May 6, 2021

Plight of migrant workers due to the pandemic

Introduction

The current scenario of the world is something that nobody ever expected to live to experience. The covid-19’s onslaught that stemmed from Wuhan, China has left the whole world in shambles. With no proven cure and vaccine the only solution the various governments of different countries had, was to resort to a nationwide lockdown. While this did break the chain of transmission resulting in a flatter curve of Covid-19 cases, it led to a huge loss to the economy and the livelihood.

The economy and the human race areat present in a dire need of succour, and with the idea of ‘TWO INDIANS ( rich and poor)’ that our nation reinforces , the impoverished section of our society suffers the most collateral damage.

Hardships Faced by The Migrant Workers

India is known for its vast gap between the rich and the poor, this seems to be getting worse with the lockdown and workers losing their jobs .Any major amendment that our government plans to make, shuns it on its citizens without prior notice and little time to prepare for the proposed changes. An example of this was last seen back in 2016 when the government decided to withdraw RS 500 and RS 1000 from use as a legal tender leaving the poor in a perplexed and a hapless state. The short notice of the government to close the whole nation led to the poor facing similar repercussions such as getting stranded, not having money for their subsistence. Not only did these classic nowhere citizens of our country lose their jobs, incomes and accommodation but were also ill-treated by being crammed into small quarantine rooms and sprayed with toxic disinfectants.

With no money to even feed themselves and no transport the workers made a hard decision to walk several kilometres in a desperate attempt to reunite with their families. Not many could make it to their home towns successfully. Some died due to heat, hunger and over exhaustion like Jamalo Makdama 12 year old tribal girl from Chhattisgarh and some died by being overrun by a train in Maharashtra.

The Government delayed decision took a to help these poor reach their families by allowing special transport facilities like interstate busses and trains, but their huge population made it difficult for the govt to make transport available for all. Many waited for days hoping to make it to the list of people allowed to travel and those who did were unfortunately charged for the train ticket.

Changes in The Labour Laws

The workers had already faced enough when the government made an earnest effort to suspend the labour laws so as to revive the economy.

This allows the industries to exploit the workers even more than before by extending the maximum daily hours of work from 8 to 12 , with some states also deciding not to pay overtime..

India accounts for the maximum informal labour, with this change in labour law most employment will turn informal thus reducing the bargaining power of the workers and bringing down the wage rate sharply.

Yes, labour is an important factor in production and for turning the wheels of the economy, but they have received shabby treatment in the past one month and it is time for us to make amends keeping in mind their respect and dignity and not treat them as resource for revival.

Equal Freedom and Forced Labour

. Dr. B.R Ambedkar, the chairperson of the drafting committee of the constitution was asked to prepare a note on the idea of fundamental rights. According to him the purpose of the constitution so far being followed is to limit state power in order to protect and preserve the fundamental rights of the individuals but he argued that this was too narrow an understanding of freedom .B.R Ambedkar thus said that fundamental rights must also “ eliminate the possibility of the more powerful; to impose arbitrary restraints on the less powerful by withdrawing from the control he has over the economic life of the people or to tackle to dictatorship of the private employer.”[1]

Article 23(1) of the Indian Constitution prohibits “traffic in human beings and begar and other similar forms of forced labour.” With begar – a system of inter-generational bonded labour unique to India – at its heart, Article 23 may seem only a narrow protection from slavery and its variants.[2]

However, in PUDR vs Union of India, the Supreme Court held that the right against forced labour included the right to a minimum wage.[3]

‘Forced’ not just means to be forced to something with a gun to someone’s head or a knife at someone’s throat, but in case of labour it is no choice but to accept any work that came their way, even if the remuneration offered is less than the minimum wage.

Remarkably, the Court framed this not as a positive right or as a socio-economic guarantee that it was importing from the Directive Principles, but in the pure language of freedom: freedom from economic compulsions that drove workers to accept employment at wages even lower than the minimum rates..

Since Labour is a subject that falls under the concurrent list of the Indian constitution, states have a right to make laws on it, but there are some states who are making exemptions relating to working conditions and health and safety of the workers. This is where the central govt must step in and ensure to strike a balance between industrial growth and rights of the workers.

The purpose of the labour laws for long time has been to mitigate this imbalance in power and thus removing them is grossly unconstitutional.

A Law Needed to Protect These Workers

Like thegovernment swiftly came up with a law to protect the health workers from the injustice of the society, similarly there must be a law to safeguard the rights of our labour force, and this should also include the domestic workers.

One more section of the society that has been badly hit by the pandemic is the domestic workers. Politicians and other leaders have time and again reiterated the fact the all the domestic workers must be given paid leave until it is safe to get back to work again, but there have been reports of household help being fired without pay.

The old customary belief of us Indians of ‘workers’ are those who are involved in factory work , shop and office complexes, which is why labour laws are structured in away to protect only industry workers , they do not apply to household help.

There needs to be a legislative framework put into functioning so as to ensure that these workers are treated with respect and dignity and to ensure that they receive a minimum wage, social security and conducive working conditions.

Ignorance of Apex Court from The Harsh Realities

It is the duty of the top court to preserve, protect and enforce the fundamental rights of all the citizens, but all they have been doing so far is putting blames on the executive for not being able to improve the conditions of the stranded workers.

There have been petitions over petitions filed to address the prolonged plight of these workers; unfortunately these have been dismissed by threatening to impose costs.

The court apathetically responded to these PIL’s by saying that they should not be held accountable for the fate of the workers as it could in no way be prevented.

The courts exacerbated the situation of these workers by allowing states to suspend and amend the labour laws according to their will.

Many high courts have clamoured their opinions for banning these stringent labour laws and providing relief to the workers, but the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court has prevented the high court’s to act in favour of the citizens.

It is high time that the judiciary realises its role as a protector and further ensure strict monitoring of assistance reaching out to the workers.

Conclusion – The Way Forward

As the workers continue to trudge back to their home towns the government must plan systematically to initiate pooled cluster testing,those who test positive can then be quarantined in the city of their work, while the rest should be allowed to travel back to their states.

Then again, a mandatory quarantining near the arrival station could be ordered to check for any infection that was missed earlier .There is a need to ensure that urban to rural transmission doesn’t take place. Current approaches are largely urban centric with very little focus on rural dynamics. A decentralise approach is required to manage the large rural population; the success in Kerala may serve as a useful model.

Public health and sanitation’ is listed as item number 6 under List-II (State List) of the Constitution of India, thus the responsibility of maintaining public health lies with the state. The state should take urgent measures to commence local management of tracking disease, hunger management and providing job security. Efforts should be taken by local bodies to fight against covid-19 at the grass root level.

The fight against Covid-19 can only be made stronger and solid with an idea of inclusive, equitable and non discriminatory society.


[1] B.R Ambedkar , constituent assembly debates, vol. Vii

[2] Article 23 of The Indian Constitution

[3][3] PUDR v Union of India (1982 SC)

Author Details: Aishwarya Shankar (Amity Law School)

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