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The Perils of Migrant Workers in COVID Era.


The emerging havoc has provoked the downwards economic depression, disrupting social life and bringing economic activities to standstill as countries have curtailed the right to movement in efforts to isolate cases and limit the spreading rate of the virus. Originating from Wuhan, China, cases rapidly scattered across continents as it reached global expanse, while mitigating the pandemic, countries across the world have implemented rigorous measures such as mandatory national lockdown and international border closures. As a result, this shift has exhausted the very core pillars of the Global Economy which are expected to leave lasting scars. The baseline forecast envisages a 5.2 percent contraction in global GDP by 2022, using market exchange rate, despite the phenomenal efforts of governments to counter the recession in fiscal and monetary policy support.

Governments across the planet have failed to preserve the rights of laborers and workers, because of the mode of measures taken by governments around the world in response to the health crisis, mobile populations have been placed wide open to vulnerable situations, with no means to transportation and habitation, they along with their families had to travel in search of refuge.

Brief account on repercussions of COVID-19 in India.

Labour migrants’ fragility substantiated itself in severe ways in India, especially when the government promulgated countrywide lockdown amidst rising cases, labour migrants found themselves in abyss having lost their job, housing, and in profuse numbers of population lost their basic standard of life. According to a survey conducted by Stranded Workers Action Network (SWAN), around 11,159 workers across the country, about 90 percent of the migrants are said to have not received ration from their respective State government and were also denied payment of wages from their employers.

It is well known that migrant workers are eminent contributors to the GDP of a nation, Almost 90 percent of Indians work in the informal sector, 75 percent of whom are stranded labourers. However, they face reflective challenges in accessing basic social protections, like health care and income security, making them more vulnerable to the health and socioeconomic impacts caused by COVID-19. Migrant workers are often first to be laid-off and refrained from the National Welfare response schemes, like wage subsidies, pension, unemployment benefits or social subvention, and social protection measures when compared to common nationals.

  1. Right to be acknowledged as a person first before the law.

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law. Depriving an individual’s capacity to be a person before the law has is described as ‘civil death’ because it degrades him or her to become an ‘outlawed’ legal object as in contravention of Article 16 of the Civil and Political Rights Covenant.1 This right recognises the existence of the individual as a human being with defined needs, interests, and opinions that helps him to flourish persona wise.

What states assert is that, the populace are usually segregated from migrant workers at State borders on account of the State’s claim to ascendancy at border. Most of the migrants are deprived of legal personality mainly because they are not citizens of the State they reside. The susceptibility of the migrant at State after seeking admission at the borders is said to continue him or her throughout his stay in that State, the differentiation of prerogatives and entitlements are purely based on citizenship of an individual in any country.

However, this discourse can be vanquished by documenting authorities such as Universal Declaration, Civil Rights Covenant, and such others it is attainable to examine the nodus among the deprived community from the perspective of the Human Rights as foremost obligation of the States, which can assist to ascertain the scope of vulnerability as prejudice works contrary to the fundamental proposition of Human dignity.

Perils of the Migrant Workers

Labour migrants face a variety of disadvantages throughout the pandemic, that may have vigorously spread the pandemic. Firstly, the movement essential for their sustenance in itself has posed a peril in terms of spread of infectious diseases.2 Secondly, the type of tasks migrants typically engage in, and their way of leaving, makes them chiefly vulnerable as they are unattended by public health services.3 Thirdly, the pandemic can reinforce stigma, both in host locations as well as the places where migrants return. Following are some of the uncertain conditions that migrants had to face amidst pandemic.

  1. Hunger and Humiliation

Amidst the fatal outbreak, it was officially declared aa a pandemic by the World Health Organization in mid of March 2020, many nations, explicitly the countries to the West, announced an outright lockdown to restrain the spread of the Novel Coronavirus. However, in India, the lockdown was found to be devastating for innumerables. India being the home to around 600 million internal migrant labourers4, many travelled from various states, especially from states like Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal to more populated and perilous cities, to perform mostly unskilled jobs, most of them are daily-wage earners, their long marches ultimately resulted in deaths of many due to starvation, dehydration, and enervation.

Craptastic policies by the Union government failed to recognise forethought policy implementation pushed millions of workers along with their families to face unfortunate consequences. While bearing the social stigma and physical strain, these workers also had to shield themselves from ceaseless assault from the law enforcement officers. To highlight one such episode of atrocity and lack of sanity, an incident took place in Bareilly district - about 270 km from Lucknow, the capital of UP. According to the reports-

A clad police personnel ordered a group of men, women and children to sit and close their eyes. The police then spray what is being reported as bleach, to “disinfect” the group. Another police person video-records them being disinfected from the virus. The entire incident was made public to show the police’s effort of sanitizing migrant workers returning from various places to their native homes” 5

Additionally, the maladroits were sidelined from the food security schemes as assured by the Central Finance Ministry through its public distribution system, mainly because the ration cards required registration as they were area-specific, besides fair-price stores were largely unfeasible during the lockdown. Although One Nation, One Ration Card enables migrant workers anywhere to avail the benefit of free food grains, only a handful of them have the knowledge of this central beneficial scheme.

Limited Access to Healthcare

An element of significant contribution to the social protection during a pandemic is the accessibility to healthcare, including testing and prevention. It is obvious that frontline workers and such others in the care sector are more susceptible to infection, making them unresistant to respiratory issues caused by the contagion. According to surveys by renowned organisations across the world the migrants in irregular situations may not seek health care due to lack of knowledge, fear of deportation or impetuous attitude, even if they are entitled to. In addition, the therapeutics may not be economical in their ongoing life-style.

While vaccination has prominently helped reduce COVID-19 caseloads in India. Priorities for vaccination are vastly determined on occupation, age and pre-health conditions. Being a dynamic community migrants have been dropped from the priority list for vaccination without any reasonable criteria. It must be noted here that most of these workers live on meagre jobs that are done in the unprotected cities every day. If not vaccinated, they will be deprived of jobs that will furthermore push them to uninhabitable conditions.

Role of Judiciary

The migrant labour crisis in India, effectuated by the COVID-19 country wide lockdown in March 2020 perceptibly illustrated India’s asymmetric political economy, perilous social environment, and deepening faulty system (Mohanty, 2020). Migrants were put on the spotlight of an extravaganza of a catastrophic scenario. After a painstaking lockdown gradual phase by phase unlocking began, the central administration and various industries were already desirous to reopen their respective enterprises. The most desirable for the job were the contract and migrant workers, who were easily available for any kind of job as it was their only means to keep life going. Hence, the workers were placed on the spotlight not only as sufferers of lockdowns but also as prominent forces for overall societal revival.

The Supreme Court of India admitted that the migrants’ issues had not been addressed effectively and that there had been “inadequacies and dereliction” on the part of the governments, and ordered the central and states governments to furnish stranded migrant workers with foremost and essential services. The state failed to take cautious and the adversities of the migrant labourers. It is notable in the case of Charan Lal Sahu v. Union of India the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India held that the State is at the position of parent or guardian of the individuals.8

In Re: Hassles and Agony of Migrant workers

The Supreme Court of India took Suo Moto as a means to address the Migrant worker’s desideratum. Even after extensive measures taken by the government, the labourers had to face deprivation and supression. Extensive media reports about the same inspired the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India to take the matter in its own hands supported by Article 21 of the Indian constitution and using its power under Article 32 i.e. Suo Moto. Vide order dated May 28 and June 9 2020 the Hon’ble Court after considering the issues involved and arguments of parties involved, issued the following guidelines and directions7 for both Central and State governments to safeguard migrant workers from facing further setbacks due to the escalating pandemic. Following are some of the highlights of this order:

  1. The migrant workers are to be provided free food, shelter, water and transportation with promising standards by the destination States and Union Territories and this shall be publicized.

  2. The process of registration of migrant workers had to be simplified, well publicised and completed at the earliest.

  3. The court further issued the following guidelines vide the said order-

  4. The states must take necessary steps for identification of migrant workers.

  5. In the event of additional demand, the railway shall provide trains for the same to the said states.

  6. The State and UTs will notify the workers of all the schemes. The State shall establish a counselling centre and help desks at the block and district level for the same.

Concluding note and what can be done?

Global coordination and cooperative measures will slow the spread of the pandemic, and the paralysed economic actions need to resume as to alleviate the economic damage, international support included. Conscientious policies with perspective based on an intersectional concept of labour needs to affirm rights of labour in a substantive way, is required to walk the current dangerously precarious state towards recovery, which will shape the social economic prospects of the coming decade. States can adopt short and long term measures based on the principles of equality, prevention and protection of affirmed rights; they mainly focus on addressing more abrupt needs; such access to healthcare including Maternity care, ease in administrative procedures, adequate measures to render information and guidance, income protection, relief camps, etc ultimately aiming at social stability and cohesion.

Additionally, medium-to-long-term responses can be planned simultaneously that will provides a persuasive approach, such as ensuring that social protection policies coordinated with other policies including employment, strictly adhering to migration and other relevant policies, effectuating bilateral or multilateral social security agreements that coordinates with social security schemes of different countries, etc; they offer more extensive security that is economically feasible and a socially reviving action plan.

On concluding note, the migrant labour perils perceivably showed how Indian political providence in the era of neoliberal capitalism proliferated at the cost of the essential prerogatives of workers. It solicited their vulnerability, empathetically suppressing their competence as an agency. If really the laxity towards migrants is of an inherent nature, amelioration in policy making needs to be superscribed and there is an expeditious need to reconceptualize the position of Migrant workers among the populace.

  1. References

  2. In Nowak, M. U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: CCPR Commentary. Germany: N.P. Engel Publisher, 2005, pg. 373.

  3. A Study on Migrant labourers by Aajeevika Bureau.

  4. Indian Journal of Labour Economics (2020)

  5. Medaris Anna Miller and Hilary Brueck, “World Health Organization Declares the Coronavirus a Pandemic,” Business Insider, November 3, 2020.

  6. Borders of an Epidemic COVID-19 and Migrant Workers Edited by RANABIR SAMADDAR.

  7. Charan Lal Sahu v. Union of India, 1990 AIR 1480.

  8. The Migrant Labourers Case, Suo Moto Writ Petition case no. 6 of 2020.

Tejaswini Ramakrishna, 4th B.A.L.L.B.

KLE Society’s Law College, Bengaluru

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