the federal system, which leaves many migrant workers in a situation of statelessness. Essentially, this is the failure in portability of rights, when migrants move from their state of origin to another state for work. This requires special attention in the context of the proposed new law.
In Kerala, the governance of migrant labour laws is vested with the labour department. For better inclusivity, a three-tier, panchayat-wise decentralisation is desirable, but this is yet to materialise. Economically and socially, migrant workers are connected mostly to the local self-government bodies. The labour department needs to collaborate with local bodies to generate credible data. An inclusive and comprehensive migrant labour law demands decentralisation at the grassroots level.
Lack of transparency regarding the allocation of financial resources for the welfare of migrants is a challenge to the federal system. Social auditing of schemes and healthcare funds is not conducted, and questions on the quantum and timing of Central government funds remain largely unaddressed by the public and media, remaining under the ambit of bureaucracy instead. Despite Kerala’s development activities becoming increasingly dependent on migrant workers, their essential needs remain unaddressed in governance-related dialogues.
Sporadic instances of mob violence post the Aluva crime are part of a dangerous trend of mob attacks against migrant labourers. While an unruly mob was involved in Bihar native Rajesh Manchi’s murder in Kozhikode a few months earlier, instances of lower-degree violence have been quite frequent since 2000. Recent reports from Perumbavoor in Kerala’s Ernakulam district also show that the police deny migrant workers access to public places. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to blame the entire migrant community when it comes to issues related to alcohol, drugs and violence. Peaceful thinking is required to evolve better understandings and strategies.
The government, especially local self-government bodies, must take up the responsibility of curbing the spread of hatred and fostering friendly relations between the local populace and migrant workers. At present, there is a lack of clarity on the bodies’ responsibilities concerning migrant workers. It is crucial for local governments to visit migrant worker settlements, understand their situations, and address their health concerns through specialised interventions. In this context, further discussion on the Kerala Health Bill, currently in its final stages, becomes essential to ensure the well-being and integration of migrant workers in the state.
To address the complexities of integration, the government must move beyond mere numerical enumeration and collect comprehensive theme-wise data to understand the diversity of the state’s labour force. Inter-state governmental interventions should accompany measures for providing better services to migrant workers. But the outdated Inter-state Migrant Workmen Act lacks the provisions to facilitate such collaborations. A new policy must be formulated to bridge this gap effectively.
The entry of migrant workers without proper social security arrangements challenges the migrants’ employment rights. Dialogues between migrant communities and the government can alleviate such issues and ensure mutual cooperation in projects.
Effective implementation of policies requires coordination among departments to conduct research on service, wages, workplace safety, and residential conditions. Managing the health and social security system through local self-government bodies will bolster the new law’s impact. Proactive measures are necessary to uphold the migrants’ civil rights and ensure a more inclusive and secure environment for all migrant workers in Kerala.
Dr Bijulal M V
Principal Investigator, GOI-SERB & Assistant Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University
Navas M Khadar
Project Associate, GOI-SERB Project on Interstate Migrant Workers, Mahatma Gandhi University