Coronavirus breakout and the subsequent countrywide lockdown have brought the plight of migrant workers in the country to the fore. Small industrial establishments, factories, home-based employment, construction industry and domestic work are some of the sectors which provide much-needed employment to migrant workers from rural India. They work hard and contribute to the development of the city and the country’s economy. Unfortunately, this section of the population is left on their own to struggle to meet their ends and lead a life deprived of dignity. We ought to do more for the betterment of this vulnerable section of the society.
The very fact that we don’t have enough credible data about the size of migrant work force in the country shows significance (or lack of it) laid by the government on this segment of workforce. According to the Economic Survey 2016-17, the size of the workforce as per Census 2011, was 482 million (48.2 crores) people and based on this figure we can safely assume that this figure would have exceeded 600 million (60 crores) by now. If the share of migrants in the workforce is estimated to be even 20%, the size of the migrant workforce can be estimated to be over 120 million (12 crores) now in absolute terms. In other words, they constitute nearly 10% of the population. Of the estimated 12 crore workers about 5 crore work in construction sector.
Despite the fact that they account for sizeable portion of the population they are always left at the mercy of the labour contractors or middlemen who have a huge influence in terms of controlling, mediating and recruitment of migrant workers. These contractors are responsible for wage payments as well as work supervision. The company management extend tacit support to contractors which allow them from avoiding any direct recruitment of the workers and the related cost. Companies prefer this kind of arrangement as this does away any responsibility that comes with direct recruitment of informal workers in terms of minimum wages and related social security requirements. In majority of cases, the contractor also acts as supervisor of the workers.
In order to safeguard the interest of the Migrant workers the Central Government has enacted the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Act, 1979 which provides for payment of minimum wages, journey allowance, displacement allowance, residential accommodation, medical facilities and protective clothing etc. However, enactment of law is one thing, and its implementation is altogether a different thing. Had it been implemented in its spirit we wouldn’t have seen lakhs of migrant workers spending their time on footpaths and below flyover bridges in cities during lockdown.
However, recent decision of the government to route the subsidies, during lockdown, through bank accounts is a step in the right direction which may eventually lead to formalisation of migrant workers. In future, the government can ask the companies/employers to pay the migrant workers directly to their account thus rendering the middlemen redundant. This may ultimately ensure social security with adherence to minimum wage and other benefits to the migrant workers.
Though this may increase wage bill of the companies, migrant workers will get what they were deprived of all these days. Today most of the factories run at bare minimum capacity level due to non-availability of workers. Operations at most of the construction sites are in standstill mode even after the government’s concerted efforts to restart work due to reverse migration of workers. This clearly shows that migrant workers are the backbone of our industries and the construction sector and they deserved to be treated better and at par with those in the formal segment.