Of Migration, State Directives and Labour Laws: The case of Uttar Pradesh

Kingshuk Sarkar

Uttar Pradesh government’s directive to employers outside to take approval if they desire to employ migrant workers from the state and setting up of migration commission have serious limitations. The simultaneous labour law relaxation has inherent contradictions. There is a serious limitation of understanding the contour of migration on the part of administrators and policy-makers.

In recent times, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister has announced that any employer in other states that desires to employ migrant workers from his state in the future will have to first seek approval from his government. He alleged that migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh were not treated properly in other states during the coronavirus lockdown.

Once the lockdown is lifted and employers in other states want migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh back, they have to seek permission from the state government. Presently, the government of Uttar Pradesh is in the process of mapping skills and registering migrant workers who have returned from other states during the last two months. It is made imperative that any entity in other state interested in inviting migrant workers will need to assure and provide for their socio-legal-monetary rights.

Earlier this month, Uttar Pradesh government brought out an ordinance exempting businesses and industries from the application of labour laws, except for a few, for the next three years to boost investments hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Uttar Pradesh government has also decided to set up a migration commission to look into various factors related to the rights of migrant workers and to ensure they are not exploited. Commission will look into the matter of insurance, social security, re-employment assistance, provision for unemployment allowance of migrant workers who have returned back during last two months. Additionally, the commission will provide jobs to labourers who have returned to the state amid the nationwide lockdown.

According to the Uttar Pradesh government sources, approximately over 23 lakh migrant workers have returned to the state so far. Government sources further claimed that 18 crore migrant workers had been provided with foodgrains five times the normal allotment. Source further stated that migrant workers are being provided with jobs within the state and they are getting paid during the lockdown period too. State is also confident that those among the migrant workers who have tested positive would recover soon.

In such circumstances few critical questions can be raised. First, setting up of migration commission and providing exemption from applicability of labour laws are contradictory to each other. Apparently, the main function of migration commission is to ensure that returnee workers get a fair deal while getting employed within the state. Migration commission may easily help these workers find work in the state. However, once those workers find employment, rights as a worker, minimum wages, social security, protection against exploitation etc. are better ensured through operation of existing labour laws. But, unfortunately, that is being withdrawn through exemption from labour laws for the next 1000 days. Once a worker is in employment, conditions and terms of work are ensured by application of various labour laws only. If exemption is granted, such labour laws won’t apply any more. Thus, setting up migration commission and exemption from labour laws work at cross purposes. Migration commission at best becomes a facilitator for finding livelihood for returnee workers only.

Second, there is already an act in existence namely Inter State Migrant Workmen Act 1979 which provides for documentation of migrant workers’ movement from one state to another. It mandates registration of migrant workers both in home and host states. In the Act, it is assumed that such inter-state movement of migrant workers happen through contractors and contractors are supposed to follow documentation in both home and host state as per the provisions of this Act. Now, paradoxically, Uttar Pradesh government suspends this Act for three years but at the same time provides for state approval for out migration from the State. These are contradictory steps. It would have been better if Uttar Pradesh government called for better implementation of existing ISMW Act 1979.

In both the above cases, existing labour laws would have sufficed to protect interest of precarious migrant workers to a certain extent. State should have better implemented those. Rather, State is suspending those labour laws and bringing out ordinances and administrative order to provide protection and documentation of migrant workers. The inherent contradiction is very clearly visible. To what extent, exemption from labour laws for next three years would bring in investment, is a matter of conjecture at best. And the matter of prior permission from state government in case of hiring of workers by entities outside the state shows the little understanding of the phenomena of migration by state authorities.

Movement of migrant workers are not always happening through contractors as postulated in ISMW Act 1979. Even when contractors are involved those migrant workers are shown as just contract workers but not as migrant contract workers as no documentation is available from home state. The Act was formulated in 1979 when volume of such migrations were much less. Whatever migrations happened at that time was mostly through contractors. Situations changed significantly since 1990s. As contribution of agriculture declined and non-farm sectors failed to absorb surplus labour force released from agriculture, distress migrations started.  

Social contract plays an important role. Migration network is mostly informal and not through contractors. There is sizable blind migration also where people migrate on their own and land up at cities in search of work. Sometimes people who have already migrated call their relatives and friends to work in the host state. Under such circumstances, taking prior permission from the state authorities does not seem feasible. The entire channel is informal. This also partly explains the reason behind the very poor implementation of ISMW Act 1979 across India.

The fact remains that informal migrations are awfully informal. Also most of these migrations are precarious in the sense that these people have no access to any form of livelihood in their native places. They could no longer pile on the agriculture which is already hopelessly overburdened. Lack of any options, make these people catch trains to cities north, west and south. They pack up the unreserved general compartments of such trains and end up in cities searching any form of livelihood. They eke out a living from the fringes of life in these cities. They remained mostly invisible otherwise. Sudden announcement of lockdown following covid-19 pandemic made migrant workers visible before middle and upper classes of our country.   

From a normative perspective, setting up of a migration commission might seem a positive step and so as seeking approval from the state in case of hiring migrant workers outside. Existing labour laws also entail documentation and protection of certain rights as proposed by the Uttar Pradesh Government. But those laws have since been suspended which is a case of contradiction itself. Also, there seems lie a deficiency in understanding the dynamics of such distress migration on the part of state administration in Uttar Pradesh. The contour of migration is different from what the state administration is visualizing.  Taking approval from the state administration is redundant in the present circumstances.  

Kingshuk Sarkar is an independent researcher and works in government of West Bengal. He can be contacted at [email protected]. Views expressed are personal.