By Amrita Sharma, Director, Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions, Aajeevika Bureau
This International Migrants’ Day. the global community comes together to recognise the contribution of migrant workers in shaping vibrant economies worldwide and creating a colourful tapestry of multi-cultural societies, cutting across national boundaries. In India, we recognise the 100 million internal, seasonal migrants who move for work, in search of a better life for their families.
Sadly, in the early hours of this International Migrants Day, 12 migrant workers died in a fire in a Farsan Shop in Khairani Road, Mumbai, very near Aajeevika Bureau’s office in Kurla. Early reports indicate that around 20 workers were living in that shop. 10 died on the spot; others were taken to a nearby hospital. Just the day before we celebrated International Migrants Day with these same migrants, featuring their photos of what it’s like to be a migrant in Mumbai.
The tragic, preventable loss of these 12 lives makes us reflect upon just how urgent an issue it is to end the danger and hazard affecting migrants every day. We take International Migrants Day as an opportunity to reflect on our experiences of working with internal migrant communities in India. It is now well established that internal migration is much larger in magnitude – almost 3.5 times more compared to the size of international migration. Its contribution to sustaining livelihoods of the poor is also well documented. In India, for example, domestic remittances alone amount to $10 billion. Analysis of NSS data reveals that 41 per cent of consumption for migrant rural households comes from migration. The issue, however, remains on the fringes and the lack of any policy governing labour mobility and integration of workers in the city, leads to high degree of exclusion and precarity for the workers.
Lately, the policy landscape within India is increasingly cognizant of the need for better estimation of labour mobility and the need for a dedicated institutional response. It is the work of organizations such as Aajeevika Bureau which has brought notice to internal migration in a powerful manner. Much, however, remains to be done, as today’s events have made painfully clear.
- Internal migration, World – 740 million
- International migration, World – 214 million
- Internal migration, India – 400 million
- International migration, India – 11.4 million
- Domestic remittances in India – $10 billion
Mobility is key
Labour mobility is key to the Indian economy and its dynamism – this is one of the biggest take-aways from the last 12 years of work done by Aajeevika. As we have engaged with a wide variety of migration contexts across India, we realize that the economy hinges on mobility of its work force. Several of the economically vibrant cities comprise of a large migrant population – Surat (58%), Ludhiana (57%), Faridabad (55%), Mumbai (43%), Delhi (43%) and many more. The industry shows a clear preference towards hiring migrants over local workers. In the last two decades, there has been an upsurge in remittances, primarily witnessed by Odisha, UP, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan and West Bengal – a good indicator for rising mobility from these states. Almost every few years we add large migration corridors to the migration map of the country – the movement of workers from north-east to Kerala is a latest example. Labour migration systems have made inroads into the remotest of villages across India, linking them with cities in a manner that is transformational for both.
Map showing migration corridor from Assam to Kerala (Source: Indian Express)
Public policy design, however, has failed to keep up with this dynamism. It continues to suffer from what Arjan deHaan, the famed Dutch scholar studying migration in India, called the “sedentary bias of Indian policy making”. Our welfare delivery systems are dated: fixing subsidized food rations through PDS to one shop in the native location of a household. Meanwhile, banking systems insist on meeting thoughtless Know Your Customer norms, denying workers their bank accounts for lack of residential proof.
Our policy frameworks need an overhaul to account for the rising mobility of the workforce and allow for portability of entitlements. Programmes must be as mobile as workers themselves are. Migrant workers need to be able exercise their franchise and vote. Most importantly, the cities need to be inclusive of migrants: SMART city planning and design must reflect migrants’ presence and contribution to cities.
Migrant workers came together to celebrate International Migrants Day at Aajeevika field office in Kurla, Mumbai
Remittances management: irrelevant to India, and to footloose internal migrants
When we talk migration and policy, remittances – their size and their potential – assumes great importance. I guess, it’s a legacy that we have borrowed from the international migration discourse where remittances are hailed as a boon for developing economies, their size being almost 3 times the development aid. Remittance enthusiasts such as Lant Pritchett at one point argued that remittances could be MDG Plan B and Dilip Ratha advocated that remittances combined with migrant savings (~$500 billion) can improve lives and livelihoods in developing countries.
Not in India, and certainly not with the footloose internal migrants.
Internal migrants can’t be bearing the burden of financing development in India. Evidence from the migration corridor of Rajasthan and Gujarat shows that most migrants operate at the lowest niches of the urban labour markets, struggling with irregularity and insecurity of work, poor wages, and heavy extraction. The uncertainty of work at destination reflects in the remittances, which are small and irregular – unable to meet the survival needs of their families. Our own analysis of size of remittances in south Rajasthan region puts the figure around Rs. 60,000 in a year – less than $80 per month. Furthermore, the kind of back-breaking work internal migrants undertake in poor work conditions, puts their health and life under greater risks. We have observed migrants leaving the urban labour markets early, to return to their homes often with a debilitating disease such as Tuberculosis and with no savings or skills. The fascination with remittances, their formalization and attempts at “unlocking their potential” is highly misplaced in our context. It needs to end.
We need to fix the labour markets and working conditions of the migrant community first
If there is anything that needs urgent attention then it’s the conditions of work that migrant workers experience in the cities, in their informal, unregulated labour markets. Rising informalization has meant that workers are highly replaceable, changing hands as a commodity and that there is no legal worker-employer contract which ensures accountability. Production and recycling of any product is broken down to the smallest possible unit and outsourced to small, unregistered entities with limited or no regulatory oversight – again weakening the worker-principal employer connection. In these conditions there is no regulation of working hours – which go beyond 12 hours as a norm. Working conditions lack basic safety provisions leading to frequent accidents and injuries to workers. The Safe in India initiative (a rebuttal to Make in India) brought forth the high magnitude of crush injuries in the automobile industry of Delhi-NCR in a powerful manner. This abuse of labour safety considerations at work is rampant. Our own experience of providing legal aid to victims of crush injuries in Kurla, Mumbai points to a large void in labour governance in India. Existing structures are unable to comprehend the complexity of informal economies, lack adequate resources and are stuck in the era of formal, large factory based production. Labour inspectors are trying to find workers on company rolls and seeking written documentation when none exists.
A picture of a worker facing a crush injury from Gurgaon’s automobile industry (Source: scroll.in)
Often, the hard-earned wages are also lost to contractors through delayed payments, wage frauds and withholding of wages. Migrant workers face frequent wage thefts and are unable to seek redress for lack of suitable platforms. The amount of over 12 Crores that Aajeevika has helped facilitate as wage payments to migrant workers in a limited geography of south Rajasthan and Ahmedabad is a telling statistic. Given India’s 29 states, the magnitude of wage thefts across the country is significant.
Some of the recent steps taken by the government are misplaced
There has been a spate of government initiatives in the last few years that seeks to engage with the informal labour economy. The skill development initiative and labour reforms (Shramev Jayate) are significant examples. The skills mission in particular has received keen attention across the board. It is touted as a panacea to the woes of the labour market and a stairway to a better life for poor youth. The intervention is fraught with serious limitations. DDUGKY – the large scale skilling initiative of the MoRD – struggles with a high rate of attrition of youth placed on jobs after Crores of public money have been spent on their training. Diagnosing the problem primarily as a supply side issue, the quick fix of skilling rural youth without addressing questions on living wages, work and living conditions has turned the initiative on its head.
Similarly, the Shrameva Jayate initiative which encompasses a series of far-reaching labour reform measures, exemplifies poor comprehension of the complexities surrounding the governance of a highly informal labour market. The whole initiative is based on this assumption that relaxation in labour laws would steer growth, encourage formalization of work and would in turn be good for the workers. This idea has been challenged by several scholars, and most powerfully by Pranab Bardhan in his article “the labour reform myth” which argues that India’s labour administration has always been poor and similar steps in the past by several other state governments have only led to greater casualization of workforce, not formalization. Weakening of labour legislations in the name of clearing hurdles to economic growth do not make sense in a setting where the implementation machinery is already poor. One is afraid if the reforms would compromise the agenda of labour protection further.
The recent big-bang policy moves in the form of demonetization and the imposition of the new tax regime under GST has again destabilized the informal economy in a significant way, and internal migrants – the most precarious of all stakeholders, are bearing the biggest brunt, struggling to find work and sustaining themselves in the city.
The State does need to take a few steps back, acknowledge that the informal working poor account for the largest and the most vulnerable section of the population today. A hasty, ill-thought policy intervention can disturb the fine balance irreparably. The State needs to reconsider its technocratic quick fixes and approach the challenges related to safety and security of informal workers from a fresh and labour-friendly perspective.
Migrant workers in Kurla, Mumbai participating in a photo voice competition encouraging workers to tell their own stories through pictures
Recognition for migrant workers
The burning to death of 12 migrant workers in Mumbai reminds us of just how invisible migrants in India’s megacities are. It’s difficult to identify the migrants’ charred bodies. They are off the books of any employer. How do we inform their families? They are off the grid, off the radar, invisible and unknown to their employers, to the State.
Photo from Rajawadi hospital, Mumbai where the charred bodies of workers were taken. 12 of them were declared dead. We don’t know their identities yet.
Sadly, these tragedies are commonplace occurrences, wherever migrants live and work. As a society we allow poverty to persist. We accept that poor, vulnerable people die preventable, early deaths every day. This normalisation – of abuse, indignity and early death – must end.
The first step is for all of us to recognise migrants in our day to day lives, worlds and work: those who build our homes, stitch the clothes we wear, and clean our waste.
The aims of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration in 2018– to protect the safety, dignity and human rights and fundamental freedoms of all migrants – must stand for India’s internal migrants too. These workers and their contribution can no longer be ignored.
 Based on Census of India, 2001, Social Inclusion of Internal Migrants in India report, UNESCO, 2013
 Dilip Ratha, Migration and Remittances Factbook, 2016, KNOMAD, World Bank