From mortgaging land to survive in the cities during the nationwide lockdown to walking thousands of kilometres to reach home state, it is the lack of implementation of various labour laws, meant to act as safeguards, that have aggravated difficulties of migrant workers stranded in different parts of the country, labour law experts and activists say.
The Interstate Migrant Workers Act, 1979, which has a provision for mandatory registration of interstate migrant workers, both at the home and host states, through contractors employing them, is one of the primary legislations on labourers employed outside their state. The Act also provides for displacement and journey allowances to be paid to the workers by their primary employers.
“The Act puts the onus on the state and the employer… If the employer cannot, then the state can provide assistance to the worker. But due to an absence of such data, the group has become invisible in the policy realm, leading to lack of initiative at the interstate level,” Rahul Sapkal, assistant professor at School of Management and Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, said. If migrant workers had been registered as per the law, Sapkal added, they currently would not have to register for repatriation before the police or district officials.
So far, district heads across Maharashtra have received and are verifying details of over two lakh stranded workers, officials of the labour department said. Most of them are labourers who had started to walk to their home states but were stopped by the police and subsequently accommodated at relief camps.
In January 2017, a report of the Working Group on Migration, submitted by members of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Urban Development, Labour and Employment and NITI Aayog, had among its recommendations said that while workers do not migrate through contractors, “simple and effective modes for workers to register, including self-registration processes like SMS” could be put in place “…to ensure that the digitisation of registration records is leveraged to effectuate interstate probability of protection and benefits”.
The report also commented on the state-level Construction Workers’ Welfare Boards, which collect one to two per cent cess on construction projects, but that largely remains unutilised. The Standing Committee on Labour, 2017-18, report had found that Maharashtra utilised only 6.77 per cent of the cess amount.
According to the Commissioner of Labour, Mahendra Kalyankar, said the state board currently has Rs 9,000 crore cess amount.
“The money is being utilised for various welfare schemes, including mid-day meals for workers and to disburse Rs 2,000 for each registered construction worker,” he said. So far, Kalyankar said, more than 5.10 lakh workers have received Rs 2,000. An official from the labour department said other welfare schemes, including for assistance in education for children, financial help and social security, will be implemented after the lockdown is lifted.
Experts, however, say this is far too little considering the crisis since the coronavirus-induced lockdown was imposed on March 25. “Rs 2,000 crore is insufficient. Workers should have been paid at least a month’s minimum wages for three months. This sum is being paid to only those who have been registered. When there are several others whose registrations are pending or not done due to other issues. The deposited cess amount can include rights-based benefits to cover a lot more workers,” said senior lawyer Gayatri Singh. Singh had represented a petition before the Bombay High Court seeking relief for workers.
Others say that the crisis also reflects on the inadequacy of labour protection legislations, including the Payment of Wages Act and the Contract Labour Act. “This has shown the inadequacy of our laws, where while there are provisions for wages to be paid in such a situation, workers were forced to return to their home states as they had no money. The government issued notifications under the Disaster Management Act to state that wages should be paid to workers, but we have not heard of action being taken against any employer,” said Sanjay Singhvi, senior advocate and general secretary of Trade Union Center of India.
Experts also said the number of labour officers in the state is disproportionate to the units and workers.
An official from the labour department said there are 140 labour officers currently in the state, with more than 50 per cent vacancies on all its posts.
Joint Commissioner of Labour, Raviraj Ilwe, said since March 29, a total of 393 complaints for non-payment of wages and termination of work have been received, of which 295 were disposed of.
“We have received complaints, notices have also been issued. In many cases, we are persuading employers that it also in the interest of their businesses to ensure that workers are paid. Penal action under the Disaster Management Act can be taken further, if necessary,” Ilwe said.
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