Business Standard – Protecting helpless migrant labourers

(Written by M. J. Antony)

3 October 2007 – A long-forgotten law might come in handy for ensuring the dignity of such workers in the country.

If there is one social welfare legislation which has been passed by Parliament, shelved and forgotten, it is the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979. The beneficiaries of this law do not know of its existence, nor do the common people. Therefore, there is hardly any court judgment dealing with this Act in the past three decades. Social activists have helped the migrant labourers by invoking other laws, like the Bonded Labour Abolition Act, Contract Labour Abolition Act and the Minimum Wages Act.

Last week, the parents of a deceased worker used the Workmen’s Compensation Act to assert the rights of migrant labour as laid down in Morgina Begum vs Managing Director, Plantation Ltd. The labourer died when an accident took place at Nagaon. After that, his parents moved to Tezpur. They sought compensation from the commissioner there for their son’s death. He awarded Rs 2.70 lakh. The company challenged this in the Gauhati High Court, which set aside the order of the commissioner, stating that he had no jurisdiction to deal with the application. Only the commissioner at the place of work, Nagaon, could deal with the case.

On appeal, the Supreme Court stated that the parents could move the commissioner where they “ordinarily reside”. The Act was amended to introduce this facility so that parents of migrant workers could get the benefit of the Act. The judgment said: “Migrant labourers all over the country often go elsewhere to earn their livelihood. When an accident takes place, they may make their claim not necessarily at the place where the accident took place but also at the place where they ordinarily reside. Otherwise it would cause hardship to the claimants. It is not possible for poor workmen or their dependents who reside in one part of the country and shift from one place to another for their livelihood to necessarily go to the place of the accident for filing a claim petition.”

It is rarely that widows or parents claim compensation, wages due or several other benefits mentioned in the law. The hurdles are insurmountable. Even in this case, the Supreme Court only remitted the case to the high court to decide other aspects of the claim. The accident happened in 2000. Therefore, next round of litigation will start perhaps in 2008.

In 1970, the Contract Labour Abolition Act was passed to deal, at least partly, with the conditions of migrant labourers. But it had little impact, except in a few cases where public interest litigation was moved in the Supreme Court. Therefore, the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act was passed.

However, even this remains a sleeping beauty, ignored by the contractors and employers. Just ask the migrant workers in Alang in Gujarat, employed in the lucrative but hazardous ship-breaking industry.

According to Migrant Workmen Act, the contractors shall provide them suitable residential accommodation, adequate medical facilities, protective clothing and ensure equal pay for equal work, irrespective of their sex. If the contractors, all licenced, fail to comply with the various rules, the principal employers would also be liable to be sentenced to two years imprisonment. The principal employer shall send a representative to ensure that the contractor pays the correct wages. If a company commits an offence under the Act, any director, manager, secretary or other officer shall be deemed to be guilty.

There are inspectors to ensure compliance with the law. If a migrant worker wants to make a complaint, he has to get the previous sanction of these inspectors. This last rule, perhaps, ensures that no complaint is filed, as the migrant labourers are illiterate, lack local support and are too timid to go the inspectors who are often seen as agents of the contractors and employers.

The Central government website acknowledges some of the hurdles in implementing the law, like “reluctance” of migrant workmen in giving full information about their living and working conditions, inadequacy of enforcement machinery, fear of employer or his agents and lack of confidence in the local enforcement machinery.

Whatever relief has been received by the migrant labourers under the laws has been due to public interest litigation moved by NGOs in the 1980s. However, there is hardly any monitoring of the orders passed in such judgments like People’s Union for Democratic Rights vs Union of India (1982), Sanjit Roy vs State of Rajasthan (1983), Bandhua Mukti Morcha vs Union of India (1984) and Labourers of Salal Project vs State of J&K (1983). The activism in this field started with the construction works for Asiad of1982. It would seem that the enthusiasm on behalf of the migrant workers has died down when we are building for Commonwealth Games and SEZs.

Download the original article