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COVID-19 Lockdown and Human Rights of Migrant Labourers

They may have saved some lives with this corona virus lockdown, but they didn’t think about us

Sahu (one of an estimated 100 million internal migrants in India)


The Nationwide lockdown has directly impacted the livelihoods of a large proportion of the country’s nearly 40 million internal migrants. Most of the migrant workers were daily wage earners and lack of public transport facilities made them walk back to their villages on foot several hundred kilometres away. This perilous journey under the scorching sun became the cause for some of the deaths and few died in road and rail accidents.

Many State Governments have planned to provide food and shelter to migrant workers who were stranded in railway stations but on the other hand, this Covid-19 crisis has magnified the hardships suffered by many of them throughout the country. This needs to be taken as a wake-up call and all the State Governments must pledge to implement a strong migration policy framework.

Statutory enforcement

Migrant workers are very crucial for our country’s development as migration and urbanisation are an integral part of economic development and societal transformation. Internal migrants make up about 20 percent of the workforce. And they contribute an estimated 10 percent of India’s economic output, according to the UNESCO.

This incident proves that even though internal migrant workers are in a significant number they are still in the political blind spot. This crisis puts into question the efficacy of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and conditions of service) Act, 1979 (ISMW), and the role of the Chief Labour Commissioner (CLC) in its enforcement. Along with this, there are also other provisions such as the Minimum Wages Act, 1948; the Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970; the Equal Remuneration Act, 1976; and the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996. This crisis clearly explains the plight of migrant workers and the inadequacy of the legislations to address the issues faced by them.

The object of the act is to provide effective protection against their exploitation as inter-State migrant workmen in large, generally are illiterate, unorganized, and have normally to work under extremely adverse conditions and they are entitled to a displacement allowance[1] and a journey allowance[2] in addition to their wages.

Employment of inter-State migrant workmen in any establishment is prohibited unless it is duly registered under this Act. Strict adherence and enforcement to Section 6[3] of the Act are vital in the generation and accumulation of data which results in the formulation of pragmatic policies and strategies to manage this crisis. But many State Governments have failed to maintain a record of the workers and other particulars which resulted in a lack of data and caused an irreparable loss.

Causes for the failure of the Act

The definition of an Inter-State migrant workman, under clause 2(1), covers only those workers who are recruited by or through the contractors from one State under an agreement or arrangement for working in another State. This way the migrant workers directly employed by the employers are not embraced by the provisions of this law.

In many States, Migrant workers are considered ‘contract workers’. They are brought to the host State by an agent who hands over these workers to a local contractor for monetary compensation. They virtually become employees of the local contractor who is a licensed contractor under the Contract Labour (Regulation& Abolition) Act, 1970, to various companies. Therefore, in many States, they are termed as contract labourers and they are excluded from the law.

The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families is the most comprehensive international treaty dealing with rights of the migrant workers. The report on the ‘Social Inclusion of Internal Migrants in India’ by UNESCO and UNICEF (2013) demands that “it is clear that there is an urgent need to develop a governance system for internal migration in India, i.e. a dedicated system of institutions, legal frameworks, mechanisms and practices aimed at supporting internal migration and protecting migrants.”

Steps to revamp the migrant crisis

  1. Along with this the Central Government should give orders/directions to the State Government under Section 33[4] of the ISMW Act and create awareness about the statutory protections, rights, and privileges available to the migrant workmen.
  2. For the upcoming days it is crucial to understand the three kinds of migrant workers due to lockdown: those who are stranded in between their journey to home, those who have reached home, and those who are stuck in their workplace without any food or financial support to return. The Government should identify them and address their needs accordingly.
  3. It is important to ensure the availability of the supply of food and other basic amenities to them. Along with this, it is essential to decongest their living conditions wherever required, address their psychological issues and loneliness. Special attention should be given to women and children by providing healthcare facilities.
  4. Finally, it is important to explain the disease and precautions in their language and make sure they understood it. It is the ultimate duty of the Government to make them feel secured.


 In every disaster, the marginalised are the most affected, among them migrant workers are the worst hit. We took due care and precautions to bring back overseas Indians but miserably failed to even plan about the inevitable internal workforce. Positively, the system has slowly started to socially include them and address the needs of the vulnerable by arranging public transport facilities and other necessities in the forthcoming days of relaxation in lockdown. The migrant worker be treated with respect and dignity they deserve and laws enacted for their welfare should be implemented effectively.

[1]Section 14 of Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and conditions of service) Act, 1979

[2]Section 15 of Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and conditions of service) Act, 1979

[3] Section 6 of Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and conditions of service) Act, 1979

[4]Section 33 of Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and conditions of service) Act, 1979

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Deepa Lakshmi D
Student - SASTRA Deemed to be University