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The real victims of nativist labour laws? Low-income migrant workers

Migration for work represents a match between employers looking for certain skills at low rates and workers who want to earn more than they can back home

Migrant labourers start coming to Delhi from various part of Uttar Pradesh in August (Express photo/Praveen Khanna)

Political rhetoric and the occasional violence against inter-state migrant workers is nothing new in India. Starting from the Mulki rules in Nizam-ruled Hyderabad in the late 19th century that favoured local employment to the anti-South Indian movements in Bombay in the 1960s (when this writer’s family surname was changed to fit in with the locals) to the “sons of the soil” movement in Assam and beyond, India has witnessed many instances of subnational nativism.

This nativism peaked in times of high unemployment and withered away when the economy did well. Nativist rhetoric also rarely transcended into actual laws in India as they remained in the realm of pre-election vote-catching banter. After all, several Articles of the Indian Constitution prohibit discrimination in employment on the basis of place of birth. As pointed out by the report of the Working Group on Migration in January 2017, the Supreme Court decision in 2014 in the Charu Khurana v Union of India case “clearly renders restrictions based on residence for the purposes of employment unconstitutional.”

Despite the constitutional provisions, in the past three years, anti-migrant rhetoric is increasingly turning into legislative reality. In 2019, the government of Andhra Pradesh passed the Andhra Pradesh Employment of Local Candidates in the Industries/Factories Bill, 2019, reserving 75 per cent of jobs for locals. This law was soon challenged and the petition was accepted by the Andhra Pradesh High Court as a matter of public interest. Yet, the clamour for similar laws pervades across states including Madhya Pradesh and Goa. Most recently, in March, the Haryana government passed the Haryana State Employment of Local Candidates Bill, 2020, reserving 75 per cent of jobs in the private sector for locals, when the monthly salary was under Rs 50,000 per month.

Let us, for a moment, forget the apparent unconstitutionality of this law. Let us also ignore the hypocrisy that the BJP-led Haryana state government is attempting to curtail the employer’s choice of recruiting labour from anywhere in the country at the same time that the BJP-led central government is pushing hard to give farmers the choice to sell their goods anywhere in the country. Let us brush aside the fact that most migration for work in India happens within state borders or that Census 2011 data revealed that in almost all Indian districts, less than 10 per cent of the urban workforce comprised of interstate migrants. The fundamental problem with this law is that low-income migrant workers will once again become the victims of India’s public policies.

Life is tough for low-income inter-state migrant workers in India, as was painfully illustrated by the migration crisis of 2020. To their long list of woes, ranging from precarious livelihoods to lack of access to portable social security, they now have an added source of concern — nativist laws. Sectors which do end up employing a large number of inter-state migrant workers — think of Surat’s power loom industry which employs workers from Odisha — do so because the local workers do not aspire for those jobs. Migration for work represents a match between employers who are looking for certain skills at low rates and workers who want to earn much more than what they can make back home.

The current premise of the nativist laws is that with adequate skill training given to locals, they can perform the same tasks as the migrants. But are they willing to? The law also appears to be tough to implement on the ground and one can expect a parallel market to emerge on the ability to prove local residence, as it often happens in the case of ration cards. Further, the income cut-off in Haryana’s law conveys that the rich can move anywhere in India and work as they please but those same opportunities are to be denied to poorer inter-state migrant workers.

In the coming decades, internal migration is only going to continue to surge in India, as it did in China over the past three decades, and as it did in the developmental trajectory of practically every country on this planet. By restricting migration choices, the governments of Andhra Pradesh and Haryana send out bad signals in the labour market, especially when their own elites have benefited tremendously from internal and international migration.

There used to be a time not so long ago that Indian elites would bemoan Donald Trump’s immigration policies that restricted H1B visas, often the golden pathway to access the American dream. Trump’s departure has led to a softening of the stance on immigration in America much to the delight of prospective Indian emigrants and employers in the US. Sadly, there is little to cheer for India’s internal migrants as Trumpian avatars descend in India’s state-level politics. Haryana’s nativist law alas will not “Make Haryana Great Again”. Instead, it sows the seeds of the balkanisation of our country. Such laws ought to be challenged in the courts.

This article first appeared in the print edition on March 9, 2021 under the title ‘Race to the bottom’. The writer is a faculty member of IIM-Ahmedabad and the author of India Moving: A History of Migration

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