Helping migrant workers: From clearing pending wages to providing food, govt must step up vigilance

The economic and social fallout of COVID 19 is huge on these migrant workers. The immediate wage loss and uncertainty painted by the gloomy economic prospects further worsens their situation.

Nothing has been said about the possible fallout of outmigration on cities they have fled.
Nothing has been said about the possible fallout of outmigration on cities they have fled.
  • Sarit Kumar Rout

When India is fighting the ultra-health emergency resulting from COVID 19 pandemic, the economic hardship faced by millions of migrant workers cannot be put aside. Thousands daring to walk miles to reach their home despite all India lockdown shows the level of uncertainty among the workers. Moreover, the recent large congregation of workers at Bandra or violence in Surat are not sporadic incidents rather shows deep sense of anxiety amidst the crisis. Most of the worker are vulnerable who are disproportionately at risk of catching COVID 19 due to unhygienic living conditions, limited access to
health care and poor working environment. Recently, a lancet report suggests around 150 million migrant workers are there worldwide and most of them face barriers accessing health services in host countries and have a high burden of mental disorder and lower quality of life.

In India, the official statistics on migrant workers is not robust. According to 2011 census, there were 51 million migrant workers and the economic survey 2016-17, GoI estimated this 80 million. Further, this survey using railway data suggested around 9 million workers migrate in a year. Overall, the estimate ranged 51-80 million in 2011 (Fig). During 2001 to 2011 census, the annual growth rate of labour migration was 4.5 %. Applying the labour migration growth rate on the base estimates of 2011, total migrants workers are estimated to be 69-109 million in 2018. This is substantial and does not include intra-state migration which is proliferating in recent years mostly to urban locations.

There is an inverse relationship between per capita income and out migration and a large number of workers migrate from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand and Assam migrate to Delhi, Maharastra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. In 2015-16, Delhi region received half of total
migration and Uttar Pradesh and Bihar accounted for half of total out migrants in the country.


The plight of migrant workers is enormous due to absence of legal contracts and social entitlements.
Despite these hardships, economic opportunities and perspective income drive these humongous inter-
state migration.

The economic and social fallout of COVID 19 is huge on these migrant workers. The immediate wage loss and uncertainty painted by the gloomy economic prospects further worsens their situation. With extreme anxiety, no money in hands and no work, the exodus of these people to villages has stepped up causing further distress to the aggravated rural economy. Those who are stuck in different cities have ineffable sufferings because of inadequate food, ration and liquid cash. An immediate cash shortage and low prospect for future earnings multiply their risk.

The quantum wage loss (assuming 25 days of paid work) in a month with a minimum wage rate of Rs
300/day varies Rs 51,750-81,651 crore in two scenarios and this loss per month constitutes 0.27-0.43
% GDP. This will rise to 0.81 to 1.29% of GDP, if the deadlock ceases within three months. Given
the surge of cases in India, it is unlikely to get rid of the situation in three months. On the contrary, the
fiscal stimulus program announced for the poor households is less than one percent of GDP and most
of the migrant workers are deprived of such assistance due to systemic bottlenecks in identification of

A multi-pronged strategy should be designed to alleviate their pain. Instantly, the employers should be
instructed to pay all dues to the workers and the state machinery should be vigilant. Community kitchen
and supply of cooked food though has started; it should be far reaching to prevent nutritional deficiencies so that many of them do not seek medical attention for common preventable diseases. Origin state governments should speak to their counterparts as Odisha has already done and inter-state coordination should be streamlined to pay attention to workers caught in respective states. The urban local bodies should provide a helping hand and start communicating with workers to allay fear. Most of them are psychologically stressed and the social-psychological breakdown should be repaired introducing multi-lingual counselling program in collaboration with NGOs. This may appease their frustration and thwart Bandra or Surat type incident in future. As already expressed, universal distribution rice through PDS without any documentation should be undertaken to avoid starvation deaths. This may not entail large fiscal burden on the government. Moreover, this unforeseen crisis has forced many back home. Can they survive with the dwindling farm income and shrinking opportunities in rural hinterlands? Starting MGNREGA could be a ray of hope in rural areas.In medium term, the

national portability of ration cards, long due, should be pursued earnestly so that migrant workers have access to subsidized food in any part of India. Stringent enforcement of labour laws through agreement among home, law and labour department is essential to safeguard interest of the workers. Priority should be to restructure rural economy to absorb surplus labour. Lastly, the major problem unfortunately is that we do not have realistic statistical account of number of migrant workers. Reliable estimates should be available in order to design social policies for them.

  • Sarit Kumar Rout is an Additional Professor at Indian institute of Public Health Bhubaneswar. Views expressed are the author’s own. 

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