Dr. Achyut Kr. Borthakur
(The writer can be reached at email@example.com)
The plight of the migrant workers during the lockdown pricked the conscience of everyone and is likely to be etched in our minds for years to come. These are the people behind the building that we live in, the essentials food grains ready before us without our physical involvement, the roadside food at cheap rates feeding lakhs of us, the security amidst we live, work and do everything in our daily lives. People of small and big cities and even of rural areas have to depend on the people who serve them as plumbers, electricians, carpenters, fabrication works, cooks, decorators, agriculture labours, domestic help, cleaners, drivers and others. In the same way handloom workers, rag pickers, tailors, mechanics, washer men, barbers, potters, vegetable vendors, fish/meat seller,carpenters, electricians, beauticians, kiln workers, fisherman and others are also assisting us in multiple ways. Mostly illiterate and coming from rural areas the entire family of a worker, including his children, involve in different works to supplement income. They work in low wages and there are no provisions for leave even in sickness, living and working in unhygienic conditions without healthcare facilities. Further, the migrant labours are exploited by middlemen who acted between the employer and the worker. The very nature of their work acts against them being organized into a single union or unions making them a concern neither for the trade unions nor the political parties resulting in their fall into the abysmal pit of suffering. The worst victims of lockdown, these, clueless people have an uncertain future.
The successive governments have been more concerned with the problems of workers or workforce of the organized sector for obvious reasons and conspicuously enough, have been neglecting those of the unorganized sector. There was hardly any welfare scheme covering unorganized workers of our country till the year 2008, despite the social security measures in our Constitution and Directive Principles of State Policy in this regard. In fact, as early as 1979 the government enacted the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979. The Act, however, has almost been consigned to oblivion. The labour laws in India, in practice, are known more for their violation than observance. The unorganized sector workers which comprise more than 90% of the total labour force and comprise the most vulnerable section of the society are deprived of social security cover. "The migrant labours are highly disadvantaged because they are largely engaged in the unorganized sector with weakly implemented labour laws", National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector (NCEUS) reports. But the unorganized sector plays a crucial role in our economy and contributes largely to the National Domestic Product.
The inadequacy of the Labour laws in India to address the social security benefits for the unorganized sector and to ascertain the strength and weaknesses of the current labour laws gave rise to the Second Labour Commission in 2002. Most of the recommendations of the Commission are gathering dust in government's offices. This was followed by a National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector in 2007. On the basis of the recommendations of both these commission, the Independent India for the first time enacted 'Unorganized Workers' Social Security Act, 2008'. According to Sections 3 of this Act, the Central Government shall formulate and notify, from time to time, suitable welfare schemes for unorganized workers, which include migrant worker also, on matters relating to (a) life and disability cover; (b) health and maternity benefits; (c) old age protection; and (d) any other benefit as may be determined by the Central Government. Ten schemes are deemed to be welfare schemes for unorganized workers. viz.1. Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme. 2. National Family Benefit Scheme. 3. Janani Suraksha Yojana. 4. Handloom Weavers' Comprehensive Welfare Scheme. 5. Handicraft Artisans' Comprehensive Welfare Scheme. 6. Pension to master craft persons. 7. National Scheme for Welfare of Fishermen and Training and Extension. 8. Janshree Bima Yojana. 9. Aam Admi BimaYojana. 10. Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana.
Section 4 of this Act provides that the State Government may formulate and notify, from time to time, suitable welfare schemes for unorganized workers, including schemes relating to — (a) provident fund; (b) employment injury benefit; (c) housing; (d) educational schemes for children; (e) skill up-gradation of workers; (f) funeral assistance; and (g) old age homes.
Every unorganized worker shall be eligible for registration subject to the fulfilment of certain simple conditions. They will be issued an identity card by the district administration which shall be a smart card carrying a unique identification number and shall be portable. The situation after lockdown clearly reveals that no State government has a proper data of unorganized workers in their state. Nor have they account about the number of workers leaving their state to work in other states. "The government does not have data of people in the unorganized sector such as drivers, farmers, domestic help, during the good times, nobody bothered about it – neither they (beneficiaries) asked for it, nor we thought of it, this, COVID-19 has taught the department and the workers a lesson that we should be prepared for a situation like this. We have learnt that all the information about labourers should be available with the Labour Department," admitted Labour Minister, Karnataka, A Shivaram Hebbar. The Act prescribes a system to prepare a database of unorganized workers employed in different sectors. This would have enabled states and Centre to provide immediate relief to migrants at the hour of their worst peril.
Section 9 of the Act provides for Workers' Facilitation Centres (WFCs) to disseminate information on available social security schemes for the unorganized workers, facilitating the filling, processing and forwarding of application forms for registration of unorganized workers, assist unorganized worker to obtain registration from the District Administration and to facilitate the enrolment of the registered unorganized workers in social security schemes. WFC is to conduct household visits to identify eligible beneficiary households and collect basic household information; and disseminate information on existing social protection schemes for the unemployed, sick, injured, elderly and survivors, as well as assists the beneficiaries to obtain, fill and submit the necessary documents and application forms; and follow up on benefit claims.
Assam also has substantial number of migrant workers. The State government should strictly implement the provisions of the Unorganized Workers Social Security Act and provide benefits under various social security schemes to these disadvantaged people. This is particularly relevant in view of the situation created by the COVID-19 outbreak and the national lockdown. The State will face severe unemployment problems with the return of a large number of local youths mainly from different Indian states. Unless we take a pragmatic approach to ease the livelihood of this returnees these young persons may turn their creative energies into wrong channels. Moreover, frustrations, depression and tension may lead them to crime and even suicide. The conflict between unemployed husband and wife might create domestic violence. It is indispensable for government machinery to implement social security schemes in letter and spirit. The public servants and our elected representatives of the people should work sincerely and without fear and favour. Already, we have witnessed a lot of corruption and misuse of fund in implementing central schemes like Prime Minister Krishak Samman Nidhi and the flagship scheme MGNREGS to eradicate poverty and unemployment in rural areas. Political and other motivations and pressures influences should cease for proper implementation of the social security schemes. The popular self-employment schemes should be implemented after having an authentic market survey. No permits should be issued and loans sanctioned without verifying or ascertaining the actual needs and usability of a particular project. Further, Department of Labour Welfare, Assam should be careful about the inconveniences faced by the probable beneficiaries while approaching labour or other government departments. WFC should be established in rural and urban areas with adequate facilities. While we appreciate the initiative taken by the Department of Panchayat & Rural Development in appealing the returnees of the rural areas from different Indian states to register themselves for job card under MGNREGS, these ignorant and poor people should not face any harassment in registering their names and in receiving any benefits. It appears from the Concept Note of the Labour and Welfare Department that there are shortages of staff in transforming the provisions of the Unorganized Workers Social Security Schemes into reality. The irony is, while the department emphasizes on extra staff to carry out the provisions of the 'Unorganized Workers' Social Security Act, 2008', 32 posts of Labour Inspectors out of 76 are lying vacant. The Government should immediately fill up the vacancies. The need of the hour is a committed and honest group of public servants to carry forward the poverty alleviation and employment generations programmes into successful conclusion. All social security schemes for the poor and downtrodden requires objective implementation. Otherwise we have to face social problems of unimaginable magnitude in coming years.