Has the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 failed to achieve its objectives?

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This post is written by Amritesh Panda, student of Symbiosis Law School, Pune

As the world and the government is grappling with the novel Coronavirus, the condition of workers especially migrant workers is in dire condition. A nationwide lockdown was announced by the Prime minister Narendra Modi in 24 march 2020, to curb the spread Migrant workersof the virus, this action sent chilling fear amongst millions of migrants workers across India. In the ensuing panic, migrant workers, the majority of whom were daily wage earners, took to the highways to get back to their villages on foot several hundred KMs away.

While the lockdown was necessary to curb this menace, the lack of coordination between the center and state created a state of panic and fear amongst the workers.

The current plight of migrant workmen amid the nationwide lockdown has put the spotlight on The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, which was specifically enacted to protect workers and ensure their safety.

What does the Act say?

  • The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 is an Act of the Parliament of India enacted to regulate the condition of service of inter-state laborers in Indian labor law. The Act’s purpose is to protect workers whose services are requisitioned outside their native states in India. Whenever an employer faces a shortage of skills among the locally available workers, the act creates provision to employ better-skilled workers available outside the state.
  • The law applies to every establishment in which at least five inter-state migrant workmen are employed. The principal employer/establishment employing such workers is required to obtain a registration under the law, while the contractor is also required to obtain a license.
  • There are many rights given under this Act but here are some important one:-
  1. Displacement allowance (Section 14),
  2. Home journey allowance (Section 15) including payment of wages during the period of the journey,
  3. Suitable residential accommodation and medical facilities free of charge on a mandatory basis.
  4. Reporting by the contractor the incidence of a fatal accident or serious injury of such workman to the specified authorities of both the States and also the next of kin of the workman.
  5. Maintain the registers indicating the details of interstate workers and make available for scrutiny by the statutory authorities.
  6. Every principal employer shall nominate a representative duly authorized by him to be present at the time of disbursement of wages by the contractor and it shall be the duty of such representative to certify the amounts paid as wages in such manner and may be prescribed.
  7. The principal employer shall be liable to bear the wages and other benefits to interstate workers in case of failure by the contractor to effect the same.

How the ISMW Act, 1979 failed to achieve its objectives?

  • Immigrants are a fluctuating group stirring in search of jobs from one place to another; therefore, their instability overlays way for their lack of identity. Some of them are working under contractors while some are under a non-contract basis. According to the act, the laborers who are not bound by any contract would not receive any benefits or incentives and are deprived of all social welfare programs for their improvement.
  • Most of the migrant workmen are not routed through licensed contractors. This small catch, in the definition, has been sufficient to exclude the bulk of the migrant workmen from getting any benefit out of the Act.
  • Furthermore, the Act is only applicable to any establishment in which five or more inter-State migrant workmen are employed. In reality, only a minuscule proportion of migrant workmen are placed under such establishments these days. So, if the establishment doesn’t come under the purview of the Act, its migrant employees, numbering less than five, cease to be migrants, legally, even though they may actually be one!
  • The current crisis has comprehensively exposed the inadequacy of the ISMW Act. While it has become anachronistic, the need for legal safeguards and welfare measures for migrants has become even more pressing and urgent.

What is the way forward?

The Act in its current form is redundant and full of loopholes and, needs a calibrated Amendment to ensure the safety and rights of migrant workers

If at all the States were to develop a migration policy framework which is surely the need of the hour then they should look above and beyond the framework prescribed at the central government level. There should equal access to opportunities for resident’s home and out of state residents. In policy areas, where migrants face discrimination on account of their unique circumstances, special policy initiatives should be framed in order to have equality with state residents.

Hence certain inclusive policies and schemes could be put forward such that it would help in bringing migrant laborers into the mainstream & also create a management system that can solve the issues regarding their identity. It could create a catalog for implementing other schemes for them related to their socio-economic, environmental & housing issues, without hindering the activities of the local community.

References

  1. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/kerala-example-draws-un-praise/article4804409.ece
  2. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/topic/Kerala-labour-commissioner-jisha-murder-case
  3. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/writ-against-migrant-insurance-scheme/article22431074.ece
  4. https://indiacode.nic.in/bitstream/123456789/13209/1/the_inter-state_migrant_workmen_regulation_of_employment_and_conditions__of_service_act_1979.pdf
  5. Image from here
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