• Roushan

Migrant labour in India and their crisis amid the pandemic

Actualizado: 10 jun 2021


India’s witnessed the world's biggest nationwide lockdown in the history of humankind, well it is more than justified, given the experience of the rest of the countries with the COVID 19 pandemic, health, economic crises, and mental crisis. Though lockdown was necessary, it caused unprecedented damage to a large section of society following India's economy has almost 90% informal jobs which went for a toss with its inception.

The second wave of the pandemic pushed 10 million out of jobs and 97% of households experienced a decline in income. The unemployment rate at the end of May stood at 12% from 8% in the first week of April. (CMIE Data). [The second wave, almost hit the labour migrant with the same intensity as it did last year. Interestingly, things unfolded in a way many felt a dejavu; lockdown making headlines, migrant walking back home feeling crushed between city & village, between responsibility & impossibility, between central & state govt politics over policies]. All this incredibly displays the unpreparedness and sheer ignorance towards the most vulnerable section of the society whose role is immense in the development of India but never got its credit in form of social transformative protection, the migrant workers.

There is no dearth of recommendations made to govt for the implementation of the various policies by experts in the field of economics and planning, one of the major proposals was made of the "urban employment guarantee act" just as one operating in rural India. Another, Direct cash transfer to the labour which would give a push to the economy as well as improve the health of poor migrant workers. There is food PDS through ration shops and its quantity has been increased too but it is not much nutritious, almost enough to keep you well-fed but not enough to keep you healthy

There is a huge informalisation in the Indian economy with millions of people working in an informal sector as permanent workers, semi-permanent, or seasonal workers. In light of political economy discourse, Migrant laborers are "no-where citizens" which is significantly impacting their bargaining power in society as citizens leading to their political exclusion. Informality is often linked with lack of job security, lack of employment benefits, poor working conditions. This adds to the understanding that in wake of the COVID 19 pandemic the employee's job is at stake since the production has been halted and of course the brunt faced by the informal sector worker is higher than that of the formal sector.

Informal workers especially the migrant labour population, the most vulnerable ones are hard hit by the nation’s wide lockdown. This is thought, in a retrospective sense as to how things unfolded right after the lockdown in India be it about state response through state policies or the judiciary response to public interest litigation in wake of the pandemic, it gives us a sense that there has been a lack on part of both govt and the judiciary and there was complete a disconnect between the state and the migrant labourers. In my view, Pandemic also showed us, image building is central to the present ruling party of India otherwise how come that air-lifting overseas Indians was more convenient and cost-effective than arranging even low-cost transportation?

Vulnerability of migrant labourers got extensively captured on the highways and railway tracks through a graphic display of deaths of labour migrants which has been consistent across the states and visibly quite high among the migrants from the poor states which completely raises an eyebrow on the wisdom and intention of the govt. and also the judiciary since both are in command to take proactive steps through different ways and means and improve the deplorable situation yet they seem to have completely missed the migrant crisis which was loud & clear.

In the essay, from a socioeconomic perspective, I would discuss migrant labourer issues in India such as the ineffective implementation of labour laws such as poor conditions for women migrants, and the "interstate migrant workmen act", one of the most robust and promising labour laws. Secondly, the recent scrapping of the labour laws is exclusionary instead of inclusionary. I will discuss a way forward in which a utopian society for the Migrant population of India can be created through the application of justice and efficiency which is not designed for corporate gains only but present a concerted effort focusing on the needs of both parties (labourers & corporates).

Migration in India

Ravi Srivastava, a prominent figure who has done extensive work in the area of labour migration. He explains how labour is categorized in the census and NSSO. He categorizes the population of informal casual workers and construction workers as “vulnerable migrants' ' who don’t have a stable place to live in the urban areas so they live mostly near the construction sites which devoid them of the standard of living. The total number of labour migrants is 140 million which makes for (30-40)and they are predominantly from the more deprived social group (Srivastava,2011). According to the ministry of labour, there is no stable demand for migrant workers, there is a dominance of labour contractors and more than half of jobs are placed by a contactor ( Srivastava,2011). In light of the evidence, there is inequality between rural and urban areas, informality and labour flexibility both have increased over time.

Condition of women migrant workers

The gender wage gap exists and sexual exploitation are the two major challenges faced by the women which put them at greater financial and physical insecurity which often lead to mental illness like depression and anxiety causing huge negative externality on the society and mostly their families (Srivastava,2011) Women migration is not only based on economic benefits as marriage and violence against women also lead to women migration. one of the MGNREGA women working in the Palamu district during an interview with me told, “ for a woman, physical work is quite difficult in the worksite as compared to the men since they are also supposed to perform domestic chores.”

Labour laws and their implementation

Most of the developing nations have flexible labour laws which translate to the cheaper cost of production, it a favourite hotspot for production.

Important labour laws in India

1. Factory act: this acted in 1948, ensures adequate safety measures on health and safety and welfare of workers employed in the factories.

2. The Payment of Wages Act, 1936 wages payable to employed persons timely.

3. The Minimum Wages Act 1948 is an Act of Parliament concerning Indian labour law that sets the minimum wages that must be paid.

4. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 is an Act of the Parliament of India enacted to regulate the condition of service of inter-state labourers in Indian labour law. It aims to protect migrants from exploitation. In effect, it's a pro-migrant law based on justice and efficiency. It pushes for a Proper database on a migrant worker, arrangement of the safe journey by the respective employer, employment documents be shared between the employer and worker, adequate medical facility and resident allowance be given. It is so robust but unfortunately yet strangely, it wasn't used during the pandemic with the same spirit of what it was made but, had it been used, the horrific display of migrant crisis on the highways of India would have been effectively everted.

5. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 is a legislative act in India that seeks to protect women from sexual harassment at their place of work.

Many states to beat their economic slowdown scrapped the aforementioned labour laws with a varying degree like MP, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh etc and many states are likely to follow suit. In my view, scrapping labour laws as a coping mechanism did nothing more but added to the woes of the migrant labourers and exposing their reality to the mass which we know, existed all along. These laws don’t deliver much on the ground zero and exploitation against workers despite strong laws do exist so, instead of overhauling the entire structure of labour laws there was a need for introspection by the govt [on how poorly it has been managed and how effectively it could have been given there is no dearth of labour legislation if there's a dearth of anything, it is of implementation and efficacy ] and much is also attributed to the stamp of “nowhere citizen" Ravi Srivastava points out

Different states have responded differently in the way they scrapped the labour laws particularly UP seems to abolish the maximum number of laws and Gujarat seems quite excellent in the way they tried to balance the tradeoff between profitability and labour rights.


Right to wage, right to be sheltered and right to healthcare is the most fundamental for the protection of labour migrant. The migration itself is not the issue but the exploitation of the labour. The existence of a high supply of labour at even less than the minimum wage threshold gives a huge advantage to the capitalist & industrialist who owns tt factor of production.

There is need to push for food security for migrant labour and impaneling migrant labour in the list of beneficiaries of National food security act (NFSA) so that migrant is well fed. Everything begins with the database on migrant population which govt of India didn't have till Sep 2020. Well, there is news the migrant database is being made by the centre which focuses on the gig economy database as well and it is expected we may see pro workers policies be introduced soon. We need an accurate database because it will help in formulating plans for migrant labourers in the future. Robust data is the basis of any successful planning & policy.

Vaccination is the most effective tool to get back Indian economy on track but there is also vaccine hesitancy among the masses especially in rural India which is amazing & reduces the real purpose of heed immunity. The Supreme court of India proactively engaged and time and again reminded the centre govt of its accountability and responsibility in the fight against the pandemic while upholding the fundamental right of human.

Chief justice of India must direct the Govt to provide subsidies to the capitalist, till the economic revival so they can pay workers according to the right amount to which the workers subsequently act in compliance with the existing labour laws. I agree this pandemic doesn’t discriminate between the capitalist and the labour class with of course hitting the latter bit harder but the question is how could capitalist carry out the production and where they get money from because they are running cash strapped too, not so much that they cant avail three square meals a day, but enough that, they can get the business unit back to the normal given the financial constraints. Capitalist owns factor of production that keeps their bargaining power always high.

For recent scrapping of laws, CJI must direct all the states to review their labour laws especially Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh which got too harsh on the labourers by scrapping even the most fundamental right as “prohibition of employment of young children” which pushes the extremes and include labour representative which has to be 3 bench committee including two labour and one person having a nuanced understanding of the labour migrant crisis while making new laws.

What we need is a good design, a concept introduced by McDonough & Braungart. Labour productivity significantly increases with an improved working environment (Mc Donough, Braungart. M,2011). Any changes in the Labour laws must be based on the triple topline strategy consisting of ecology, sociology and economy as India has 90% informal jobs. Any arbitrary rule can push millions into extreme poverty given we already don't have social security scheme for our labourers and the tag "nowhere citizen" reduces their bargaining power by and large.


  1. Srivastava, Ravi (2011). Labour migration. recent trends, patterns and policy issues, Indian journal of labour economics.

  2. McDonough, W., & Braungart, M. (2010). Cradle to cradle: Remaking the way we make things. North point press.

  3. Raghuram, Parvati. Migrant women in male‐dominated sectors of the labour market: a research agenda. Population, space, and place 14.1 (2008): 43-57.

  4. Political Analyst, Ravi Srivastava: Where Is The Money In The Hands Of The People? | The Right Stand News18