A Practical Guide to Acts & Rules applicable to “Migrant Workers” in India

July 7, 2020

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Labour legislation in India has a long history of 125 years. Pre-independent India suppressed voices of workers who tried to seek better working conditions through campaigns and strikes. After Independence, the Constitution of India put together a series of fundamental labour rights which included laws focused mainly on the right to form and join trade unions, equality at work and decent working conditions. Labour laws today aim at establishing a legal system facilitating productive employment relationships. It also serves as a constant reminder of the fundamental rights of workers and the processes through which these rights can be exercised. Social dialogue is fundamental to solve issues between the labourer and the employer and this also finds its due place in the legislation.

In spite of the Constitution providing elaborate and exhaustive rights to workers, they are still exploited through various means. Forced labour and human trafficking for labour exploitation are pertinent issues in the country. Apart from that, labourers have to face constant trouble regarding wages, safety conditions at work, medical benefits, leaves, termination, insurance and the likes. We believe that a lot of exploitation is carried out by the employer due to low awareness of workers about the various rights enshrined upon them. Employers take benefit of this ignorance and exploit labour to work as per his terms and conditions. In many cases the employers, especially the smaller enterprises, themselves are unaware about the long term benefits of following these rules and are ignorant and therefore scared of government compliances.

Being a migrant adds to the woes. Migrant labourers do not have social capital and social support structure in their work cities. They have moved to a new environment where they have to face a lot of trouble adjusting. They are employed in hazardous jobs at lower wages as the local population of the state are developed enough to not take up such activities. The migrant workers are also employed for longer hours since they want to earn fast and get back to their native roots. This gives rise to increased health conditions which are not addressed. Proving their identity is one of the major hurdles faced by the migrants when they come to live and work in a new city. They do not have secure citizenship status and cannot benefit from the state welfare programs which are domicile based. Lack of identification proof means that these migrants do not get access to subsidized food, fuel, health services or education which is provided for the impoverished sections of the society. The migrants are also a major chunk of unbanked population. They fail to satisfy Know Your Customer (KYC) norms which are required to open bank accounts. This has severe implications on their savings and remittance behavior as well. Adding to this, their voices are unheard and suppressed as they do not contribute to the vote bank and thus are unable to get reforms and entitlements. To facilitate people seeking justice one needs to be aware of the existing laws and practices which is not feasible by the migrant population. They require support in terms of understanding the rules and also to voice their dissent.  

This document is a compiled and abridged version of the major labour laws that exist in the country along with the recent amendments. Each law is preceded by a scenario which will allow the reader to connect further with the everyday issues faced by workers. For better understanding, readers should try to apply the major sections of the law to the scenario and develop their own understanding. The document is designed for perusal of development practitioners for whom understanding needs to be in a practical manner to be further disseminated through the community.

Developing this compendium has been a learning journey for me. Guidance and feedback from various members of Agrasar team has been quite helpful. Written in a simple manner without compromising with the content, I trust that this guide will add to the knowledge resources among practitioners irrespective of the ranks.

However, while consulting the document, one needs to be aware that these labour laws have been formulated for a different era and have mostly remained unchanged over decades. The stringent and archaic laws make it difficult for both the employer and the workers to comply. I have realized while working on this document that even definitions do not have uniformity. The term “worker” and “wage” have been defined in multiple ways which adds to ambiguity and confusion. It is extremely difficult for the employee to get their due benefits since the fulfillment requirements are never-ending. For example, the “Workmen’s Compensation Act,1923” makes it necessary for the aggrieved employee to send a “notice of accident” to the Commissioner as soon as the happening thereof. The employee has to be first aware of such rules or else he will be denied the accident benefits he or his dependents are entitled to receive.

There is a need to make these archaic laws friendly for both the employer and the employee so that the whole system benefits. This document is the first step towards making the existing laws understandable and easy for our development practitioners so that they have a baseline to assess the laws, use them wherever possible and further move towards advocacy.

Feedback and Inputs are welcome.

Full Document can be accessed by Clicking Here

Suchetana Adhikary

Team Member, Agrasar