Migrant workers: House panel opposes move to cap minimum wages

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May 4, 2020 1:15 AM

The Centre’s bid to arrogate to itself the power to fix the wage floor for inter-state migrant workers in the name of uniformity across the country has hit a hurdle.

If any state government wants to set minimum wages higher than prescribed by the Centre for inter-state migrant workers, it should be free to do so.

The Centre’s bid to arrogate to itself the power to fix the wage floor for inter-state migrant workers in the name of uniformity across the country has hit a hurdle. If any state government wants to set minimum wages higher than prescribed by the Centre for inter-state migrant workers, it should be free to do so, the parliamentary standing committee on labour opined as it studied the labour code on operational safety, health and working conditions (OSH Code).

While inter-state workers are constitutionally under the central list, over the last few years, as inter-state migrations of unskilled labour intensified, several states have begun to take care of such workers settled in their respective states by their inclusion in the food security net and administer various welfare schemes for them, including affordable housing.

If the Centre’s proposal is implemented, it would have also put a check on such migrations, as the wide differences in wages among states is often behind movement of people form one state to another. Of course, the actual wages in some states are even higher than minimum wages set by governments, so the lure of wage differential would not have completely gone away.

“As regards drawing of wages not exceeding the amount notified by the central government from time to time relating to the inter-state migrant workers, some stakeholders, particularly the state government of Kerala suggested that after the word ‘central government’, the word ‘appropriate government’ and after the word ‘time to time’ the word ‘whichever is higher’ may be inserted.

The (Labour) ministry’s response that “the provision has been kept for the purpose of uniformity” does not convince the committee because if the suggestion (of states like Kerala) is incorporated it would imply that higher wages, as may be notified either by the central government or by the state government, would be paid to the inter-state migrant workers,” the standing committee said in its report submitted to Lok Sabha.

The standing committee’s views are not binding on the Centre, but may still carry considerable weight as several state governments also hold the same view. The parliamentary panel, headed by BJD MP Bhartruhari Mahtab, also proposed that a separate chapter be included in the code for migrant workers, as against the proposal of merging the sections related to them with those for contract workers, to have greater clarity on the health and safety aspects of such workers.

As per the data collected by the government, around 23 lakh migrant workers are now stranded at different places in the country, in various relief camps organised by state government authorities or by their employers or in localities where they are generally clustered. Last week, the centre started running special trains to transport these workers back to their respective states and thousands of workers have already boarded such trains in Telangana and Kerala.

India’s strict lockdown measures, such as severing transport links, have taken a toll on the nation’s estimated 100 million migrant workers, triggering an exodus from cities where they worked in garment factories, building sites and brick kilns, Reuters reported recently. Obviously, inter-state migration has risen in recent years. The data on migration by last residence in India as per Census 2001 shows that the total number of migrants has been 314 million.

Out of these migrants by last residence, 268 million (85%) has been intra-state migrants, those who migrated from one are of the state to another. Some 41 million (13%) were interstate migrants and 5.1 million (1.6%) migrated from outside of the country.

The Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation and Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, to be subsumed with OSH Code, seeks to entitle a migrant worker to get no less than the amount the Centre fixes under Minimum Wages Act of 1948 as wages for their works. The minimum wages, as notified by the Centre in October 2019, for unskilled agricultural worker and industrial workers are now Rs 347/day and Rs 403/day, respectively.

In the draft Bill, tabled in the Lok Sabha in July 2019, the labour ministry has proposed to broaden the definition of migrant workers to include those who are employed by the employers other than just contractors as at present, but said one would not fall in the category of migrant workers if she draws a higher wage than the amount notified by the Centre from time to time.

The Minimum Wages Act, 1948, empowers the Central and state governments to fix and revise the minimum rates of wages payable to workers in scheduled employments. Under the Act, the Centre fixes minimum wages for 45 scheduled employments in the central sphere such as the establishments under the authority of central government, railway administrations, mines, oil-fields and major ports.

Employments other than the scheduled employment for Central Sphere come under the purview of the state government and accordingly state government wages are applicable in around 385 such employments. Since the respective state governments are also empowered to independently fix minimum wages, disparities between wages in neighbouring states are common.

At present, there are more than 2,000 rates of minimum wages prevalent in the country fixed by both the Centre and the States and the rates vary according to the nature of work and skill levels. (States are free to fix minimum wages above those notified by the Centre for intra-state workers). The minimum wage for construction workers, for example, is around `410/day in Uttar Pradesh, while the same is in the range of `730-940/day in Kerala.

The labour code on wages, already passed in both houses of Parliament, proposes making minimum wage a statutory right for all workers. The code seeks to empower the Centre to set benchmark minimum wages for different regions across the country. The labour ministry, however, is yet to for notify the minimum wage rates.

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