Giving Compass' Take:

• Ashif Shaikh and Seema Nair explain how the labor market in India made migrant workers more vulnerable during COVID-19. 

• The authors suggest using the shutdown to improve the labor market and address underlying problems with the system. 

• Find out what COVID-19 will mean for women in India

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of migrant workers in a manner that cannot be ignored. Migrant workers have walked hundreds of kilometers to get home, been lathi-charged by the police while doing so, and hosed down with chemicals.

Two surveys by civil society organizations confirm that a large number of these workers belong to the construction sector. State governments have been directed to use the INR 52,000 crore Building and Other Construction Worker (BOCW) cess to aid 3.5 crore registered construction workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The extent to which this will be implemented, however, remains to be seen.

The current scenario is just a culmination of decades of questionable policy decisions.

In 1996, the Indian parliament enacted two laws to provide protection and dignity to this workforce. The first, the Building and Other Construction Workers Act (BOCWA) regulates the employment and conditions of service for building and other construction workers, and provides for their safety, health, and welfare. The second, the Building and Other Construction Worker Cess Act (BOCWCA) provides for the levy and collection of cess on the cost of construction incurred by employers, with a view to augmenting the resources of the BOCW Welfare Boards constituted under BOCWA.

In 2018, the construction sector contributed 7.9 percent to India’s GDP, and employed more than 51 million people. About 87.4 percent of its workers were categorised as casual labour. The sector, therefore, employs a majority of the informal workers in the country.

Data from the central government indicates that there are 3.5 crore registered construction workers and that Haryana, for example has registered 7,63,373 workers. However, the Government of Haryana indicates that it has registered 4,56,446 workers. It is not clear how many of these registered workers are local workers and how many are migrant workers. None of the management information systems we have come across have differentiated between local and migrant labour across all sectors of labour.

In late March 2020, Jan Sahas interviewed 3,196 migrant construction workers from North and Central India, many of whom were walking back to their homes after the lockdown was announced. The survey found that 94 percent of the respondents did not have BOCW identity cards, which ruled out their chances of accessing relief or welfare measures.

  1. Low rates of worker registration
  2. No penalties for non-compliance
  3. Inadequate staffing
  4. Gap in collection and distribution of cess

An opportunity for reform

The COVID-19 crisis, and the lockdown in particular, have exposed the extreme vulnerability of millions of migrant workers who remain invisible to the state, industry, and the public at large.

Read the full article about migrant workers in India by Ashif Shaikh and Seema Nair at India Development Review.