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By: Ankita Roy & Nikita Anand* |


The advent of the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th century introduced a new class of workers in the factory. The passage of time brought the need for more labour in the industries thus, forming an opportunity for labourers from various regions. The casual and unskilled labours from the various region who move systematically for providing services to different regions are known as the migrant labours.

The growing pace of economic globalization has increased the need for migrant workers. India being a major country of origin and transit is also a destination to different migrant workers. India not only has inter-state migrants but also migrants from countries like Bangladesh who are deprived of proper livelihoods and are labelled as disadvantaged. Even the current lockdown situation in India has brought to light the migrant labour crisis; however, this issue is not a recent one. The migrant labour crisis in India is an old issue yet there are restricted laws regarding migrant workers in India with low implementation. The out-migration in India goes back to the colonial period leading to the poor conditions of the workers. This article investigates the improper implementation of the laws for migrant workers in India, their conditions in COVID-19 and the reasons for such problems.


The migrant labourers are disadvantaged and deprived of the basic needs of life. One of the reports published by the National Commission on Rural Labour states that the labourers and land-poor farmers have more propensity to migrate as labourers.[1] According to the 2011 census, there are 5.6 crore inter-state migrants in India, most of who come from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.[2] The percentage of migrating labourers have had a rise and fall in the past two decades, the number of inter-state migrant workers in India grew about 55% between 1991 and 2001 whereas it decreased to 33% between 2001 and 2011.[3] Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have the most number of migrants out of which 37% are migrant labourers, although Delhi and Mumbai are known to be the migrant workers' magnet.[4] The main reason for such a migration is deprivation of livelihood which also varies due to their gender. Two-third of women had to migrate due to marriage as their husbands were migrating for work.[5]

A majority of such migrant workers work in the unorganised sector, a large number of them are daily wagers and very few of them have any valid identity cards. In India, most of them are in tea or cotton industry. In Europe and the Middle-East, they are recruited in the urban sector and not agricultural while in North-America they are hired at the time of harvest. The temporary relationship between the employer and the workers causes a disorderly labour market. They have no re-employment rights, have no access to the job markets and are hired through contractors who negotiate their wages. Other than wages, the living conditions and working conditions of migrant workers are lower than other labourers. Also, they are made to work for longer hours. Unfortunately, now the migrant labourers are prone to exploitation by the employers.


Since migrant labour crisis is a part of Indian history, certain laws were enacted for the benefit of labourers-

Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979

The objective and reasons for the act are that the migrant workers are mostly illiterate who work under extremely adverse conditions. So, for protecting them from exploitation some legislative and administrative arrangements by both the states are necessary. This act also necessitates that there should be proper licenses to be provided by both the states under the conditions mentioned regarding the arrangements.

Occupational Safety, Health And Working Conditions Code, 2019

This code subsumes 13 labour-law legislations including the above-mentioned act. It necessitates the establishments to hire through licensed contractors only. It mandates that the workers are to be reimbursed 50% of their monthly wage in case of displacement.

International Labour Organisation Standards

Migrant Workers Convention, 1975 and Migration for Employment Convention,1949 are the two ILO standards. Since India is one of the founding members of the ILO, it follows these standards. These standards prevent illegal migration of workers and provide free assistance and informational aid to the migrant workers respectively.


The pandemic lockdown in India brought in light the sufferings of the internal migrant workers. The migrant workers are deprived of their livelihoods and thus they move to other regions for work. In the time of calamities, say, the COVID-19 pandemic when the whole of the nation has been locked down, there is no place for them to go. Whose job is it to think about the migrant workers?

The welfare of the migrant worker is a concurrent job and it is the duty of the Centre and the state to take measures so as to save them in this pandemic. Workers from the unorganised sector are the victims of this pandemic lockdown. They are vulnerable not only to the loss of income but also to homelessness with no food or travel facilities rendered to children and even to starvation and destitution. The enactment of laws is not the only solution as poor implementation leads to nothing. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act is poorly implemented. The legislation has some good provisions on how the labour departments of each state can monitor and ensure protection from abuse and exploitation of migrants who are recruited, transported and supplied to employers in the unorganized labour sectors but these provisions have been poorly implemented for decades now, which resulted in the lack of protection and safety of most vulnerable migrants in India. Also, this crisis has highlighted that the act has no chapters on safety protocols during calamities and pandemics. Also, as the Act does not extend to the workers from the unorganised sector, and there are around 50 crore workers from the unorganised sector who have never been the members of any trade unions and hence are not benefitted by this act.[6] There is a need to clearly lay down responsibility and accountability measures of state labour departments in order to create coordination systems that could easily respond to a crisis situation like COVID-19.


In a country like India, where its manpower has been its greatest asset contributing heavily to the economy is at this stage witnessing labour crisis sounds contradictory and surprising. Migration is the reason for the labour crisis. Migrant labour, as the word itself, connotes, labourers who, make money by moving. Due to COVID-19, when the commutation from one place to another has been completely stopped, these group of people are suffering the most. People are losing their jobs, they don’t have any food or money left to survive themselves at their workplace, they are not getting their salaries either. Not only them but their families living on the other side of the country dependent on their income are also starving. This has forced 'reverse-migration', but the labourers not having any means or money to travel to their native place, were compelled to walk on foot? Government is giving money in their bank accounts and providing free food grains, but on the other side, we too are witnessing cases where labourers are not carrying their passbook or ration cards with them, disabling them to take advantage of government schemes. So, the Government policies fail here on the ground level itself.

It’s not just the lack of physical amenities, food and shelter that bounds them to leave, it is also the humiliation they are facing on a daily basis. Anti - outsider sentiments are making them realize, that their home is the only place where they have their name enrolled in the Public distribution system and have a little piece of land to survive themselves. But whatever the reasons shall be, we know it is going to impact their future scenario.

We are witnessing the vulnerability of Migrant's labourers even after knowing the fact that it is not something new. We have always failed to recognize their contribution and underestimated their role in the economy by neglecting the fact that they are the wheels of our economy. Looking into the present situations even if the situations normalize and the industries start functioning, how would they function without the labourers who have migrated to their native places? The effect of humiliation they face will now reflect its impact on long-distance migration . as of now, people have started to avoid long-distance migration, not forgetting how they were treated during the earlier phases.

Another question that arises is to why this dedicated Vande Bharat could not have been dedicated to them? Is this because their roles are still not rewarded in our society? Or is it because they still have not attained equal status as of the other citizens in the country?

All of this not just affect them economically and mentally but even has further consequences, that affects their health and overall well being. Moreover, due to unemployment, even their children are pushed into child labour and the impact of this is going to be multidimensional in future.


Migration for livelihood and opportunities from state to state or abroad is a practice prevalent for decades. And now at this point of time when this issue is unavoidable, putting the entire blame on the government is not the required solution. Instead, we will have to contribute our bit and do whatever possible. As what had to been done, is already been done and now what will decide the future is our present approach towards this.

As migration labourers are more prone to infection, they should be provided with adequate supplies to keep themselves protected. In this crisis, the shortage of jobs is a very clear indication of the “survival of the fittest”, so here the Skill India project of the government can come to their rescue. They should be provided with jobs at ground level so that they can be self-dependent. Most importantly, there should be a proper communication channel between the government and the labourers, as it has been rightly stated: “communication is the key”. Thus, this will help to lessen the chaos and anxiety among them, ensuring their safety which would assure them of their self –worth.


* The authors are the students at Chanakya National Law University, Patna.

[1] National Commission of Rural Labour, Report of the National Commission of Rural Labour, Volume I, www.indianlabourarchives.org [2] Government of India, Census 2011, Ministry of Home Affairs,(2020 May 23rd, 20:00), https://censusindia.gov.in/Census_And_You/migrations.aspx [3] Satvik Verma, Why India's Legal and Labour System Needs to be Reconfigured to Really Help Migrant Workers, The Wire,(2020 May 22nd, 23:45), https://thewire.in/labour/india-labour-legal-system-migrant-workers [4] Government of India, Census 2011, Ministry of Home Affairs, (2020 May 23rd, 20:00), https://censusindia.gov.in/Census_And_You/migrations.aspx [5] Government of India, Census 2011, Ministry of Home Affairs, (2020 May 23rd, 20:00), https://censusindia.gov.in/Census_And_You/migrations.aspx [6] Roop Sen, The crisis of the migrant workers in India, Times of India,(2020 24th May: 21:00), https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/blogs/voices/the-crisis-of-the-migrant-workers-in-india/

Image Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/29/world/asia/coronavirus-india-migrants.html


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