Unorganized Migrant Workers in India

By Sr. Rani Punnaserril HCM

Migration patterns
Migration patterns in India are increasingly reflecting the economic divide in the country, with more migrants over the last decade heading to the southern states, which have grown at a faster clip during this period.

We are excited to see the cities with ultramodern technologies. Since four years I am in Delhi seeing both the development and undernourishment of the ones who toiled for the development of Metros, Roads, Malls and flats/apartments, but they have no access to these once they finish the construction.

It is heart-rending to see the plight of migrant workers engaged in different works like domestic work, construction work, vending, and all the other unskilled work. Their human dignity and dignity of their work is not respected.

I have seen in different cities of India how they are treated as second-class citizens in their own land and at the migrated land. It is noted that the workers are paid better wages in Kerala than in other states but there too the minimum wage according to the State is not paid rather they are paid less than the local worker. It is discrimination but the migrant worker is happy since he is paid a higher wage than in his home state. That is the attraction for the North Indian labourers to migrate to Kerala and other Southern states and every year the number of migrants increases. According to the research study conducted in Kerala by Dr. Benoy Peter, Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, the data show 35-40 lakhs migrants were there in 2017 with an annual addition of 182,000 each year.

In my childhood, I had never seen a Labour junction and Labour Colony in my hometown or nearby districts but I was surprised to see the migrant workmen standing near a tea shop waiting for someone to hire them at lately developed labour junction at Muvattupusha, in huge number in 2016. I spoke to them in their local language and they were happy to talk to me. Like this, there are several Labour junctions in Kerala. Seeing the workers I was reminded of the Bible verse (Mathew 20: 1 -16) “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around…” These workers are taken for different kinds of work, the work which they have never seen or done in their home state.

Young men, women and children are trafficked in the name of employment and study. A number of cases came to Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) Office for Labour. Lawrance is one such person who through our intervention could come back from Saudi to India. The attitude of Indian Government in this regard is beyond my understanding, where they punish the offender for killing an animal and scot-free a trafficker or murderer. There are various issues migrant workmen face in the host state.

Problems of Measurement
While India’s internal migration flows are substantial, they are difficult to enumerate. Migration data from the 2011 Census have been collected, but not yet released. The 2001 Census and the 2007-2008 National Sample Survey (NSS) both provide broad information on internal migration, but miss important aspects of India’s internal migration patterns. The 2011 Census, rail traffic data and changes in population in different age categories show that migration is much larger than what has been argued by using traditional sources of data like the NSS and the population census. More importantly, there seems to have been an upsurge in mobility for economic reasons in the recent decade across states. The number of migrants by place of the last residence in India was 314.5 million in 2001. The figure rose to 453.6 million in 2011, showing an addition of 139 million, an average of about 14 million migrating every year. This is against the figure of 82 million migrants added during 1991-2001, implying that the decadal growth in migration has gone up from 35.5% during 1991-2001to 44.2% during 2001-11.

Problems in Documentation and Identity
Proving their identity is one of the core issues impoverished migrants face when they arrive in a new place. Identity documentation that is authenticated by the state is indispensable for ensuring that a person has a secure citizenship status and can benefit from the rights and protections that the state provides.

Recent Aadhar related issues are fresh in our minds. Lack of identity proof curtails the access to provisions such as subsidized food, fuel, health services, or education that are meant for the economically vulnerable sections of the population. The issue of lack of access to education for children of migrants further aggravates the intergenerational transmission of poverty. Overall, discrimination in the provision of rights and entitlements combined with internal migrants’ identity as outsiders in the receiving society often perpetuate the economic and political exclusion of many groups and suggest that there are deeply exclusionary trends in India’s democracy.

Some regions like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have been known for rural migration for decades – however newer corridors like Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and recently even North East have become major sending regions of manual labour. Despite the vast numbers of migrant workers, the policies of the Indian state have largely failed in providing any form of legal or social protection to this vulnerable group. There is one legislation known as Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 which aims to safeguard migrants. However, it is obsolete and is hardly enforced anywhere.

Migration and slums are inextricably linked, as labour demand in cities and the resulting rural-to-urban migration creates greater pressures to accommodate more people. In 2011, 68 million Indians lived in slums, comprising one-quarter of the population of India’s 19 cities with more than 1 million residents. Across the country, the experiences of slum dwellers are characterized by sudden evictions without adequate rehabilitation and local governments that do not provide low-cost housing for the urban poor.

Limited Access to Formal Financial Services
Despite the economic imperatives that drive migration, migrant workers essentially remain an unbanked population. Since migrants do not possess permissible proofs of identity and residence, they fail to satisfy the Know Your Customer norms as stipulated by the Indian banking regulations. They are thus unable to open bank accounts in cities. This has implications on the savings and remittance behaviours of migrant workers.

Political Exclusion
In a state of continuous drift, migrant workers are deprived of many opportunities to exercise their political rights. Because migrants are not entitled to vote outside of their place of origin, some are simply unable to cast their votes. A 2011 study on the political inclusion of seasonal migrant workers by Amrita Sharma and her co-authors found that 22 per cent of seasonal migrant workers in India did not possess voter IDs or have their names in the voter list.

Rampant Exploitation
Migration flows are mediated by an elaborate chain of contractors and middlemen who perform the critical function of sourcing and recruiting workers. The lowest links in this chain are most often older migrants who are part of the same regional or caste-based social network in the rural areas.

Church Response
CBCI Office for Labour has always taken a keen interest in collaborating and networking with NGOs and Trade Unions for we also have a responsibility towards our migrant brethren who live in our vicinity and those languishing in the foreign countries. CBCI Office for Labour has launched a web portal to help these migrant unorganized workers. The young labourers migrating to Arab countries are facing enormous problems, particularly in Saudi. Violation of human rights of these poor workers is not considered till now.

The church has a hope now through the International Catholic for Migration Commission, where Fr. Jaison Vadassery, secretary CBCI Office for Labour was elected on March 7, 2018, as a member from South Asia to its Council.

“Migration movements, in fact, call us to deepen and strengthen the values needed to guarantee peaceful coexistence between persons and cultures”. (Pope Francis, World Day Of Migrants And Refugees, 2014). I reiterate the words of Holy Father “It is necessary to respond to the globalization of migration with the globalization of charity and cooperation, in such a way as to make the conditions of migrants more humane. At the same time, greater efforts are needed to guarantee the easing of conditions, often brought about by war or famine, which compel whole peoples to leave their native countries.”

My service in the CBCI Office for Labour is an opportunity for me to serve the unorganized workers directly and indirectly through litigation and training. I am happy that God is making use of me for the rights of the poor workers.

(Sr. Rani Punnaserril, Holy Cross, Menzingen (HCM), Programme Manager, CBCI Office for Labour, New Delhi)

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