A Policy Framework For India’s Covid-19 Migration

Shabari Nair, Regional Migration Expert and Divya Verma, Programme Officer with ILO DWT South Asia and India wrote together a column providing outline for the country’s migration policy framework.

Feature | 19 May 2020
The images of migrants desperately seeking to return home following the announcement of lockdown due to COVID-19, will not be erased from public memory anytime soon. Migration is not a new phenomenon in India, but the realization of the magnitude of dependence on the migrant workforce in the development process, is certainly new for many.

The Director General of ILO, Mr. Guy Ryder, in his opening remarks of the 103rd session of the International Labour Conference (2014) had said that while migration had the potential to considerably contribute to development, it posed not only a major policy challenge but also continued to be associated with unacceptable treatment of some of the most vulnerable people in the labour market.

It was in this session of the ILC that the constituents of the ILO – governments, employers and workers – endorsed the Fair Migration Agenda. It is an agenda that advocated for the realisation of decent work opportunities for all migrant workers while respecting their fundamental rights. It recognised the contribution that migrant workers make to societies and admits vulnerability of communities which they come from and where they work. It submitted the urgent need for a governance mechanism for migrants to benefit from the prosperity that they had a hand, or two, in contributing to.

Although the Director General’s comments and the Fair Migration Agenda was rooted in the international labour migration discourse, there is clearly a need to apply it for those workers who are moving within their own countries. In case of India, these migrants are over 450 million, whose movement can be directly or indirectly linked to the search for employment.

The 2011 census reported over 41 million Indians migrated from rural to urban areas for work, now almost at the end of this decade we can certainly expect a multi-fold rise in these estimations. Migration has always been a strategy that a majority of workers in India would have used to fulfil their aspiration to uplift from poverty and to access livelihoods that promise decent work.

Providing key contributions to high-growth sectors of construction, manufacturing and urban services at the destination sites, this group of vulnerable daily-wage workers were dealing with precarity even before the crisis struck. Mostly recruited through unfair channels; underpaid and overworked; they are engaged in the environment compromised of occupational safety and health. Cities, overburdened and underprepared to provide guaranteed social protection to these migrants, often deny them access to adequate food and nutrition, quality healthcare, housing or water and sanitation facilities.

Between lack of opportunities at source and forced-labour like conditions at destination, migrants, including women and children, fall for the latter. For most of the migrants, their families, dependent on the remittances they send, remain the key motive. However, the crisis and the lockdown compounded their difficulties and blurred their motives to stay back.

It is almost two months since India went into a lockdown, one of the most stringent government responses globally in its fight against COVID-19. With over 90 per cent of the population working in the informal economy, ILO has predicted that as a result of the crisis and subsequent lockdown, about 400 million workers will fall deeper into poverty while forcing many of them to return to their places of origin in the rural areas.

Even as the relaxations for economic activities will come in place, the migrants may continue to return home to avoid tryst with the uncertainties of these times. On priority, they should be received back home in a safe and dignified manner. Quarantining for the prescribed period may be important to avoid community transmission.

However, authorities, both at the state and local level, should ensure that returnees are not stigmatised as a result of their migration status and perceived to be the ‘carriers’ of the disease. This should be the first step in alleviating their suffering so that they feel accepted in their local communities and homes.

The full-fledged revival of economic activities still appears distant. To ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes that have been unearthed as a result of this crisis, a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach should be upheld. A fair and effective labour migration governance system for workers within the country is an urgent need of the hour.

While back home, the migrants need to be supported with relevant information and counselling for job search and employment opportunities given their skills and previous experience through their local governance and panchayat structures, integrated into the social protection schemes that are applicable to local workers, and provided with referrals for continued health care and to address their grievances. These measures along with effective coordination and collaboration between the states of origin and destination and between state and local authorities is paramount for an effective social and economic reintegration.

The central and state governments need to continue their efforts to address the informality of the Indian economy, rural-urban divide, the uneven growth within states and between regions in the country, and the social and economic inequalities associated with the most poor and vulnerable.

This fair migration governance system should deliver both benefits and opportunities for migrant workers, their families, and sending and receiving communities alike. It should ensure protection of the labour rights of workers while taking into account the views of the employers to foster innovation in business and enterprises.

This will only be possible with strong policies and legal frameworks that can be drawn from a robust set of global standards and practical guidance that organisations like the ILO are here to support with.

As the oldest UN agency established to bring social justice to the workplace, ILO is well-placed to draw from its experiences of over a hundred years particularly through the benefits of tripartism and social dialogue. It has a mandate to reduce the widening inequalities, to promote decent work and employment opportunities, to forge common ground amongst the partners in the labour movement to ensure dignity of labour for all workers, and to progress beyond divisiveness.

The global experience shows that migration will continue as long as there is hope, aspiration and an alternative livelihood option better than those available at home. The destinations, now have the task to build back better and this is only possible when built with a human-centred approach at its core.

The article was first published on Quint Bloomberg website and can be accessed here.