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May Day: The Unceremonious Migrant Crisis?

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With the observance of May Day, the Indian Economy caresses the scars left by reverse migration on its torso.

How It All Started?

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The months of March and April witnessed railway stations packed with hundreds of migrant workers who desired to go back to their matriarch lands and be with their families. In an outrage in the capital, several hundred migrants were discovered living under a bridge along the Yamuna river defying all notions of social distancing, narrating their tale of how the lockdown has left them stranded far away from home, with no jobs or money. The numbers of such migrant labourers across the country, as quoted by BBC, reach more than 40 million.

With their livelihood grinding to a halt and meagre savings running out fast, they decided to return to their villages but with train and bus services halted and state borders sealed, that wasn’t really an option. Most of them, in desperation, decided to walk home with some dying during the journey.

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While lockdown is key to saving lives, but the lack of planning has hit the country’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens hard. In the absence of work, many migrant workers are now dependent on essentials provided by the government and if not, reduced to begging.

Any Plan of Action?

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Pretty clear of the future of these labourers, ahead of Lockdown 1.0, Ministry of Labour and Employment had asked Chief Secretaries of States/UTs for issuing an advisory to all public and private establishments against the termination of their employees emphasising over the sect of casual or contractual workers, from their jobs or reduce their wages. In a novel use of the epidemic diseases law, the Delhi government directed that employees including temporary/contractual/outsourced etc. of private establishments staying at home be paid in full. However, as of date, none of these directions has been continued, leaving it unclear if these directions have run their course.

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The High Commissioner welcomed the instruction of India’s Supreme Court stating that the migrants be treated in a humane manner, including by providing them with enough food, water, beds and supplies as well as psychosocial counselling in shelters that are run by volunteers and not security forces.

In order to suppress the mass migrant workers’ movement, the Home Ministry invoked the Disaster Management Act, 2005, on the 29th of March to direct employers to pay full wages to workers during the lockdown period. Though the Centre has extended the lockdown measures till May 3, this direction to fully pay workers neither finds mention in consolidated guidelines nor has been expressly renewed.

What Went Wrong?

While the government aimed at rescuing the migrant workers, the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947, provided for layoffs and retrenchment of workmen became a potential weapon against the workers. This act allowed an employer to lay off a workman if unable to provide employment for a number of reasons, including a natural calamity. Long before the lockdown, on February 19, Ministry of Finance considered COVID-19 a “natural calamity” to invoke force majeure where supply chains were disrupted by the spread of this virus. Layoffs are, of course, subject to payment of statutory dues to the workman, which can be negotiated and avoided after the 45-day period of layoffs. On the workman remaining laid off after the 45-day period, the employer can retrench/terminate employment if other conditions are met, as quoted by Live Law.

Authority’s permission is required before laying off or retrenching only where an industrial establishment employs 100 or more workmen. Of all the directions, the directions discouraging layoffs/retrenchment is the advisory issued by the Labour Ministry on March 20, and follow-on advisories by state governments. As the direction itself suggests, it is an “advisory” to seek employers’ cooperation. At best, it imposes a moral obligation, not a legal one. This explains why no legal provision has been cited in support of such an advisory.

While a sigh of relief does come to a portion of these migrant workers with the plying of a special train to travel them back to their homes, a large number of them are still seen struggling to survive.

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