New Delhi: As per a new order issued by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), migrant labourers stranded in shelter homes and relief camps across the country will now be assessed for their skills and thereafter asked to provide labour for various economic activities. First, the stranded workers will be screened for the Covid-19 virus. But those found clean will not be allowed to cross inter-state boundaries – which they might resort to in order to get back to their homes. Instead, local authorities will transport the virus-free workers, by buses wherein they will be provided food and water, to places where their labour can be used for gainful purposes.
The order, a set of Standard Operating Protocols for movement of stranded labour, which was issued on April 19 by the MHA headed by Home Minister Amit Shah, is silent on what treatment will be meted out to those stranded workers who, following the screening procedure, are found to be infected with the deadly Covid-19 virus.
The order also fails to take into consideration the plight of the vast numbers of migrant workers, who are not in shelter homes, but are at present stranded in other places across states and union territories.
Several thousands of migrant workers had begun their homeward journey – mostly by foot and at times by hitchhiking on whatever vehicles they could, including tankers and containers – after a nationwide lockdown was suddenly announced on the evening of March 24. Having left their places of work, with barely a few hours left before the lockdown came into effect from the midnight of March 25, many of the workers (and, or their families) have now been stranded in shelter homes and relief camps in different places. They either failed to cover the distance to their homes or were intercepted on highways by government authorities, including the police.
“Since additional new activities, outside the containment zones, have been permitted in the consolidated revised guidelines with effect from 20th April 2020, these workers could be engaged in industrial, manufacturing, construction, farming and MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Act] works,” says the home ministry order.
From April 20 onwards, that is, from Monday, the central government has allowed relaxation in lockdown conditions, ostensibly to allow minimal economic activities aimed at ‘ameliorating the conditions of the poorest sections of the society’ as had been announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his latest address to the nation.
The skill mapping exercise will be carried out, following registration of workers with the local authorities, in order to find out the suitability of the sheltered migrants for various kinds of works, says the order.
“In the event that a group of migrants wish to return to their places of work, within the State where they are presently located, they would be screened and those who are asymptomatic would be transported to their respective places of work,” says the order.
“It may be noted that there shall be no movement of labour outside the State/UT [Union Territory] from where they are currently located,” the order further states, this time in bold letters.
The ministry has been doubly careful to ensure the stranded workers do not transmit the virus to their employers – or amongst themselves – while being transported to their places of work.
“During the journey by bus, it would be ensured that safe social distancing norms are followed and the buses used for transport are sanitized as per the guidelines of the health authorities,” the order states.
Trade unions have, in no uncertain terms, slammed the order of the Home Ministry as a blatant attempt to infringe upon the rights of workers.
“It is an attempt to clamp down the working class and the poorest sections of the society. It is an attempt by the central government to convert migrant shelter homes, deceptively, into concentration camps and then decide upon how the workers move, what they eat and where they work. It is the most organised form of slavery that we have seen since the Second World War,” said Gautam Mody, general secretary of the Delhi-based New Trade Union Initiative, an association of independent trade unions in the organised and unorganised sectors.
Many others have gone as far as terming the order as an attempt at ‘bonded labour’.
“If migrant workers in shelter homes will be screened, why not allow those who are not infected with the virus, the liberty of going back to their own homes. The Uttar Pradesh state government has been sending buses to fetch students stranded in Kota, Rajasthan. Why cannot they do the same for migrant labourers? The government is responsible for putting the migrants in a situation where they can neither go home nor work. Like bonded labourers, they will be at the mercy of their employers and the government,” said Ashish Ranjan of Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, a Patna-based trade union of unorganised workers.
Food and wages have been a major cause of concern for millions of migrant workers stranded and left unemployed in various parts of the country following the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown. Not all of them are housed in shelter homes or relief camps run by state governments and union territories.
As per a report published on April 15 by the Stranded Workers Action Network, a collective of individuals working on migrant labourers’ issues, a whopping 89%of stranded migrants had not been paid any wages at all by their employers during the lockdown period. The report was based upon interviews with over 11,000 stranded workers.
The report highlighted that 96% of the stranded workers had not received rations from the government while 70%t had not received any cooked food. As much as 78% of the workers had less than Rs 300 left with them at the time that they had been interviewed. The report had arrived at the conclusion that the extent of hunger and distress exceeded the rate of relief provided.
From April 20, the government has opened up activities, including work to be undertaken under the MGNREGA, ostensibly keeping in view the interests of farmers and daily wage workers. The Union Finance Ministry had earlier announced a hike of Rs 20, that is, up from Rs 182 to Rs 202, under MGNREGA wages – an increase that has been considered too meagre and, in any case, only a regular adjustment against inflation which is made to the wages every year.
Many workers left the cities, in which they used to work prior to the lockdown, aspiring to find income in farming or MGNREGA activities back in their hometowns. Activist Suresh Rathaur, co-ordinator of the MGNREGA Mazdoor Union (MMU) which works in the Varanasi district of Uttar Pradesh, the parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said stranded workers returning to their hometowns are in several cases not being allowed inside their village limits owing to the fear of being carriers of the Covid-19 virus.
“The government is not clear about its approach to help provide succour to stranded workers. In the early days of the lockdown, the central government announced Rs 1,000 relief each for three consecutive months for all workers under MGNREGA. Later, it was told this sum will be provided only to those workers registered with the labour departments. In Varanasi alone, there are around 90,000 job card holders under the MGNREGA. However, only around 22,000 workers from among them are registered with the labour department. What about the huge chunk of unregistered workers?” said Rathaur.
Legal networks working on issues of labour say the central government has no plan of action regarding the migrant crisis and its responses to ameliorate conditions of stranded workers can, at best, be termed as knee-jerk in nature.
“The government’s responses are based on shallow understanding of the social reality pertaining to migrant workers. They work under extremely precarious conditions and have no concept of savings, wage security, social security or even job security attached to their employment,” said Bengaluru-based lawyer Clifton D’ Rozario.
In an order issued by the Karnataka High Court upon a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), on various issues pertaining to impacts of the lockdown on the lives and livelihoods of people, migrant workers have been classified under three different categories.
“The first category is of the workers who have left their respective places of employment and who are trying to reach their native places in the State or outside the State … The second category of migrants is of persons who are staying in rented accommodation … The third category of migrant workers [are those] who have been provided shelter by their respective employers,” the High Court has stated in its order.
The majority of migrant labourers in Indian cities belong to backward regions in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Economic activities are, in any case, sparse in these regions to help generate income for the vast numbers of migrants who have headed home after the lockdown.
“The central government and state governments need to work in tandem in order to evolve a proper action plan to deal with the migrant crisis based upon a proper understanding of social realities. The home ministry order is certainly not based on a sound understanding of social realities of migrant workers. It is the priority of the workers themselves to decide whether they want to work and for whom they want to work. What kind of bargaining power, in terms of wages, will they be left with if they have to work under conditions in which they have been forced to live?” said D’ Rozario.
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