The controversy over migrant workers’ security in Tamil Nadu last week has brought the focus back on the economic imperative of reducing the vulnerabilities they face. Industry approached the state government over fears of an exodus, underlining the continued failure in ensuring that the migrant workers don’t have to struggle for basic necessities such as food, shelter, security, and wages. Migrant labourers, abandoned by employers and the state, undertaking an arduous journey home, in many cases walking hundreds of kilometers on the highways, became the defining image of the lockdown during the pandemic. A 2021 report by Stranded Workers Action Committee (SWAN) found 76% of the workers surveyed during the pandemic had only Rs 200 or less for sustenance. On industry’s prodding, some state governments had even tried to bar migrants from returning to their home towns.
Protection of migrant workers can also bring serious gains for the economy. Internal migrants were estimated to be contributing close to 10% to the gross domestic product (GDP) some 15 years ago; surely, this share would have increased significantly given the rate at which the migrant worker population has expanded in the country since. The poverty reduction potential of domestic remittances—money sent to families by internal migrant workers is also significant. One study estimates that 80% of the remittances are directed to rural households and this accounts for 30% of the consumption expenditure of the left-behind household. The Indian Express reported, citing data from the Migration in India 2020-21 report that the all-India migration rate was 28.9% for July 2020-June 2021. Poorer states, especially their poorest districts, saw the highest rate of out-migration, with the developed states seeing the highest rates of immigration. The need, for quite some time now, has been to ensure migrants’ security across aspects of daily living.
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While several steps have been announced for reducing the vulnerability of migrant workers, very little has happened on the ground. The Centre had come up with a scheme on affordable rental housing for urban migrant workers. Under this, existing government land/vacant houses were to be used, funded in the public-private partnership mode or through investment by public agencies (Model 1). Else, such housing facilities were to be constructed by private parties on their own available land (Model 2). As per government data, only 5,648 government houses of the 83,534 available for the purpose have been converted into affordable housing for urban migrants. And with the bulk of migrant workers employed in the informal sector, questions of affordable healthcare access, social security, wage protection, etc, remain.
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Some states have made significant progress on protection of migrant workers’ interests. For instance, Kerala has instituted several welfare schemes targeted at migrant workers, from facilitating the education of the children of migrant workers through instruction in their mother tongue to expanding its Kudumbashree initiative for women’s empowerment and poverty eradication to include migrant workers.
There are also targeted insurance and housing schemes for migrant workers. Uttar Pradesh, a source of out-migration, has introduced a health insurance scheme for its migrants which can be availed anywhere in India. It is also working on a social security scheme. But quite a few other states have fallen short. In their own economic interest, states must learn from each other on protecting migrants.