After suspending labour laws, UP okays Migration Commission: What this means for the Indian migrant worker
Voicing outrage at how UP’s migrant workers have been treated in other states, the state BJP government declared the setting up of a Migration Commission which will apparently strive to protect the interests of migrant workers looking to leave the state.
The great Indian labour reverse migration continues apace in the fourth iteration of the lockdown, with questions on its policy ramifications piling up by the day. From police action and tragic transit accidents to active denial of available transport to return home, India’s migrant labour force is facing an existential crisis.
The Supreme Court on 26 May, 2020, took suo motu cognisance of the crisis, acknowledging that far too many are still on the road. However, a court that wondered why these workers need wages if they are being provided with food does not inspire the confidence of those seeking meaningful protection of labour interests.
At the same time, the real cause of this crisis has escaped attention: Employers who are happy to make heavy profits off labour when the going is good but who do not hesitate to turn their backs on them (even illegally) if it happens to impact their bottom line.
Of course, the workers are only too aware of this, with most of them proclaiming their refusal to return to such conditions.
Academics have pointed out two major effects of this unorganised collective action in the coming months. First, most eastern and northern states (erstwhile labour exporting states) will have labour surpluses as workers look for work locally. Second, most southern and western states (erstwhile labour importing states) will face shortages of labour.
In fact this can already be seen to an extent as various manufacturing belts, now given the green light to resume production, are faced with a shortage of labour. Unless resolved quickly, millions of livelihoods will be lost along with rising prices and a reduced capacity for the production of essential goods. In such a scenario, migrant labour needs more options for decent jobs, not less.
Contrary to this need to reinforce labour protections, various states — Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh pioneering the trend — have proposed a suspension of several statutory labour protections saying they will thus promote industry and create jobs.
This is a double whammy for the worker. First, to internalise that the law is always dispensable at the expense of the worker, whether statutory law or the multiple government orders/advisories on payment of wages and laying-off workers during lockdown which were flouted with impunity by their employers.
Second, to acknowledge that protective rights offered by the State are being taken away.
The most troubling concern here may be that such measures have triggered a race to the bottom, with several states now competing in what may turn out to be a reverse auction of their workers’ rights. These suspensions are already being questioned on constitutional grounds.
This would inevitably force workers to choose between returning to those employers who forsook them during a crisis or stay on with a state where they are shorn of protective rights.
On Sunday, the skill mapping of the first set of returned migrant workers (16 lakh) in Uttar Pradesh was completed. On the same day, voicing outrage at how Uttar Pradesh’s migrant workers have been treated in other states, the state BJP government declared the setting up of a Migration Commission to 'protect the interests of migrant workers looking to leave the state'.
Most significantly, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath also said that states receiving Uttar Pradesh’s labour force in the future would have to take the commission’s permission after demonstrating their ability to guarantee income and social security for the workers.
The commission, if it is set up in the next few days as promised, would be open to an assault on its constitutionality; for violating the freedom of individuals to move within any part of the country for whatever reason they wish, and their right to do business wherever they want and with whomever they want.
Having now done away with the concept of permanent labour rights in the state, the commission, by centralising labour-capital bargains at the state level, opens the door for the Uttar Pradesh government to step into the role of a labour contractor, even with respect to workers within its borders.
This could mean a situation where workers have no real say on the standards and conditions of their workplace, with such decisions being made either unilaterally by their employer or in negotiations between their employer and the state.
If the Uttar Pradesh government is truly interested in protecting workers, it might be better served by reinstating a permanent set of labour rights within its own borders. In the short-term, existing methods of mass employment such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) would be a better option and in the long-term, improving worker welfare rather than abandoning it would be a far more effective, and not to mention humane, way of maximising their labour surplus.
Sreyan Chatterjee is a researcher with Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy and Sanchith Shivakumar an advocate practicing in Chennai
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