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Invisible Labour

Migrant workers were rendered vulnerable in the cities they built with their own hands. Unwelcome and uncared for, a majority of them decided to return to their homes by any means possible. 

Words by Haseeba Sayyed and Preeksha Malhotra


The primary task of India’s Ministry of Labour and Employment is to “protect and safeguard the interests of workers” and “improve the working conditions and the quality of life of workers”. Is it, then, permissible to assert that this mission has been put on indefinite hold. In the wake of the lockdown, the manner of rolling out government policies became purposefully haphazard. Would it make sense to say that migrant workers who died precisely because of this manufactured confusion are not considered workers by the state? Does their safety not have to be ensured?


These apparently unmentionable workers resurfaced in their negated existence when time came for the government to claim that they had no data on the number of deaths that occurred because of the lockdowns. Taking the Indian government’s own think tank, NITI Aayog’s, number about 85% of the total workforce in the country is employed through the unorganized sector. Why then has the government abdicated its responsibility of protecting the interests of over 35 crore workers?


Migrant workers were rendered vulnerable in the cities they built with their own hands. Unwelcome and uncared for, a majority of them decided to return to their homes by any means possible. And so began the languishing march back. Many did not survive the journey. A publicly maintained database estimates that by July 4th, more than 300 people died during the mass migration.  While the Ministry of Labour and Employment claims to have no data, an RTI filed by The Wire revealed that the Indian Railways did have a conservative number with regards to deaths onboard their Shramik Special Trains (special public trains which ran during lockdown to transport migrant labourers). In their response to the RTI, the Railways confirmed that at least 80 lives were lost on these Special Trains. Among the confirmed deaths were that of two newborn babies and one 8-month-old infant.


Even the government’s denial was incomplete. Narendra Modi took to Twitter to express his condolences over “lost lives” while strategically choosing to not name who (15 migrant labourers) lost their lives in Aurangabad. If not other deaths, state bodies could have at least recorded the ones acknowledged by the Hon'ble Prime Minister himself. 


We live in the digital age. Social media can wield the power to hold stakeholders accountable. In September, aspirants for the Railway Recruitment Board examinations stormed the website over non-communication of exam dates. This compelled the Railway Minister to announce the exam’s tentative timeline. But the same did not happen with migrants who can rarely afford the time to acquaint themselves with Twitter. Workers utilizing the site to demand assistance in reaching home was a rare occurrence. Around this time last year, Narendra Modi tweeted once every two hours. It is easy to ascertain why he and other figures in the government easily avoided maintaining the same level of engagement with some of the most at-risk people at a time of intense crisis.

In pursuance of the recommendation of the second National Commission on Labour (SNCL 2002), the current government aims to take under their ambit all the existing labour laws and replace them with the four codes. The Standing Committee for this process submitted its report in February of this year, just prior to the lockdown, making the codes void of any information on the current conditions of a large segment of workers across India. Here we briefly look at two codes with significant loopholes which benefit employers.


This amended Code increased the number of employees required for standing orders to 300 from 100. Now, any establishment that employs less than 300 people is under no obligation to provide its employees' information related to their “classifications, hours of work, holidays, attendance, leave [medical or otherwise]”, conditions of suspension or termination, and any available routes to redressal. This would give employers substantial room for exploiting workers by deregulating workplace practices. Additionally, the Code mandates that management be notified prior to the commencement of any strike initiated by distressed workers. These measures effectively leave labourers unprotected in a playing field already tilted against them.


The Labour Minister’s comments on the Code were not assuring. Prioritizing capitalists, he stated that “Investors will be encouraged to set up big factories and employ more and more workers''. The law allows the ‘appropriate government’ (either central or state) to exempt any establishment from the provisions of even these diluted regulations making accountability that much more difficult to come by. Any establishment with up to 300 workers can impose immediate mass retrenchment and lay-offs without facing any consequences. This places the labour force in an even more tenuous position than the one it was in during the pandemic.

During the pandemic, at least 75 industrial workers in India have been killed on-site due to perilous occupational practices. According to K.R Shyam Sundar, Professor at Jadavpur University, the Code is “poorly drafted”. He points to the callous and confusing terminology of the Code in which words like “workers'' and “employees” are used interchangeably. He highlights how the supposedly revamped version of the 2019 code still carries many flaws of its previous version. The Code does not bring under its purview the unorganized sector. It removes the statutory existence of a Bipartite Safety Committee for factories involved in hazardous work. The constitution of such a committee is now subject to a special enforcement order. The appointment of safety officers has become mandatory in factories or construction sites employing more than 500 labourers and in the mining industry employing more than 100 labourers. By prioritizing profit over safety, this provision puts the lives of workers at stake. Since the code does not acknowledge the unorganised sector, it is quite evident that not only it is poorly drafted but that it also is definitely not drafted for the poor.


The only positive aspect of the code seems to be the promise of a cross-country Public Distribution System for food grain and the provision of insurance benefits among other securities to inter-state migrant labourers. However, this beckons the question that if the government is already willing to unsee the security of migrant workers now will it continue to not recognize them in the future as well?


The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (ISMW) Act which dates back to 1979 now comes under The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020. Organisations like The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) oppose the amalgamation of two and press on better implementation of the act along with the four codes. The ISMW Act came as a guarding force in favour of labourers. This Act mandates the registration of any establishment which employs inter-state workers and ensures the same wage a local worker may receive for the migrant labour force as well. The 1979 act makes it necessary for the employers to maintain record files of the migrant labourers, which now find no mention in the new codes. Although India adopted the policy of Foreign Direct Investment decades ago, it doesn't seem ready to safeguard the builders of those offices which shelter these planners and investors.

The new codes were not passed until the lockdown was lifted and parliament came into action once again. The question remains the same; who will guarantee the proper implementation of the new codes? Given the serious lack of implementation of pre-existing labour freedoms, this rapid stripping away of worker rights is concerning to say the least. These codes were passed under minimal oversight and with the same haste that now characterizes the party in power’s proceedings as most recently witnessed in the one-sided approval of the new Farm Bills.


There always exists a need to ensure that our labour laws are in keeping with the current problems faced by workers who are supposedly the Labour Ministry’s priority. It is for this very reason that these codes demand scrutiny and concerted attention.