A recent study on the impact of COVID-19 on migrant workers in India indicates that almost 75% of the surveyed workers did not have any source of income after the lockdown and almost 45% reported difficulty due to food shortages.
India has over 450 million internal migrants who comprise a significant section of its workforce. The mass exodus of migrant workers from cities to villages triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic shed light on the dismal working conditions and rights of migrant workers within India.
Migrant workers, already among the most vulnerable within the workforce in India, face multiple challenges in the form of weak social safety nets, delay in wage payment, lack of documentation, harassment by contractors, unavailability of food, housing, healthcare, lack of legal awareness and poor skills training. The lockdowns in 2020 laid bare and exacerbated the structural issues impacting workers on a regular basis.
The study by the Daily Wage Worker Platform in collaboration with Jindal Global University and prominent Non-Government Organisations (NGOs - Mahashakti Foundation, Centre for Youth and Development Activities, Adithi and Tatvasi Samaj Nyas) surveyed 8000 migrant workers from September 2020 to February 2021, spanning across states of Bihar, Odisha, and Maharashtra in order to understand the plight of migrant workers during the lockdowns and in 2021.
The survey provides a comprehensive overview of the socio-economic character of each migrant worker. Moving beyond age, sex and occupational details, the survey captures a migrant’s working conditions prior to the lockdowns and six months later. It documents the challenges migrants face at the workplace, in their skill sets, career aspirations, knowledge and access to government schemes, food security and healthcare.
Findings and discussion
Income and wages
13.2% of the workers reported not receiving their wages as a problem they faced before the pandemic. As regards mode of work, 52% of the workers surveyed were working on a daily wage basis and 30% were working on a contractual basis. However, 50% of them received wages on a monthly basis, 19% on a weekly basis and about 20% on a daily basis.
A high percentage of daily wage workers who received income monthly points towards a higher dependence on employers as there is decreased job security and workers even tolerate harassment in order to receive their full share of wages.
The most common means of payment was direct cash with less than 20% receiving payment through bank transfers, despite the fact that 65% of the workers had bank accounts.
62% of the respondents reported that they were unemployed at the time of the survey. 75.1% reported that they did not have any form of income currently. As incomes fall, food availability and the standard of living get drastically affected. 45% of the respondents reported issues with food availability even when most of them were in their own villages with their informal support structures in place.
Sources of income, even in their own villages are hard to come by and as a result, many workers resort to taking money on loan from money lenders at high-interest rates in order to keep themselves afloat. Alarmingly, 76% of the workers reported not receiving any form of social security benefits or government transfers during their time of employment.
Aadhaar Cards, Ration Cards etc. are absolutely essential to migrant workers as they serve as identity proofs while travelling and also as beneficiaries under government schemes and benefits. Ration Cards and Aadhaar Cards that are linked to a bank account play a significant role in India’s PDS for direct benefit transfers. The most common form of documentation was the Aadhaar Card which 95.2% of the respondents had. This is as expected because most of the workers get their Aadhaar registration done at their source villages before migrating.
There was an issue of lack of documentation tied to their employment and less than 3% of the respondents had been issued an employment card under the Inter State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 (ISMW) during their employment. Moreover, 85% of them did not receive a written job contract during their employment. The lack of documentation that actually identifies a person as a migrant worker poses a serious threat to job security, legal backing, access to government schemes, social security benefits etc.
Underpayment and delay in wage payment also stem from workers not having a written contract that can act as a legal guarantee. The survey shows that having a job contract is correlated to a higher chance of receiving wages through a bank transfer. This can be attributed to the employers, who are heavily incentivised to under-report the number of labourers they employ.
By doing so, they save on compliance costs for social-security payments per employee, costs for employee benefits (such as transportation and living expenses) while themselves availing of the benefits due to units employing fewer workers than the thresholds set under various laws pertaining to factories, industry, and unionisation.
66% of the workers received their jobs through a contractor, who act as middlemen between employers and the workers. Employers outsource liability towards wage payment, safety, and housing conditions to these contractors. As a result, during the pandemic, the employers were absolved of responsibility towards the workers.
68% of the workers did not receive any form of support from their contractors during the lockdown whereas around 26% also reported having their wage withheld by the contractors in this period.
Around 33% of the workers who got jobs through contractors reported having been harassed by their contractors in some form - physically, verbally, or emotionally during their period of employment. Almost 55% of the workers surveyed said they would prefer alternate mediums of gaining employment such as NGOs and through established contacts of friends/relatives/previous employers, etc.
92% of workers were unaware of their legal employment rights and entitlements in terms of government benefits - Employment Cards, Government schemes aimed to help them with housing and rations, safety rights and liabilities that employers have.
Also, almost no membership of trade/labour unions or NGOs adds to the possibility of these workers being exploited. Strengthening the legal backing that the workers have in their destination cities is also essential as usually, they cannot take time off work to visit courts and lawyers in order to fight for their rights.
Skill mapping and training
Workers are categorised into three broad categories based on skill – skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled. The survey captured the aspirations workers have in terms of skill training in order to understand what would be lucrative and convenient to them. Almost 67% of the workers are willing to undergo skill training sessions in order to decrease their reliance on contractors and become more familiar with job opportunities across industry segments and sectors.
Younger workers are more willing to gain skills, and this must be kept in mind while designing policies to train the youth. Under skill training, workers seek basic skills and machine-related skills which do not take time to learn. They prefer short-term skilling programmes that last for 15-30 days. There is an increase in demand for work within the skilled or semi-skilled sectors such as driving, retail/wholesale, service sector, etc. as well, especially among workers who want to change their sector of work.
Most workers are still willing to go back to their former employment despite the harassment and poor living situation faced by them there. Almost 65% of the workers are willing to return to work either immediately or after a few months with 84% of them wanting to return to the same sector in which they were previously employed. Most workers expect to be paid a fair wage of 10,000-20,000 INR per month.
Basic amenities and rights such as appropriate wages, adequate housing, social security benefits, protective clothing, 8-hour long workdays are the requirements to encourage workers to return. Workers who want to stay back or migrate again after a few months are willing to invest more time in skill training as it might increase their employability whereas workers who want to go back immediately are more interested in short-term skilling programmes and courses.
To mitigate the distress and support the workers through an inclusive recovery process, it is important to implement policies that take into account the demands and needs of these workers who were the hardest hit by the pandemic. Addressing data gaps within the system so that workers are documented and identified for transfers and benefits, ensuring each worker has proper employment documentation, skill training and increasing legal awareness among workers should be some key policy goals.
Moreover, broadening the social security net through portability of the Public Distribution System (PDS) and prioritizing workers in the vaccine distribution drive can help to erase the apprehension that workers currently have in terms of migrating back.
As the Government works towards providing these benefits, an innovative approach by the Rozgaar Sahayta Manch aims to address the root causes of the current crisis through the provision of an integrated package of services including data collection, job placements, skill development, access to government schemes and legal awareness. These services will be provided to migrant workers through a consortium of NGOs, Corporates and state governments.
The full report is available here