Unveiling Challenges: Maharashtra’s Migrant Workers suffer due to poor implementation of laws

The author is Divina Rathor

In May 2023, the Bombay High Court acknowledged the adversities confronting migrant workers employed across various districts in Maharashtra. The court took suo motu cognizance of the matter based on an article in The Hindu that highlighted the plight of migrant workers from the drought-affected areas of the Marathwada region. The petition before the Bombay High Court brough to light instances of financial and sexual harassment faced by the migrant workforce in Maharashtra’s sugar belt, which includes Sangli, Kolhapur, Pune, Satara, Solapur and Ahmednagar. While this is not a novel or rare issue, the current legal framework for inter-state migrant workers, notably the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act,1979, proves insufficient in adequately addressing and supporting the rights of migrant workers. 

The Inter State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 (“Act”) is a central law dedicated to protect the rights of inter-state migrant workers in India. The Act was introduced to regulate the employment of inter-state migrants and to provide the conditions for their service. While the Central Government has introduced the Code on Social Security, 2020 (“Code”) in response to the myriad problems faced by the migrant workers during the Covid-19 pandemic, these codes have not been notified yet and therefore, the Act is the law in force for all practical purposes.

Shortcomings of the Act

Single Point of Failure – Licensing

Section 8(1)(b) of the Act states that if a contractor is covered under the Act, they are prohibited from hiring inter-state migrant workers to work in any establishment unless they have a specific licence to do so. To obtain a licence an application containing  details regarding the location of the establishment, the nature of process, operation or work for which inter-state migrant workmen are to be employed, etc., is to be made. If for any reason the licensing officer believes that the licence granted to a contractor has been obtained by misrepresentation or that the holder of the licence has failed to comply with the conditions subject to obtaining the licence, then the licencing officer may, after giving the contractor a chance to be heard, revoke the licence. The Act also requires contractors to pay a certain amount of fee to licensing officers in order to be registered, and in some special cases they may also be asked to deposit a security amount. In order to avoid compliance costs, contractors often do not get themselves licensed, thereby depriving the migrant workers being recruited by them, the privilege of availing any benefits under the Act. As a result, a majority of contractors go unlicensed. Unlicensed contractors adversely impact migrant workers, as contractors often abandon workers abruptly, vanishing and leaving them to fend for themselves.

Absence of a Grievance Redressal Mechanism

The Act mandates inspection by government-appointed inspectors to ensure compliance with regulations regarding wage payment, working conditions, and necessary facilities. However, the appointment of the inspector is dependent on the concurrence of the government of the receiving states i.e. the states to which these workers are migrating and such concurrence has been hard to come by. Moreover, the absence of any reports or published findings from inspectors conducting inspections suggests that these inspections may hardly have occurred, if at all. 

Apart from these inspections, there is no grievance redressal mechanism envisaged under the Act. Due to their limited resources and financial constraints, approaching courts is not a feasible solution. The absence of an outlet for migrant workers’ complaints, leaves them with no recourse when laws are disregarded by contractors. Given that migrant workers often struggle to advocate for their own rights, establishing a robust grievance redressal mechanism becomes even more crucial. Without it, the entire legislative framework becomes ineffective. 

Lack of Awareness

Contractors are required to submit a return for every worker that stops working with them along with the travel fare set aside for them. Additionally, they are also obligated to provide workers with displacement allowances and a transportation fare. Most inter-state migrant workmen are not aware of their rights and they risk losing their employment or wages or both if they ask questions. Contractors frequently exploit workmen who may not have formal education, taking advantage of their lack of literacy. Therefore, these intended benefits seldom reach the intended recipients. 

Suggestions to protect the rights of migrant workers

Migrant workers are the invisible workforce that form the foundation of Maharashtra. Legislation serves its purpose only when it effectively benefits the individuals it aims to assist. Therefore, it becomes crucial to implement these solutions, to ensure the creation of an environment that facilitates the well being and growth of migrant workers. Some measures to protect the rights of migrant workers are as follows:

  • Establishing an effective Grievance Redressal Mechanism

Establishing an effective way to address complaints is crucial. It is imperative that this process is initiated promptly, and one step in this direction would be to establish a free helpline number specifically dedicated to these workers. Migrant workers may simply call this number and anonymously lodge their complaint. This helpline will go beyond the typical support services available. Since workers might face backlash when lodging complaints against their employers, the distinctive feature of the helpline number must be anonymity. The individual reachable through the helpline will be entirely separate from the employers, forming an impartial entity. This approach aims to instil confidence in workers that their concerns will be addressed without any threat to them or their livelihood. Further, this helpline aims to provide speedy redressal, rather than initiating legal actions on behalf of the workers. The range of issues addressed in these complaints may include concerns such as delayed or withheld payments, unfavourable working conditions, or instances of exploitation by licensed and unlicensed contractors alike. To ensure the efficacy of this mechanism, it is crucial to appoint competent individuals to handle these complaints. These personnel should possess external authority to take decisive actions against employers and contractors found in violation of the Act. In addition to the grievance redressal mechanism, the State must also consider engaging anganwadi workers for conducting regular inspections to verify the upkeep of basic working conditions for migrant workers. Given the potentially time-consuming nature of appointing inspectors for these evaluations, anganwadi workers can step in to fulfil this role until official appointments are made.

Scaling the Migrant Tracking System

Health emerges as a significant challenge for migrant workers, given the harsh living conditions and the strenuous physical labour they endure for extended hours on a daily basis. The prevalence of health issues is exacerbated by the fact that these workers often overlook their well-being to avoid missing even a single day’s wages. An existing Migrant Tracking System (“MTS”) is in place with the primary objective of ensuring seamless access to universal health, nutrition, and various health benefits for migrants. However, the current scope of this system is limited to women migrant workers and their children. Instead of limiting the system to women and children, the coverage should extend to include all migrant workers. Assigning the responsibility of registering migrant beneficiaries in their respective areas to anganwadi workers is the current operational approach. Subsequently, these workers can utilise the MTS app to upload the collected data, mirroring the existing process. This approach is cost-effective as existing systems would be scaled to widen the scope of services and beneficiaries without incurring exponential costs in setting up new systems.

Building Awareness among migrant workers

It is crucial to enhance awareness among these workers. Initiatives should be undertaken to educate these workers, empowering them to recognize when their rights are being violated and enabling them to file complaints accordingly by conducting awareness programs. These programs must encompass workshops designed to educate workers. The workshops must familiarise workers with the grievance redressal mechanism, existing helplines, and inform them how to seek help, legal or otherwise. Workshops should also be held for contractors. Workers must also be informed about the availability of existing helpline numbers like India Labourline, which provides free legal aid to migrant workers.  

The Author of this blog is Divina Rathor, a 1st year student at O.P. Jindal Global University, who was an intern with Vidhi Maharashtra.

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