10 May, 2020
10 Min Read
The nationwide lockdown announced on March 24 at short notice has caused immense distress to migrant workers around the country.
Hundreds have been seen trying to walk home to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Odisha from their places of work. On Friday, May 8, 16 migrant labourers who were trying to return to Madhya Pradesh, their home State, on foot were killed when a goods train ran over them.
Questions are being raised about their welfare and the lack of legal protection for their rights.
Those working in the field of labour welfare have recalled a 1979 law to regulate the employment and working conditions of inter-State migrants, but feel that the lack of serious implementation has led to their rights being ignored.
As part of the present regime’s efforts towards consolidating and reforming labour law, a Bill has been introduced in Parliament called the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019.
The proposed code seeks to merge 13 labour laws into a single piece of legislation.
The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, is one of them.
What does the 1979 law envisage?
1. The Act seeks to regulate the employment of inter-State migrants and their conditions of service.
2. It is applicable to every establishment that employs five or more migrant workmen from other States; or if it had employed five or more such workmen on any day in the preceding 12 months.
3. It is also applicable to contractors who employed a similar number of inter-State workmen.
4. The Act would apply regardless of whether the five or more workmen were in addition to others employed in the establishment or by the contractors.
5. It envisages a system of registration of such establishments.
6. The principal employer is prohibited from employing inter-State workmen without a certificate of registration from the relevant authority.
7. The law also lays down that every contractor who recruits workmen from one State for deployment in another State should obtain a licence to do so.
8. The wages shall not be lower than what is prescribed under the Minimum Wages Act.
What are the beneficial provisions for inter-State migrants in it?
The provision for registration of establishments employing inter-State workers creates a system of accountability and acts as the first layer of formalising the utilisation of their labour.
It helps the government keep track of the number of workers employed and provides a legal basis for regulating their conditions of service.
As part of the licensing process, contractors are bound by certain conditions.
These include committing them to providing terms and conditions of the agreement or any other arrangement on the basis of which they recruit workers.
These terms include “the remuneration payable, hours of work, fixation of wages and other essential amenities in respect of the inter-State migrant workmen”.
The wage rates, holidays, hours of work and other conditions of service of an inter-State migrant workman shall be the same as those extended to other workmen in the same establishment, if the nature of their work is similar.
What does the proposed Code say on migrant workers?
The attempt to consolidate laws relating to occupational safety, health and working conditions means that many separate laws concerning various kinds of workers and labourers will have to be repealed.
The proposed law seeks to repeal 13 Acts such as the Factories Act, Mines Act, Dock Workers’ Act, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, and other enactments relating to those working in plantations, construction, cinema, beedi and cigarette manufacture, motor transport, and the media.
Regarding inter-State migrant workers, the Act includes them in the definition of ‘contract labour’.
At the same time, an inter-State migrant worker is also separately defined as a person recruited either by an employer or a contractor for an establishment situated in another State.
The Code has a chapter on ‘contract labour and inter-State migrant workers’.
But the Parliamentary Standing Committee has recommended that the provisions relating to migrant workers be covered in a separate chapter “so that the safety, health and working conditions of the Migrant Workers be clearly spelt out for implementation, besides making special provisions for them, as has been done by the State Government of Kerala”.
The Code contains provisions similar to the 1979 Act regarding registration of establishments, licensing of contractors and the inclusion of terms and conditions on hours of work, wages and amenities.
Further, both the old Act and the proposed Code envisage the payment of a displacement allowance and a journey allowance to inter-State migrant workers.
Is there a loss of benefits for inter-State workers if the Code comes into force?
Trade unions feel that it is always better to have a separate enactment.
The unprecedented distress and misery faced by migrant workers due to the current lockdown has drawn attention to a beneficial legislation dedicated to their welfare.
The Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) has highlighted the fact that both the States where they work and home States have obligations cast upon them in the existing law. Despite the fact that it has been poorly implemented, if at all, labour unions feel that preserving the separate enactment and enforcing it well is a better option than subsuming it under a larger code.
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