A research study by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on ‘Social security and health rights of migrant workers in India’ points to lack of protection, with many migrants facing various health-related risks.
It examined the discrimination and impediments faced by migrant workers in accessing social security and health rights. It also analysed laws and policies at the centre and state levels with respect to the social security and health rights of interstate migrant workers. The study documented the enabling factors and best practices in providing social security and health rights to migrants and made recommendations to the government.
The study conducted by Kerala Development Society, Delhi was undertaken in two districts each of the four states i.e. Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana and Maharashtra. These four states house a large number of workers from West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
The total sample size was 4400. Out of these, 1600 were interstate migrant workers, 800 local workers, 400 employers, 800 government officials, and 800 scholars & NGO representatives.
Most of the respondents work in low income and high-risk sectors such as construction, heavy industry, transport, services, and agriculture, and have poor access to health services, social protection, education services, housing and sanitation, food, water and other utilities.
Notably, a large number of migrant workers were seen returning to their villages in their home states after losing their work in the wake of the national lockdown that started on March 25, 2020.
The study indicates lack of an institutional mechanism to address human rights violations against interstate migrant workers and absence of centre-state coordination. “This politically invisible section of the society doesn’t get access to even basic facilities and they are looked upon as outsiders or second class citizens in the host states,” the study says.
The study indicates that “Indian society and its national government, as well as various state governments, need to understand and address problems of vulnerable interstate migrant workers who are seen across both rural and urban areas in India. The major chunk of migrant workers is unskilled and employed in the unorganised sector.”
It reveals high occupational risks of a large number of migrant workers, lack of knowledge about entitlements and procedures and lack of sensitivity among service providers and officials towards basic needs of interstate migrant workers. A large number of interstate migrant workers are unregistered and as such there is a wide gap in the enforcement of existing legislations related to the welfare and social protection.
It pointed out that a large number of migrant workers are confronted with poor access to available schemes and services, inadequate and inappropriate safeguards at worksites, poor quality of accommodation, long working hours, low wages as compared to local workers, limited access to healthcare services, social exclusion, poor social interaction and a lack of integration with the local community.
It also found that 51.2% of migrant workers in Delhi, 53% in Gujarat, 56% in Haryana and 55% in Maharashtra have poor access to available schemes and services due to the lack of adequate information and language barriers.
The study found that there is a lack of confidence among migrants. “About 32% of migrant workers in Delhi, 42% in Gujarat, 30% in Haryana and 41% in Maharashtra had reported lack of confidence for accessing the health services. Local language problems, blind belief, cultural bias, lack of awareness about the provision of health facilities and financial problems are other barriers…Sector and formality of employment are linked to whether a migrant worker has a contract and consequently is eligible for and able to enrol in social insurance.”
“The typical life cycle of migrant workers requires special provisions for their social security to ensure that they can adequately manage their risks. They move between states and hence between different labour markets and social security systems, which creates specific vulnerabilities. Newly arrived migrant workers are in a vulnerable position as they are away from their home community and have no access to social networks and safety nets,” says the study.
A large number of migrant workers find work as unskilled labourers and remain stuck in poorly paid and hazardous jobs for their whole life. Unfortunately, host states do not have an institutional mechanism for certifying skills and experiences acquired by a migrant worker during his/her stay.
Hence most interstate migrant workers do not have any documents certifying their skills and experiences acquired by them during their stay in host States. There is a good scope for building livelihood competencies for migrant workers by skill assessment and certification. Such a skill assessment and certification initiative can enhance the employability of those migrant workers who have acquired experience in the host state.
Need for a supportive policy framework
The study has recommended that the centre set up an interstate migration council to coordinate between the central and state governments. It has also pitched for creation of a national migrant information system.
A national policy and a multi-pronged strategy on interstate migrant workers need to be formulated to provide access to entitlements and basic services for interstate migrant workers. The states through its various departments, especially labour, social welfare, health and home have to carry out certain concrete actions.
“This council will be able to resolve issues related to interstate migration. Many of the central schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojna ought to be redesigned and enhanced as a block grant to states. In addition, the public health care system, especially within the framework of the National Health Mission and National Digital Health Mission could focus on the health needs of migrant workers. Robust and responsive mechanisms for interstate coordination are critical,” the study says.
Each state has to involve its panchayats, municipalities and municipal corporations in dealing with various aspects of issues of migration.
The study called for the need for awareness generation about schemes and facilities among interstate migrant workers. It expressed the need for a 24x7 national and state-level grievance redressal helpline, the creation of quota for migrant workers with regard to MGNREGA, and the need to enhance access to the National Social Assistance Programme for migrant workers.
It also suggested the need for fast track implementation of ‘One Nation One Ration Card’ and compulsory registration of migrant workers with labour departments.