India’s modern cities are built on the labour of tens of millions of people who migrate from poverty-stricken rural areas. But as the dramatic humanitarian crisis following the COVID-19 lockdown revealed, they are voiceless, invisible and lack basic protections. Kerala’s experience shows that an alternative approach is possible; while there remains room for much further improvement, it nevertheless offers a significant ray of hope. A rights-based framework for migrant workers is essential, along with strengthened programs, legal protections and ways of make their voices heard. These were the conclusions of a high-level roundtable discussion organized by VMFT on 25th August 2020 (report forthcoming).
Representatives of state governments, academics, journalists and NGOs met in a virtual roundtable discussion chaired by Professor V.K. Damodaran (President of VMFT). Shri Pranabjyoti Nath (Labour Commissioner, Government of Kerala) and Dr. K.P. Kannan (former Director, Centre of Development Studies) presented different aspects of Kerala’s experience of handling the crisis which began in May 2020. Shri Nath pointed out that, like other state governments, the Government of Kerala was unprepared for a crisis of this magnitude. But as workers started gathering in their thousands in Delhi and other cities, the Kerala government took prompt decisions and concrete actions, which were monitored from the state government level right down to the ward level. As a result, migrant workers were ensured food, security, shelter and in situ health services. Kerala developed a database of records of its migrant workers in order to coordinate with other state governments to facilitate their safe travel back to their home states.
Protection of workers’ rights is deeply rooted in Kerala’s cultural history and ingrained in the public ethos. This bore fruit during the current migrant crisis as local panchayats and NGOs sprang into action, community kitchens were organized and information leaflets in the migrants’ languages were distributed. This aspect of Kerala’s response was emphasized by Dr. Kannan, Shri Nath and several other participants.
Yet, even in Kerala, there continue to be important shortcomings relating to the overall protection of migrant workers. Migrant workers or “guest workers” as they are known in the state are still not treated equally in terms of wages, nor do they have access to social security. The gender lens is missing and the fact that women tend to be concentrated in low paid occupations and subject to human rights abuses is overlooked in research studies as well as the media. There is also little information available about the children of migrants. These last two points were highlighted by Dr. Gita Gopal (former Honorary Gender Advisor to Govt of Kerala). Additionally, the background and motivations of those who come to Kerala to seek work are not well studied. All this leads to critical gaps in policies and programs for migrant workers.
With participants from different backgrounds, the roundtable examined various facets of the immediate crisis, and uncovered that its origins lie in deep-rooted problems such as weaknesses in governance, legal frameworks and enforcement capacity as well as poorly designed and implemented programs. State government representatives from Maharashtra and Jharkhand shared their experiences, while NGO participants provided insights from diverse “sending” and “destination” states. Professor Ravi Srivastava (Director, Centre for Employment Studies, Institute of Human Development) explained the national context, highlighting how a patchwork of disconnected state policies and programs have left workers who move from one state to another in a highly precarious situation, although they are all citizens of one country entitled to equal rights.
The impact of the Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions on migrant workers has disappeared from the media spotlight but the fate of tens of millions of people who have lost their jobs and had their lives disrupted should not be forgotten. As pointed out by leading journalists participating in the roundtable, even when some coverage occurs, the media focuses on the immediate issues and does not delve deeply into policy or governance issues. Hence, one of the pillars of democratic governance, the media, is inaccessible to these vulnerable sections of the population. Similarly, the other pillars such as formulation of policies and programs, and legal protections, have also failed migrant workers.
The solutions are neither immediate nor simple. Concerted actions are required at the level of individual states and also at the national level to ensure that the rights of tens of millions of our fellow citizens are recognized and respected. The inputs, suggestions and recommendations arising from the roundtable have been put together in a forthcoming report called “Voice, Visibility and Dignity – towards a rights-based framework for protecting India’s migrant workers”.
VMFT will be following up on several of the suggested actions in the coming months.