Reports reveal that about significant percentage of workers who had reverse-migrated, in the wake of the pandemic lockdown, have returned to the cities or wish to do so. The reason – prospects in the villages look bleak. To meet their basic expenses many have either mortgaged their household items, sold their livestock or have borrowed money.
Although schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme (MGNREGA) are generating work – these are not enough neither in terms of number or the wages. Back in April the government had set up the Atma Nirbhar Skilled Employer Employee Mapping portal. Despite a registration of 24+ lakh workers, only 5000 are said to have been absorbed. Low wages – not commensurate with their skills, and employers’ unreasonable conditions are the reasons. Quite naturally destination regions like the southern Indian states are seeing an influx of these migrant workers.
As a quickfix, the Centre mandated all states to include labour welfare in their investments. In response the states like UP are planning to provide life, medical and accidental death insurance cover. While Gujarat is contemplating on adding dormitory housing near industrial zones.
These measures, at best, are only small and anecdotal unless there’s a pragmatic approach in implementing and operationalizing them on ground level. In the whole discourse of rehabilitating the migrant workers two key actors are missing – the employers and most importantly the contractors who employ the workers. More often than not, the labourers are at the mercy of these contractors. Here’s a case in point. A report has it that a Jharkhand based skilled plumber working in Mumbai and earning about INR 700 per day is yet to receive his dues of INR 20,000 – withheld by his contractor.
So it is pertinent that contractors are a part of any conversation on improving the working conditions of migrant labourers – not just for information dissemination but for creating accountability. The way in which contracts are finalised have to change. Because none of the employers have these workers on their direct payrolls, all that they are concerned about is completion of a task. In the entire chain of delegation of work the element of social security is grossly missing. Although a group insurance clause exists it has its own limitation because it discounts the condition of an individual worker. Therefore, the principal employer or contracting terms of all in the value chain needs to be considered for including benefits or clauses like health safety, travel allowance, accommodation facility or allowances in every labour contract.
Though there are talks about changing the labour laws, the government should do so being cognisant of the fact that as of today these are well suited only for the white collar full time employees.
To create livelihood opportunities in and around workers’ native villages, MGNREGA should include funds for creating micro-entrepreneurs. For instance, the ‘reverse migrating’ masons, electricians, plumbers can be reskilled. They can directly contribute to augmenting local infrastructure. This will provide relief to those whose livelihoods have been severely impacted and eventually lower dependence on public finances.
Unfortunately, while there were enough hue and cry when these workers were traveling back to their rurals homes, the government, the state and the influencers are silent on the hard issues as the same workers slowly trickle back to the cities.