Migrant Workers & Indian Labor Legislation: A Review.

AuthorRai, Alka


After the outbreak of COVID 19 pandemic, a countrywide lockdown was announced in India from March 24, 2020, to restrain the spread of the disease in the country. However, the lockdown created enormous distress to Indian migrant labor. A panic situation was created among migrant workers due to the major shutdown of industrial and commercial activities. The workers perceiving the loss of their future income and livelihood, and because of the fear and insecurity, many of the migrant workers began returning to their native places (located in different Indian states) from metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, etc.

While hearing writ petitions for the redressal of grievances of the migrant laborers in different parts of the country Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde and Justice L. Nageswara Rao on March 31, 2020, said: "It is well-known that panic can severely affect mental health ... the anxiety and fear of the migrants should be understood by the police and other authorities ... they should deal with the migrants in a humane manner ... we expect those concerned to appreciate the trepidation of the poor men, women and children and treat them with kindness." (Sinha, 2020).

In India, migration of workers was not a new phenomenon but its recent occurrence has witnessed the highly distressing episodes with home bound journeys of migrant laborers. The depressing images will not be wiped away from our memory too soon, and have created lasting effects. In the aftermath of the Covid- 19 lockdown, such devastating images of the migrant workers have drawn the attention of the public and policymakers and brought the population into the spotlight. The entire incident has raised many issues for discussion and deliberation. First, it has made us think of the magnitude of dependence of the country's industrial and commercial activities on migrant population. Next, the extraordinary effort of migrant workers to get back home indicates that these people have very low resilience to reside in their employing cities without jobs. Accordingly, the questions of legal protection and welfare rights of the migrant workers also arise. The plight of migrant workers has drawn our attention towards the "Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979" (ISMA). The act was formed to improve the working conditions of migrant workers. It works to regulate employment and to protect the rights of migrant workers. The ISMA is now subsumed with the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code. In 2019, as a part of its labor law reform initiative, the Government of India started the exercise of consolidating 44 Central labor laws into four major labor codes, namely: The Code on Industrial Relations, 2020; The Code on Wages, 2019; the Code on Social Security, 2020, and The Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions, 2020 (OSH Code). According to the Ministry of Employment and Labor, the objective behind this initiative was "to generate employment and to facilitate ease of doing business" which reflected an approach focused on macroeconomic growth rather than workers' welfare. While the Code on Wages was passed in 2019, the remaining three codes were passed in 2020.

The revised labor codes could be a way to make amendments in favor of millions of migrant and informal sector workers to offer social security to them against severe calamities like Covid 19, and to provide them with dignity and meaningful life ahead. This study reviews the Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions, 2020 (OSH Code) to understand the effectiveness of the code in dealing with issues of migrant workers in the background of recent calamity at the life of migrant workers after lockdown at Covid 19 pandemic. Thus, the study will explore the existing gaps in the occupational safety, health and working conditions code to find the scope for improvement in the code in the interest of migrant workers.

Objective of the Study

With the background of the recent a devastating picture of migrant workers movement after the imposed lockdown at India (due to Covid 19), the present article reviewed the 'Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act 1979' to comprehend why the law did not seem effective to tackle migrant workers crisis during Covid 19 lockdown? The study has further assessed the recently introduced occupational safety, health and working conditions code 2020 to explore the appropriateness of the action against the crisis of migrant workers in order to explore the possibility of improvement in the Act. For this purpose, the study has reviewed both Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act 1979 and the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code 2020 along the line of following research questions.

* What are the reasons behind ineffectiveness/ impracticality of the InterState Migrant Workmen Act 1979' to handle the issues/problems of migrant workers in the background of the Covid 19 lockdown aftermath?

* How is the recent merger of InterState Migrant Workmen Act 1979 with the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions (OSH) Code 2020 helpful to deal with its limitations? What could be the measures/ ways to improve the applicability of the OSH code to help the migrant workers?

This article tries to address these research questions and objectives through the understanding of both the laws (i.e., ISMA and OSH 2020 code). Based on the review, this study brings a few suggestions to enhance the applicability and effectiveness of the OSH code 2020 (proposed by the government after merger of 13 labor laws related to safety, health and working conditions under a single code of occupational health and safety).

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