Migrant workers form a very large part of India’s vast unorganized sector which constitutes about 93% percent of the country’s total workforce according to the Ministry of Labour and Employment (MOLE). Their entry into the labour market is marked with several challenges including a lack of critical skills, knowledge of their rights and bargaining power that results in exploitative labour arrangements that force them to work in low-end, low-value and hazardous work. In addition to this they are also often victims of violence (physical, verbal, sexual) and exploitation at the hands of employers and supervisors. Many migrants are also deceived and trafficked into bonded labour and 2016 data from MOLE suggests that there are over 1.84 crore bonded labourers in the country today. The migrant workers in bondage or otherwise struggle to get legal protection and government support to ensure fair labour practices is minimal, and often after the intervention of civil society in specific cases.
Take the case of two tribal women from Jharkhand who were trafficked to Bengaluru in October 2019 to work in an Agarbatti factory. The women were promised between Rs 7,000 to 9,000 each as monthly wages but were only paid Rs 800 a month and given three meals a day. The women were also harassed and forced to live in very bad conditions along with their young children. Three months later they escaped but were tracked down by a supervisor at the Bengaluru City Railway Station and brought back to the factory. They were then severely beaten and their Aadhar cards and phones were taken away and their lives were threatened because they dared to escape. Later two other men who worked under the supervisor raped one of the women on multiple occasions. The case came to light in May 2020 after the women managed to escape again and were trying to return home during the pandemic and lockdown. With the help of activists their case was pursued, and they told the police that the owner of the factory was complicit in the rape and did nothing to prevent it.
In another infamous case of Dayalu Nial from 2013, his life changed forever when he was held down by his neck in a forest and one of his traffickers raised an axe to strike because he had dared to escape. He was asked if he wanted to lose his life, a leg or a hand. Six days earlier, Nial had been among 12 young men being taken against their will to make bricks on the outskirts of one of our biggest cities- Hyderabad. Nial and his friend Nilambar had to watch each other’s right arms being severed as a form of grotesque punishment after being caught. As Dayalu recalls this horrific account, “they put his arm on a rock, one held his neck and two held his arm. Another brought down the axe and severed his hand just like a chicken’s head. Then they cut mine”.
The World Economic Forum in the economic survey of India 2017, estimated 139 million migrants in the country accounting for both inter and intra-state movement and the UN predicts that about 400 million workers in the informal sectors in India would be poverty-stricken in the wake of the pandemic and its ensuing lockdowns and economic downturn.
The latest government data on migration comes from the 2011 Census. As per the Census, India had 45.6 crore migrants in 2011 (38% of the population) compared to 31.5 crore migrants in 2001 (31% of the population). Between 2001 and 2011, while population grew by 18%, the number of migrants increased by 45%. In 2011, 99% of total migration was internal and immigrants (international migrants) comprised 1%.
Coming back to the case of the Jharkhand migrant women, after being subjected to inhuman forms of violence and after the intervention of activists an FIR was filed against the owner and the rapists were also arrested. The government gave the women a compensation and they were sent home. However, it dawned on their advocate and the activists that these women were still unsafe because the compensation amount can be forcefully taken away by their family members. Multiple attempts were made to reach out to them via a community member, but these efforts were futile. It was unfortunate that these women were unsafe at work and at home and that justice and protection from the system was exceedingly difficult for them to access on their own.
To conclude, until there’s a structural transformation in the government and judiciary to address violence and exploitation against migrant workers, the migrants will always be vulnerable. Even though there have been measures taken by the government to protect the migrants especially during the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, such as rescues, covid related care, compensation, judicial interventions etc. there is still a need for a systemic change to fully understand the issues faced by migrants in order to adequately combat them. Existing labour laws, policies and procedures must be implemented in all states so the migrants, who contribute greatly to India’s development and GDP are protected from unscrupulous employers and traffickers.
Written by a group of passionate writers
This article is from a set of submissions made during a Writeathon that was organised and is a group effort.