Niti Aayog’s draft migrant labor policy is a clear statement of intent to better recognize the contribution of migrants to the economy and support them in their efforts. It offers several radical ideas, including taking a rights-based approach and establishing an additional layer of institutions to create a more migrant-friendly political environment. It proposes a new national migration policy and the formation of a special unit within the Ministry of Labor to work closely with other ministries. The new structure would bring about an essential convergence between the departments concerned and would constitute a big step towards a universal understanding of the causes and effects of migration as well as the necessary interventions.
The policy calls for improving the track record of implementing the country’s many labor laws which, overall, have failed to make a difference in the lives of migrant workers. It examines in detail the provisions of the Equal Remuneration Act, Bonded Labor Act, Construction Workers and Other Construction Workers Act and Interstate Migrant Workers Act, among others. others. The project also invokes the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda as well as the Sustainable Development Goals which aim to protect workers’ rights. It recognizes the challenges of providing social assistance to a highly fragmented migrant workforce due to recruitment patterns and lack of data. It refers to the importance of collective action and unions and there are detailed plans to improve data on short-term migration, especially seasonal and circular migration. As a goal statement, the project has a lot to celebrate.
But policy needs to delve deeper into the underlying causes of poor enforcement of labor laws that are tied to the political economy of recruitment and placement. Migrant workers from rural areas find work in the urban economy and in high productivity rural enterprises, either through kinship networks or through labor market intermediaries. These networks are essential in providing workers who can be positioned in jobs, where there is a demand for hardworking and controllable workers who will remain tied to the job. One way to ensure that workers do not leave because of difficult conditions is to bind them through the notorious system of advances. Although illegal, this type of arrangement is attractive to migrants from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds because they cannot raise large sums of money for weddings, housing and loan repayments. The document makes reference to unfair recruitment practices, but hardly any analysis of why the system persists and how it is activated by the employment structure of companies and enterprises.
Another area in which the project needs to be strengthened is the treatment of gender differences in employment. Domestic work is one of the most important occupations for migrant women from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds. Although the new policy aims to include all kinds of marginalized migrants, it could do more to explicitly mention the challenges faced by domestic workers. It would be very easy for them to remain excluded as India has not ratified the ILO Domestic Workers Convention and the 2017 Domestic Workers Bill has not become law. Other types of home work, extremely important for migrant women, could also remain excluded.
Another point to be raised here is the apparent ambivalence about the ability of tribal migrants to think for themselves and decide how they access the opportunities offered by migration. At the start of the project, we see a commitment to recognize the migrant agency, but this is less clear in the section where tribal migration policies are discussed. Tribal migration is constructed as a process by which recruiters “lure” or even traffick them. Domestic work, which is mentioned in this context, is an important source of income for tens of thousands of tribal women from disadvantaged backgrounds in the eastern states of India. There are of course a few cases of abuse, but these do not represent the experience of the majority. There is a need to better understand how migrants themselves weigh the costs and risks against the potential benefits of working in cities. Controlling tribal migration would defeat the recognition objective of the migrant agency.
In conclusion, the draft policy is a good start that could, with some adjustments, reduce the vulnerability and risks faced by migrant workers and ultimately build a more sustainable development model.
This column first appeared in the printed edition on April 7, 2021 under the title “Recognizing the Migrant”. The writer is Professor of Migration and Development, University of Sussex