Migrant: The Light Infantry of Capitalism

Migrant: The Light Infantry of Capitalism

Migrants issue was the first major social issue I noticed immediately after passing SSC. Shiv Sena was formed on 19th June 1966. I passed SSC exam and joined SIES College in June 1966. Shiv Sena started agitation against South Indians from Oct 1966. They ridiculed SIES College as ‘Sambar Idli Eating Society’s College’. (They conveniently ignored that Prof Ram Joshi, a person of high standing and ‘Marathi Manus’ was the Principal of the College.)

The issue of migrants and urban poor raises its head many times, but we do not label it as such in our mind. In recent times the movie Slumdog Millionaire, the ban on Dance Bars which threw 75000 bar girls out of job who had come to Mumbai in search of a job, and the settlements of Bangladeshi people in cities highlighted the migrant issue. But the recent exodus of people has raised sensitivity to the social issue of migrants and urban poor.

Mumbai City has many settlements of migrant population

For me and for many of my generation, the word ‘migrant’ was associated with Gypsies. It was associated from our childhood. Incidentally Gypsies originated from North Western area of India, they have moved to the European countries where they are called Romano. 

I started reading about migrant workers, rather immigrants, when I visited Trinidad, Fiji and later South Africa. Beginning late nineteenth century, the British Government transported several men to these countries to work on the farms, mainly on sugarcane farms. The plight of these migrant workers is heart rending. These were poor men and women, many of them destitute women or widows, who travelled in search of livelihood. They were slaves in disguise and were exploited. And believe it or not, some aspects of international assignment policies which modern day multi-national corporations have today, have originated from the contracts of those indentured workmen.

According to International Organisation for Migration there were 214 million international migrants in the world in 2010, and it was thought to be an underestimate.  That number would have increased several times in the last ten years. In addition there are 740 million ‘internal migrants’ including 200 million rural migrants to China’s industrial cities.  No marks for guessing which country is the major recipient of the migration, it is USA.

The Indian Migrant Scenario

How many migrants are in India? Indian Express tells us, “The total number of internal migrants in India, as per the 2011 census, is 45.36 crore or 37% of the country’s population. 

A survey tells us that broadly speaking, about 55% of the migrants take up jobs in the industry. And about 25% are self-employed, as skilled jobbers like plumbers, carpenters, mason, hawkers etc. Some drive a taxi. Because they do not get work for all days of the month, many of them remain unemployed.   And about 20% remain unemployed. Mind you, the number of persons thus employed runs in thousands.

Child Labour is also a fall out of migrant issue

A recent study by Aajeevika called ‘Unlocking the Urban’ informs us that 92% migrant workers did not have a ration card in Ahmedabad while in Surat 99% did not have it. As for Voter ID 89% did not have it in Ahmedabad while in Surat 74% migrant workers had no Voter ID. Ninety-four percent migrant workers did not have electricity bill in Ahmedabad while in Surat 97% did not have it. And if you are not registered, you do not get the basic amenities. Poverty gets rooted firmly here.

So What Needs To Be Done?

There are three clear lines of thought when it comes to finding solution to this problem of urban poor. First, providing Universal Basic Income. Second, Urban Employment guarantee Schemes, and Third, A solution based on Right to Work. 

Universal Basic Income

Globally the worry was how to handle the mass unemployment caused by technological disruption. And they considered Universal Basic Income as a possible solution.

The Universal Basic Income caught the imagination of people when Rahul Gandhi announced ‘Nyunatam Aay Yojana’ or ‘Nyay’. It promised to put Rs 6000 pm in the bank account of a household.

Note the twelve hour duty advertised!

The idea behind Universal basic Income is that a just society needs to guarantee to each individual a basic income they can count on. It provides them access to basic goods and dignity.

A pilot study was run with SEWA (Self Employed Women’s Asso) in Madhya Pradesh with excellent results. Brazil was the first nation to make a law in 2003 and the results on alleviation of poverty are very good. Pilot experiments have been conducted in Namibia and in Finland with good results.

But the Economists propose that if you provide Universal Basic Income you ought to discontinue all other welfare schemes. That will surely run in rough political weather.  

Urban Employment Guarantee Schemes

There are some employment guarantee schemes for the urban poor. Because those schemes seem to be inspired by MGNREGA, a few words about it here will not be out of place.

MGNREGA offers 100 days of work per household. The purpose of the scheme is to enhance livelihood security of households and to reduce migration. Gram Sabha decides the choice of work to be done in the village. It could be digging wells, making roads or making check dams. Minimum wages are paid to those who work on the assigned work. If the work is not provided unemployment allowance is given. This is interesting – the Government has given a guaranteed employment of 100 days, so if it fails to provide work which is applied for.

Somewhat on this model Azim Premji University has proposed a scheme , for the urban poor. It is an Urban Employment Guarantee Scheme. The scheme has identified five types of jobs which can be offered to the urban poor. These are Public works, Green Jobs, Monitoring and Surveying jobs, Administrative assistance, and Care work. Some examples are works such as building and maintenance of roads, footpaths, and bridges; creation, rejuvenation, and monitoring of urban commons like water bodies, forest land, wetlands, and parks; and health centres; and provisioning of care for children and the elderly.

Migrants on Construction Work

They recommend that it should be made applicable to cities and towns with a population less than 10 Lakhs. It will cover about 4000 cities or towns. The scheme provides for guaranteed 100 days of work. Payment will be Rs 500 pd. So if a person working under this scheme will get Rs 50,000 in a year. It also provides for 150 days of contiguous training and apprenticeship at a stipend of Rs 13000 pm.

The scheme identifies two categories of workers. One category is of persons with levels of education up to Class 12. This is a large proportion of persons seeking employment. They will do standard public works. They will get 100 days of work. The other category is that of the persons with formal diploma. They will get 150 days of apprenticeship in which they will do work in Offices, Schools etc. The idea is to integrate a skilling program with employment. They will get a stipend of Rs 13000 pm.

The National Urban Right to Work Bill

Sajha Manch conducted research and found that there were three categories of work in the city – those who were in wage employment – these included the people in permanent as well as contract employment; those who were self-employed; and those who were under- or un-employed. This situation differed from the villages so they thought of a different approach. You may say that this is radically different from Urban Employment Scheme.

To cater to the needs of all categories there was a need to emphasise on the “Right to Work” rather than an ‘employment guarantee’, and to specify the “living wages” which should be paid to every worker. In that sense it is not an employment guarantee scheme at all. There is a ‘right based’ approach to the issue of urban poor. Sajha Manch prepared a draft Bill which can be adopted by the parliament. (Unfortunately not much progress is made on this great initiative.)

The Constitution of India has a chapter on Directive Principles of State Policy. And the Directive Principles states that “the State shall …. make effective provision for securing the right to work”. Another Directive Principle Art 43 states that the State shall endeavour to secure, to all workers, a living wage.

So the Bill requires the State to ensure that people are provided with employment for 300 days and paid a living wage. Note that it is not asking for 100 days of employment like Azim Premji Univ Scheme or MGNREGA. It adopts a ‘demand-driven approach’ by declaring that work must to be provided to all persons, working or willing to work, and who have registered in Labour Exchanges for this purpose. Because it is their right! An Unemployment Allowance, not less than 75% of wage, is to be paid if work is not made available.

What is a living wage? The living wage, according to the Committee on Fair Wages, represented the highest level of the wage which should enable the worker to provide for himself and his family not merely the basic essentials of food, clothing and shelter but a measure of frugal comfort including education for children, protection against ill health, requirements of essential social needs and a measure of insurance against more important misfortunes including old age.

But the Committee felt that when such a wage is to be determined, the considerations of national income and the capacity to pay of the industry concerned has to be taken into account and the Committee was of the opinion that living wage had to be the ultimate goal or the target.

The Living Wage worked out to Rs 23000 pm for unskilled work in 2018. In the minds of many people Living wage is thought to be a dream which can’t be achieved. But all over the world, there is a movement to secure Living Wage. It has been quantified in some cases. For example, the Living Wage is GBP 10.75 per hour in London. And there is a push to achieve it.

There is a debate about whether ‘Right to Work’ is a fundamental right at all. This discussion is important because the proposed Bill of Sajha Manch is based on the assumption that ‘Right to Work’ is a fundamental right. Supreme Court has held that the ‘Right to Life’ includes ‘Right to Livelihood’. The argument is that deprivation of right to work, which is livelihood, amounts to deprivation of ‘Right to Life.’ In that sense it is a part of the fundamental right.  

Why Right Based Approach Is Preferred

I have written repeatedly on how the labour laws are implemented, and how it is leading to exploitation of workers, a large number of them live on subsistence level wages. Please see my blogs The Contracts of Exploitation and NEEM Does Not Redeem Confidence among many other. Young persons are exploited under the schemes of ‘Earn & Learn’ and ‘NEEM’, not to mention the plight of the contract workers (Please see The Tragic Life of Contract Workers at BPCL .)

Those who have seen this broad picture of employment have lost all confidence in Government’s ability to implement schemes. Laws which have Govt. officials as watch dogs will not get implemented. The burden of compliance is one the employers and there is way out of that arrangement when the Government acts hand in glove. And the victims are migrant workers in the city – a large majority of them are inter-district migrant while others are inter-state migrant. They find employment as ‘contingent workforce.’

Therefore a law which places power in the hands of citizens is the only best solution! Though the Right to Work is not formally recognised as a fundamental right, it is on the threshold of it, because the right to livelihood is recognised as a part of right to life.

Even this may not be a complete solution to the problem of urban poor and the plight of workers. Any law can be made ineffective by the Government and capitalists acting in tandem, generously helped by the weak trade unions and brittle unity among workers.

Till then the migrant workers will remain ‘the Light Infantry of capitalism.’

Vivek S Patwardhan​ 

What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.

Aroehan: Creating Dream Villages in Mokhada by 2025: “No Malnutrition Deaths, No Child ‘Out of School’, Reduction in migration by 50%.”