Updated: Jun 19
Author: HIMANI AHUJA,
Amity Law School Delhi
The haunting images of men, women and children throughout the social media and news houses has shaken the consciousness of humanity whereby migrant labourers are ‘forced’ to leave cities in this lockdown to reach their hometowns in order to survive and meet the basic necessities. These daunting images remind us as to what we have achieved as a ‘welfare state’ in the past 70 years of Independence and a lesson to our preparedness to a pandemic, whereby it is always the poor who bear the brunt of the state action. Migrant labourers who form the backbone of the Indian Economy have always been neglected by their employers but also by the state machinery which is responsible to ensure that these labourers get the basic standard of living. A migrant labour is just seen as an oppressed class which takes the toll in every situation even after being such an important part of the Indian Economy. An internal migrant labourer is defined as a person who migrates from their native state for the purpose of securing temporary employment. These labourers move from place to place in order to secure their livelihood and earn a decent living for themselves and for their families. They work tirelessly from dawn till dusk to keep their loved ones well fed and in good conditions neglecting the plausibility of them being subjected to the scorching heat of the summer or frost of the winter mornings. The migrant labours since time immemorial have been subjected to harsh working conditions and bare minimum salaries which results in non-development of these people. This migrant crisis due to the pandemic has shown the lack of intent by the people in power to ensure healthy and inclusive growth of these low wage workers making this profession highly probable to crisis which has proven by the current COVID-19 crisis.
The Covid-19 Lockdown and the problems which ensued
The nation went into a lockdown on 25th March 2020 after the number of Coronavirus cases surged in most of the Metropolitan cities and people were stuck wherever they were for the next few weeks resulting in huge outbreak among the migrant labourers of which most of them are daily wage workers living in rented accommodation in most major cities which were soon to become the COVID-19 Hotspots. These laborers who earn and spend on a daily basis were all of a sudden stuck with no earnings whatsoever leading to widespread problems for such people.
Today, when the world is going through the shackles of this deadly pandemic Covid 19, we miserably fail to take note that these laborers who put their heart into withstanding tall structures and buildings suffer the wrath at the hands of not only their employers but also the government. Of Course they are not supposed to be victims of this inhumane treatment by their landlords who have forced them to leave and denied to pay them wages.
We see disheartening images of thousands of workers sprauchling barefoot hundreds of kilometres completely drenched in blood and sweat to reunite with their families in the advent of this crisis some of them even losing their lives brings forth the austerity of this brutal lockdown. As stated earlier these images not only reflect the plight of the migrant workers but also the tainted image of the failure on part of the government and their employers to acknowledge their contribution towards the society as a whole. These unsympathetic employers fail to understand that their denial towards these assiduous workers will not only burden them with the dire dearth of labour but also the incomplete construction waiting to be finished on time. After all the labour and hard work which they put to sustain a better life for their children so that they don't go through the turmoil they have been through all these years, the least the unkind capitalists could do is provide them wages.
Non-governmental organisations, volunteers and police officials have shown concern amid this ruthless pandemic to feed these workers but this act of magnanimity wouldn't have been required had these small businessmen wouldn't have relinquished their responsibility to take utmost care of these workers. They have shown how wealthy they may seem but their mind is filled with filth and dirt. This showcases that despite so much advancement and development the country still remains putrescent be it indecorous class inequalities, deadly nexus of politics and virulent media.
The present crisis the country is going through has not only affected people in large numbers but also its labourers' who were compelled to leave and denied wages in lockdown. In the midst of this deadly crisis , they searched for a shelter to live in, food to eat and clothes to wear. Walking in dilapidated conditions, they suffered immense pain and struggled to reach their homes. The ongoing pandemic has not only taken a toll on these laborers but has also resulted in them losing everything in this crisis. It is also important to understand that there would be a huge stigma among these workers to avoid travelling to large cities for employment due the present scenario making a huge shortage of workers in the coming future.
Failure of state machinery
These extraordinary times have not only shown us the lack of safeguards to ensure the safety of these migrants but has somewhat also uncovered the insensitive side of the Indian Federal structure. Politics among states and the lack of coordination between the executive machinery as well as the lack of responsibility among states which resorted in shifting the blame to one another has led to such harsh treatment of these migrant labourers and in some cases many have died in order to reach their hometowns. The current situation has also seen the rampant failure of the labour laws and the dismissal of their rights especially in such an extraordinary case. The most surprising of all is the utter denial by the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India to uphold the fundamental rights of these migrant workers, the institution known to be the upholder of basic human rights in every situation failed to take cognizance of such an important issue. This also shows us the inconsiderate and inhumane nature as well as the contrast of the treatment of the poor in comparison to a rich person. In conclusion the state machinery be it the central government, state government, the executive and the police failed to analyze the gravity of the problem and misinterpreted the problem at such a large scale where the state was stuck in a dilemma to ensure compliance to lockdown or to ensure safe passage of migrant labours to their respective states.
The law in this regard is the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 was enacted with the sole purpose of protecting the inter-state migrant women from the barbarism and brutality of the cruel contractors which not only ill-treated these workmen but also denied them adequate wages. Deplorably, most of these inter-state migrant women are not even aware of their rights and responsibilities as a workmen and if they are confronted about their predicament, they often become victims of loss of employment and also their wages since the employers keep them on exiguous subsistence.
The migrant crisis is a wake up call for the entire country as a whole specially the government who has failed miserably to take note that they are also the citizens of the country and do not deserve this brutal treatment at the hands of the capitalist employers. It is important for the government to understand the importance of such workers and the vital role they play in building the Indian Economy.
The difference in the development of some states over the other and the rapid industrialisation in certain locations has resulted in this large scale migration of rural population to the urban cities therefore it is important that better employment opportunities are provided in each state so that the migration of workers can be minimised.
The need of the hour is to protect these workers from the atrocities and the chaos they have been subjected to and make necessary arrangements so that they can reach their homes safely. It is also important that a stringent and new law which is both conclusive and detailed to ensure something of this nature does not happen again. These migrant workers are entitled to legal and social protection which the laws and the government must give them. They are also entitled to fair and impartial treatment as they are the constructors of our burgeoning economy.