[Legal Article] Covid 19 & Migrant Crisis by Priyanshi Kholia [Intern Post]


In march 2020 COVID- 19 started terrorizing our country of 1.3 billion, preying on innocent souls their physical as well as emotional wellbeing. COVID- 19 has affected the entire globe, in all manners and arenas. It is estimated to have caused an adverse effect on economies. The 2.8 Trillion US Dollar economy has been put to a grinding halt, encompassing all within its canvas, small employees, sole proprietors, and migrant workers to big MNCs. Our GDP dipped further, as global GDP slipped by 10%. The SENSEX recorded a sharp decline, slipping from 4000 in February to below 2500 in April. Further, the unemployment rate soared from 9% to 26% in two months with 45 core workers losing jobs.

Impact of COVID-19 on Social and Emotional life

Coronavirus has significantly reduced human social interaction and consequently affecting their emotional wellbeing. Recent studies have shown that pandemics have shown universal spikes in anxiety, depression and anger. In India, the rate of deaths by suicide also hyped by 4.2 % just recently.  A panic like situation is created nationwide. An alarming increase in cases of abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault are a serious blow to the emotional health of our society. The assault and abuses hurled at health workers, in particular, concealment of travel history, violation of lockdown and safety norms by some people, has worsened the scenario, exposing a myriad of threats to the life of fellow human beings.

Impact of COVID- 19 on Migrant workers

 Coronavirus cases have been detected globally. The tremors of the pandemic have affected poor more than the rich. Daily labourers (dihadi workers), due to nationwide lockdown lost jobs immediately, with no security money in their pockets and absolutely no availability of necessities such as food and water this section of the society was left to face the harshness of unemployment coupled with a fatal disease. Generally, the metro cities are flooded with migrant workers in the month of March but this year due to lockdown their movement was restricted, they were forced to stand in long ques with the hope of returning to their homes and seeing their love. The widespread misinformation and fake news have added much to their agony, they had to rush from one office to another, in quest of some help. With no safety gears such as masks and gloves workers without eating and drinking spent days in ques with nothing but the small ray of hope, all this just so that they could see faces of their children and old mothers. A huge protest was also shown by workers of Gujrat, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. COVID-19 caused one of the biggest mass movement of people in this country since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. At last when they lost all hope from authorities, workers with their small children and wives, barefooted decided to go on this journey. Hungry and thirsty children, intense heat over their heads in April barely pulled themselves. Wherever they stopped to rest policemen and locals showered them with their warth. Millions of migrant workers have seen their livelihood evaporate as coronavirus spread. We have to ask ourselves does banging thalis or lighting up diyas help the most ignored section of the society? Whether the thought of malnourished children cross the minds and discussions of Government servants and the politicians, who promise them fortunes in lieu of votes. Where would our electrician, plumber and jamadars go, how will they feed their respective families?

 Unplanned Lockdown

Migrant workers have been the victim of ignorance by the government even prior to the lockdown. Condition during this crisis has now worsened. Government is pretending that migrant workers do not exist. There were no guidelines laid, or any contingency plan or any coherent response. Nirmala Sitaraman also put her foot back in the bed and refused to spare a word or two for these poor, starving souls. In a matter of four hours, the unforeseen public health catastrophe provoked an even larger humanitarian crisis, the burden of which has to be carried by the most susceptible section of its population. The decision unleashed such chaos that India is still struggling to deal with.

Unprecedented changes in Indian Labour Laws

 The spread of  COVID-19 is used as a disguise by the employers to increase the working hours decreasing wages to bare minimum, engaging contract workers for all kinds of work, this incurable disease has now become a way to push through unfinished agendas, reducing their social security benefits easily flout norms laws firing workers and clamping on trade union. Labour Department in the state of Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh last month issued a notice extending work hours of factory employees to maximum 12 hours a day to 72 hours a week. This notice is invoked under section 5 of Factories Act and is valid for a period of 3 months, similarly, the government of Punjab has also issued a similar order under section 65 of Factories Act. The fact that increasing workdays and hours in factory shows how less our Government thinks about the underprivileged. The government of Uttar Pradesh has gone much further. The government is in the process of promulgating the Uttar Pradesh Temporary Exemption from Certain Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020 that suspends the operation of all labour laws applicable to factories and manufacturing establishments in the state for a period of three years, with the exception of the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976; Employees’ Compensation Act, 1923, the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 and provisions in the labour laws relating to women and children. The draft ordinance, however, requires employers to pay the minimum wages notified by the state government and also requires compliance with the provisions of the Factories Act relating to safety. It extends the hours of work to 11 hours a day and the spread over of the workday to 12 hours. 16 migrant workers returning to home fatigued by their long foot journey fell asleep on a railway track and were later crushed by a train on May 8. Where is administration? No comments from any ruling party. Government has turned clod towards the building blocks of the country.


Petition filled in Supreme Court

 A Kerala-based law student had filed a petition alleging that the recent amendments in the labour law regime in India amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, has resulted in and has been a major contributor facilitating forced labour. Nandani Praveen’s petition alleged that the latest notification issued by a few state governments is going to take the economy in reverse and pose difficult challenges adding to the ongoing exploitation of the rights of labours. This petition made States of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujrat, Goa, Assam, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh respondent parties.

The main argument here is, since the Code of Wages is suspended the Payment of Wages Act is re-appealed, there is no obligation for the factories and establishment give timely wages to their employees. It can be seen that this ordinance has led to the abolition of minimum wages of labourers.

 

Conclusion

Migrant workers are the most vulnerable to the loss of employment and wages during an economic crisis, many workers are stranded due to termination of transport. Lockdown in labour camps can heighten the contamination problem. Neither locking them up is a solution nor leaving them on roads will do the job. Desperate times need intense efforts. It is high time we introduce new laws, think what will happen if this part of the society suffers even more? A country is a combination of all kinds of people with different backgrounds and different social status without them there is no us. Eventually, after some decades the lower middle class will be suppressed, latter on the upper-middle class. The government turned its face from the needy. It is high time, that amendments be made in the Labour Laws incorporating reforms requisite to curb the arbitrary salary cuts and to ensure minimum wages. Ration must be made easily availability with food, shelter and health care facilities for the underprivileged. A proper mechanism and timely implementation is necessary during the times of such catastrophe.

Has the government gone blind? These labours are also the citizens of our country; they too are governed by the same laws and are entitled to Fundamental Rights enshrined under the Constitution of India. The world, especially the stakeholders need to understand the fact that, the Migrant workers are not only labour-power of the economies but also the equal citizens. The pertinent question which pops-up “Is justice costly?” Although, our government has rolled out many packages for the citizens in distress, but has it pondered over the need of having a bank account. It is well known that in India, a large section of society don’t have basic documents such as a birth certificate or adhaar card? Isn’t this hypocrisy?


The author of the post, Ms. Priyanshi Kholia is a Law Student from Aligarh Muslim University & was an intern at MyLawman. She can be reached at priyanshikholia2000[at]gmail[dot]com. 

This article has been reviewed and edited by Samreen Ahmed, Research Assistant, Research & Innovation Department (ARIL), MyLawman. 


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