by Shreya Shrivastava
The lockdown imposed by the Indian government on 24 March 2020 forced the labour class to head back to their villages and gave rise to what may now be called the deadliest consequence of this pandemic; the impact on the migrant population of India. India’s lockdown – considered to be the largest and most stringent lockdown in the world, as ranked by the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker – brought with it a set of difficulties for already marginalized, excluded, and otherwise vulnerable individuals, groups, and communities.
In light of this, this article will examine the recent migrant crisis in India, and offer analysis into the recent dilution of labour laws by several state governments. To conclude, I will look at how this pandemic merely lifted the veil upon the lack of recognition of the abuse and neglect of the Indian labour class and the likelihood that their pitiful situation will become even worse post COVID-19.
Understanding the crisis
Being the second most unequal society in the world, almost 90% of India’s workforce (up to 450 million people) are employed through the informal sector which consists of low paying positions such as domestic workers, caretakers, street entertainers, and fruit stand owners. With the onset of COVID-19 in March, India registered a rapid increase in the number of cases so a haphazard lockdown was put down by the Modi Government.
For those 21 days, a group that was portrayed as disobeying the rules of the lockdown, and consequently labelled as insensible, and subject to ridicule, was India’s migrant labourers. Only when heart-wrenching photos, such as one of a child trying to wake his dead mother in a corner of a railway station, gained media attention, did the public give a second thought as to why these people were willing to risk their lives to return home. When the veil was lifted, 110 deaths had been reported of migrants attempting to return home, many of whom were hit and killed in truck and road accidents while the rest were exhausted in terms of money and resources. Of those who did succeed in returning back, many tested positive for COVID-19.
A question that arises here is why were so many workers moving between two homes, instead of remaining in one? The answer lies in the unplanned urbanization that India has witnessed. Even though most migrant labourers in India would prefer to work in their villages or nearby towns, factors such as irregular jobs, huge debt burdens and a lack of better opportunities force them to seek better employment opportunities in the cities. Considering the structural imbalance of opportunities and employment in villages as compared to cities, how could the government not predict this mass exodus when imposing the lockdown?
The reason is quite simple; the lack of a robust ‘updated and comprehensive’ data collection system to record temporary and seasonal migration rendered the government ill-prepared to anticipate the responses of these communities during such a critical moment of crisis.
While migration data from a 2011 census was partly released in 2019, important details such as data about sectors in which migrant workers are employed, are yet to be released. Also, the only district-to-district migration data available comes from 2001. In 2017, the inter-ministerial Working Group of Migration report recommended an accelerated time-schedule for the release of data, along with the release of migration data at administrative levels below the districts, so as to identify micro-geographies of movement, but to no avail.
The inappropriate government response
At a moment in time when the government was expected to come to the rescue of these workers, instead they embarked on changes to working conditions branded as “barbarous” by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions. Rather than providing workers with the resources and job security they were desperately seeking, three Indian states (UP, MP and Gujarat) diluted their labour laws. As part of what has been referred to as deregulation efforts, the process of hiring and firing has been made easier within firms operating with 50-100 workers in order to enhance labour flexibility. In addition, relaxed factory inspections and license regulations have been brought into effect, widening the scope for willful or genuine bureaucratic lapses.
Reversing hard-won labor rights in the 20th century, the working hour shift is now extended from 8 to 12 hours, with minimum interference from labour unions. MP’s CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan opined that the shift in working hours was brought under section 5 of the Factories Act which allows for exemption from its provisions for up to three months. The MP state government was hoping that the Centre would give its affirmative nod to such a suspension for a minimum of 1000 days. However, what remains overlooked is that this exemption can be given only during a ‘public emergency’, a narrow concept which includes within it a threat to security due to war or external aggression. Uttar Pradesh has approved the suspension of labour laws for 3 years, making certain exceptions for laws related to the abolition of child and bonded labour, women employees, construction workers and payment of wages, as well as compensation to workers who experience accidents while on duty.
All this is being done under the guise of reviving the Indian economy, functioning on the assumption that regulations signify state control whereas deregulations promote economic growth. The fact that regulation and deregulation are considered to be the antithesis of one another yet are two modes in which state and capital operate together, is being completely overlooked. No economy is devoid of the state’s presence. What is construed as deregulation is a controlled form of state intervention which gives a free hand to capital for economic growth.
Law has two aspects to it: one which deals with punitive measures and the other which provides social security, of which the state is the sole guarantor. The changes being pitched to deal with the punitive measures, is now through the control of private entities thereby minimizing the role of the state. Whatever economic growth India reaps out of this plan will be a result of the deep casualization of labour. Reports show that ‘contract labour’ has risen dramatically from 7% to 35% over the last thirty years, illustrating a move towards a system of sub-contracting in which the responsibility from the top shifts downwards to workers subject to reduced labour rights.
The question arises as to why, instead of protecting the interest of workers, this unfortunate time is being used as an opportunity to relax labour laws which does little to solve the issue at hand. Why did a crisis that required a supportive response from the government, do the opposite and instead strengthen their capitalist ambitions? This hints at an ulterior motive behind this strategic deregulation, that the government might be using the excuse of this pandemic to further its own agendas. Furthermore, the group to which these laws will be applicable constitutes only a minority of the workforce (about 10% of the formal workforce), as migrants are often in occupations in which labour laws do not even apply.
A two-pronged conclusion can be drawn looking at the state of the labour force in India. The pandemic brought to the forefront the pre-existing economic imbalance and vulnerabilities of India’s labour workforce. These informal workers weren’t ‘running away’ in a protest against working conditions, wage arrears, or any other work-related grievances. They were simply returning home to their families during conditions of a global emergency. Still this caused a major dislocation exposing an underlying structural crisis. This crisis wasn’t fundamentally due to the pandemic, but rather the pandemic exposed the pre-existing structural fissures which were until now hidden behind the powerful government narratives of a ‘Shining India.’ However, post-pandemic, the workers’ grievances are likely only to increase, given the recent actions of state governments. Not only will they have to leave their homes again to return to their work, the jobs that will be waiting for them will now be more precarious, more demanding and impose harsher conditions with no job security, thus illustrating that, pandemic or not, the abuse of Indian labourers continues.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shreya is a 3rd year Student of Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow pursuing B.A. L.L.B (Hons) with a keen interest in dispute resolution, public policy, and human rights law. She wishes to pursue the same in the future and believes that ideas are what truly matters. In future she wishes to build a platform wherein every individual has respect and can freely voice their opinions.