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Saturday, April 17, 2021

India’s migrant workers need better policies

NITI Aayog’s draft report is well-intentioned. But its failure to address the policy distortions at the root of migrant workers’ issues cannot be overlooked

Written by Ravi Srivastava |
March 4, 2021 3:59:27 am
The lockdown-induced suffering of millions of migrants raised awareness regarding their magnitude, vulnerability, and role in the economy (Express file photo by Narendra Vaskar)

The lockdown-induced suffering of millions of migrants raised awareness regarding their magnitude, vulnerability, and role in the economy. It also led to a flurry of measures by the central and state governments. It is now encouraging that the Niti Aayog, on the request of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, has prepared an umbrella policy document for migrant labourers, including informal sector workers. This is something that this author has been advocating for over a decade. It is also highly appropriate that the Niti Aayog undertook the responsibility of drafting this policy since it required inter-sectoral and inter-ministerial coordination.

The draft policy makes significant strides in providing a perspective on recognising the magnitude and role of migrant workers, their problems and vulnerabilities, and the role and responsibilities of various stakeholders in addressing these. It states that a sound policy must be viewed from a “human rights, property rights, economic, social development, and foreign policy lens”. It reiterates that a rights-based and labour rights perspective built around the core issue of dignity of labour must be a guiding principle of policy, which should lead to the fulfilment of ILO commitments and the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG 8.8 on the protection of labour rights and providing a safe and secure working environment for all workers, particularly migrants.

The document states that the migrant exodus led to an appreciation of their magnitude as well as role in the economy (which it estimates at 10 per cent of GDP), but finds that the data has failed to capture the growth in their numbers, particularly the numbers of circular migrants.

It describes the many sources of vulnerabilities of migrant labourers, ranging from their invisibility and political and social exclusion to informal work arrangements, exploitation and denial of labour rights, lack of collective voice, exclusion from social protection arrangements, formal skills, health, education, and housing. Following from this, it identifies portability of social protection, voting rights, right to the city (the collective ownership and participation of citizens in cities they have helped build) and health, education and housing facilities as key issues to be dealt with. It also reflects on the need for pro-poor development and provision of livelihoods in the source areas.

Its recommendations on the above issues are addressed to various stakeholders which includes central ministries, state and local governments, community based organisations (CBOs), employers, trade unions, and multi-lateral organisations. Many of these build on earlier recommendations (for instance, those of the Working Group on Migration, 2017) and guidelines, including those laid down in Supreme Court orders. It further proposes a governance structure with the Ministry of Labour as the nodal ministry and a dedicated unit under it which will act as a focal point for inter-ministerial and Centre-state coordination. It also proposes mechanisms for coordinating the effort on inter-state migration, especially on principal migration corridors.

While many of the proposals need critical discussion, detailing, and modification, the policy document is an important step forward taken by the government in creating a framework under which migrant workers and their families can access entitlements and possibly work in a safer and better environment. However, the draft falls short of recognising and addressing many critical issues.

The National Commission for Rural Labour argued way back in 1991 that unequal development was the main cause of labour migration. This is implicitly recognised in the draft. In the last three decades, disparities in development and inequalities have grown ceaselessly, calling for deep correctives in the development strategy being pursued, without which migration and the adverse inclusion of migrants in labour markets is bound to grow unchecked. The report falls short of acknowledging this.

Similarly, while the report correctly pinpoints the exclusion of migrants by urban local governments in the provision of basic entitlements, it fails to acknowledge the root cause of the lopsided urban development strategy. Increasingly, the urban strategy has catered to national and global capital and the urban middle classes, marginalising the poor, particularly the migrants, whose struggle to find a foothold has become even more intense.

The report also makes a false dichotomy between approaches which rely on cash transfers and special dispensations and a second approach which enhances the agency and capability of migrants and removes constraints on these. The denial of the first approach has led the report to brush aside the migrants’ and informal workers’ right to social security. Social security is acknowledged as a universal human right in international covenants to which India is a signatory and is given due place in the Constitution. It also has a strong relationship to workers’ productivity and agency. The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) showed in 2006 that providing a minimum level of universal social security was financially and administratively feasible. The Commission also recommended a universal registration system and issuance of smart social security cards, but its recommendations have unfortunately remained a dead letter.

Perhaps the biggest fundamental weakness of the report is its approach towards labour rights and labour policy. By putting grievance and legal redressal above regulation and enforcement on which it remains silent, the report puts the cart before the horse. Surprisingly, the report does not take stock of the new labour codes, mentioning only the defunct laws that were subsumed by them. A perusal of the Codes shows that they accentuate the very problems — informality, precarity, the role of contractors and the lack of organisation — which the report itself describes. As mentioned by this author in an earlier article (‘Towards greater precarity’, IE October 3, 2020), the Codes, in promoting ease of business, have tilted the balance firmly in favour of capital, increasing precarity, liberalising the role of contractors, weakening the bargaining power of labour, and further weakening an already debilitated enforcement system.

In essence, the draft policy framework justifies the adage of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds. It identifies the problems but fails to address the policy distortions which lie at their root. Hopefully, however, the draft will be opened up for further discussions and feedback to enrich and complete what is already a significant beginning.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 4, 2021 under the title ‘Fighting for a foothold’. The author is Director, Centre of Employment Studies, Institute for Human Development, and a former member of the NCEUS

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