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Author: Srikanth Madihalli

It is a known fact that social structures have been shaped in a way that places labourers and workers at a disadvantage. Many nations, including India have recognised the plight of labourers and employees and have made laws that are specifically dedicated and designed for the labourers, workers and employees in order to ensure the dignity of the working class and employees.

Fast-forward to 2020, a year that has not been kind to humankind. The advent of the COVID-19 disease has brought the entire planet to a standstill. The Indian Government enforced a lockdown in the month of April (The state of Karnataka began closing down educational institutions and certain establishments 2 weeks before the nation-wide lockdown). This had been done to prevent the spread of the Novel Corona virus, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 disease. Such extreme measures were taken due the nature of the virus, which was highly contagious and could spread rapidly. This has pushed and confined people to their homes. The people who have been the worst affected by this lockdown are the migrant workers. This is because they have migrated from their hometowns to large urban metropolises in search of employment, and a better life. This obviously means that they are not based in these large metropolises, but are based in their hometowns. They have temporary accommodations in the cities where they are employed. If we take a closer look at who these migrant workers are, their problems become apparent. In India, specifically, most of these migrant workers are farmers. They work in their farms only during the harvest season in particular, which renders them jobless during the rest of the year. Hence, these farmers, in pursuit of employment come to big cities. This means that their domicile is still their hometowns, and in the cities there are temporary arrangements that house these migrant workers. When the lockdown was enforced, most of the companies and industries were shut down, which left these migrant workers without any work. Normally, these workers would then pack up and head to their hometowns, to reunite with their families. However, this lockdown put a hold on travel and no person was allowed to leave the cities. This left the migrant workers stranded. They were desperate to reunite with their loved ones back at home. With no transport option, many undertook the perilous journey back home, on foot, on the cycle, etc, which took weeks. In this arduous journey, many workers lost their lives, and hence, many families lost their sole breadwinners. Others were literally stranded in the midst of nowhere, until the restrictions were eased.

The Fundamental Rights, Fundamental Duties and the Directive Principles of State Policies are not in sync with each other and have failed to help the most vulnerable sections of the society in such emergency situations. This is not the first time a question has been raised on the effectiveness of the governance in safeguarding the Fundamental Rights of its subjects as per the constitutional framework. Questions have been raised for decades. To be precise, it started with the Keshavananda Bharati case and was reiterated in the Minerva Mills case where it was held that “Fundamental Rights occupy a unique place in the lives of the civilised societies and have been variously described as transcendental, inalienable and pre-mordial…..Fundamental Rights constitute the soul of the Constitution. Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of State Policy are two wheels of a chariot and twin formula to achieve social revolution.”

Apart from the fundamental problems, let us delve deeper into a particular statute that deals with migrant workers in specific- The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979. At the time when this law was enacted, a type of labourers called the “dadan” labourers (people towards whom charity was done) were recruited to work on large construction projects. In the process, they were ill-treated and were not even paid. Since the existing legislations were not enough to protect their fundamental rights, this act was passed, with reasons stating that inter-state workers were generally illiterate and unorganised and had to work under extremely adverse conditions, and laws from the state were required in order to protect them from exploitation. This act lays down the guidelines that are to be followed by the employer while hiring workers and the necessity to obtain licenses from both the state of origin of the workers as well as the state of establishment of the industry the workers are to be employed at. The act also lays down rules pertaining to the inspectors that are to be appointed by the respective State Governments to inspect and ensure compliance. The act is fairly concise, with penalties being harsh enough to lead to imprisonment.

In July 2019, the Lok Sabha passed the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019 which aims at streamlining and replacing 13 labour laws, including the act, with an attempt to strengthen and better safeguard the rights of Migrant Workers. It states that any establishment which is employing migrant labor through a contractor who is required to obtain a license, but who has not done so, then the migrant labor so engaged through the contractor, shall be deemed to be employed by the principal employer. It reiterates the provisions relating to the entitlement of migrant workers to receive a displacement allowance equal to 50% of the monthly wages payable to them.

However, the migrant workers are still in agony, even to this day. This is mainly not because of the inadequacy of the laws, but what is lacking is the implementation and enforcement of these laws, which is the similar case with other laws and hence is the root cause of most of the socio-legal problems that are faced in this country. Hence, in order to improve the lives of the migrant workers, an effective and seamless implementation mechanism must be devised and implemented with a clear channel between the law-makers, the executive who is tasked with implementing the laws and the beneficiaries of the laws. A grievance redressal must also be implemented for the workers, so that their issues can be heard and resolved and this can also assist lawmakers in fine-tuning the laws to the changing needs of the Migrant Labourers.

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