Pandemic highlights fragility of India’s millions of migrant workers

Published by  Communications

On 12th Nov 2020

Stranded migrant workers during fourth phase of the lockdown because of COVID-19 pandemic in Delhi, taking rest on the way to their village near New Delhi railway station
Image credit: By Sumita Roy Dutta - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90640436

Social protection policies failed India’s millions of migrant workers during the Covid pandemic, according to new research from the University of East Anglia (UEA). 

When the national lockdown started on March 25, migrant workers were suddenly stranded and jobless far from home. All transportation shut down until May 1, when some restrictions were eased to allow migrant workers to travel home. While estimates vary, India is reported to have close to 30 million seasonal migrant workers, of which 85 per cent are men, providing cheap labour to the destination economy and bolstering consumption in their home states through remittances. 

These insights are based on research undertaken by Prof Nitya Rao, professor of gender and development in UEA’s School of International Development in partnership with Dr Nivedita Narain, Shuvajit Chakraborty, Arundhita Bhanjdeo, and Ayesha Pattnaik of the NGO PRADAN (Professional Assistance for Development Action). Funding support for the research is from a BBSRC grant for the project, ‘Transforming India’s Green Revolution by Research and Empowerment for Sustainable Food Supplies’, and linked to the EPSRC Global Research Translation Award, ‘Meeting the SDGs’, held by UEA. 

The paper, ‘Destinations Matter: Social Policy and Migrant Workers in the Times of Covid’, was published in The European Journal of Development Research.  

This study was conducted in three distinct stages: pre-pandemic, during the pandemic-induced lockdown, and after the migrants returned to their homes.  

This study explored the experiences of low-income migrant workers, men belonging to the Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Castes (OBCs), groups that are recognized as socially and economically disadvantaged, migrating from a remote and poor rural location in the state of Bihar to four different Indian states—Kerala, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.  

The choice of migrants’ destinations is shaped by considerations around wages and working conditions. Migrant workers are aware of limited state regulations protecting their rights as well as their weak bargaining position, exacerbated by poverty and lack of competitiveness in the labour market. Therefore, they develop alternative strategies for social support through home-based affiliations, operating in groups that migrate together to the same destination or work in similar settings.  

Migration itself is viewed as a means of social protection outside the parameters of the state. The sense of independence emanating from low-income migrant workers’ roles as breadwinners has meant that they have not organised as a category of ‘internal migrant workers’ to challenge their exclusion from welfare systems and social protection frameworks. 

The research examined the rights of migrant workers in India in the context of the pandemic-induced lockdown.  

The study found that while social identity and regional location are seen as established mediators of migrant experiences, in the present context their role and impact were subdued. Social policy frameworks in the destination states, or their absence, played a key role in shaping migrant experience. For instance, Kerala, has better social infrastructure, but also a specific legal and policy framework recognizing the role and contributions of migrant workers as ‘guest workers’ - so was able to respond more effectively to migrants’ needs and demands.  

Amongst the other states, Maharashtra falls in between, with some recognition of workers’ rights but divided by a strong movement of regional pride and exclusivity.  

Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh emerge at the bottom, offering no rights or benefits to the migrant workers and, in fact, denying any claims to citizenship that they put forth. 

A second key issue addressed by the study relates to the mechanisms for participation and exercise of voice. Migrant workers have largely been silent in the policy space regarding their needs and aspirations—they have sought to fulfil these through the process of migration itself.  

While the media gave migrant workers a voice during the lockdown, what became clear is their near-total exclusion from local governance systems in the destination states, alongside a near-total blindness by the state to their very existence.  
Kerala again is an exception, as the critical role of local panchayats and decentralized decision-making became evident in alleviating the hardships confronted by the workers post-lockdown.  

Prof Rao said: “Governance in India, including local governance, is entirely place-based, with migrant workers, despite their significant economic contributions, having no say therein.  

“It is important to establish mechanisms to hear their voices and meet their needs. 

“Instead of being viewed as ‘dependent clients’, the right to a life of dignity, as equal and productive citizens, needs to be ensured.” 

The study concludes that workers may or may not want to migrate to the cities post-pandemic. Rather than regressive measures that seek to exploit their labour, or protective measures that provide for basic needs as ‘charity’, social protection instruments should create a legal framework and social infrastructure that recognises the contributions of migrant workers to the national economy, enables them to envision their own futures and supports them in fulfilling their aspirations.  

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