A Different Dread For Labourers Amidst COVID-19

This blog is inscribed by Madhuparna Sarkar.

Introduction

The world has seen havoc for the past few months. While we were busy going about our errands, harming the environment, creating political upheavals and disrupting the peace in general, a virus was quietly bidding its time. Covid-19 first reported in December 2019 in China has come long in the past five months butchering over 2,00,000 people and affecting over 41,00,000 worldwide. It has affected the economy of the world creating a near recession like situation. In the wake of this rapidly mutating genome nations across the world have invoked their epidemic and disaster management laws. The worst hit in these circumstances being the economically backward masses which make up the bulk of the nation. The law protecting them are few and implantation is rapidly dwindling.

Laws regarding Epidemic and Disasters

In India the two laws regarding the spread of diseases; Epidemic Diseases Act 1897[1] and the National Disaster Management Act. The Epidemic diseases Act being a remnant of the colonial era, it was enacted during the spread of the deadly bubonic plague. This law, although contested to be barbaric by the masses during its initial days of enactment by the British Government, had since been revised. It accredits the state to take Non Pharmaceutical Interventions to successfully curb the spread of an epidemic. Some state regulation under this law can forcibly quarantine a person. Disobedience to the law is punishable. Thorough dissection of the law exhibits the lack of any reference to the human rights of the general public during the epidemic. Under the law the states have curbed movements and any forms of travel have been restricted.

The Disaster Management Act of 2005[2] empowers the government to deal with and manage the disasters in an effective manner and provides for civil and criminal liabilities against those not abiding by the laws. Under this act it was initially decided to camp people wherever they were at the moment and the centre asked the states to make provisions for food and shelters for these people. This policy did not seem to hold up as there was a clear case of miscommunication among the centre and the states. There are easy ways out of resorting to brutalities.

Inter-State Migrant Workers Act, 1979

This brings us to the Inter-State Migrant Workmen’s Act, 1979[3] which under one of its provision states that the contractor is supposed to pay the entire fare of the labourer to their native place. In times like these when labourers are not receiving their original amount of wages it is much likely that they will not receive travelling fares. Amidst these news of migrant labourers being forced to work without pay have started to circulate. The protests they held for their unpaid wages were in vain due to the language barrier among the employees and the employers. The intervention of trade unions has brought very little relief to the workers. At a time when the whole world is in uncertainty about the future of mankind, the labourers seem to bear the brunt of it all. The economic progress and development of a country depends chiefly on the labourers, especially in case of a developing nation. There are thousands of labourers walking, cycling and even hiding in cement mixers to get back to their hometown, hundreds dying along the way. Starvation and poor sanitary conditions are nothing out of the ordinary for the labourers but these drastic changes have seemed to worsen the situation. During major crises it is the lower rungs of the economic environment that get robbed of their basic fundamental rights especially Article 21[4] which bestows upon every human born a right to life, liberty and to live with dignity. These are the innate qualities which gives humans a framework of existence. If you snatch away the existence there remains nothing but an aggregation of flesh, bone and blood.

Plight Of Workers In Absence Of Proper Implementation Of Laws

A nationwide lockdown announced on 24th March 2020, to control the widespread pandemic had created absolute distress among the migrant workers. These inter-state migrant workers, especially the daily wage labourers lost their jobs and had nothing to survive on. The few who decided to leave for their hometowns either died due to exhaustion or due to starvation. On 8th May 2020, 16 migrant workers returning to their home in Madhya Pradesh were run down by a train in the state of Maharashtra. In another incident a truck carrying five migrant labourers was overturned and consequently killed them. In Uttar Pradesh, a sports complex is set up with a capacity to house about 2000 people, it has all the basic amenities required for survival but it has not housed a single person since its establishment. There are thousands who in an attempt to cycle to their home towns some 1500 miles away were chased by the people of the villages enroute eventually dying.

 Elderly migrants chased away by their own villagers are seeking comfort in the embrace of death. Those who are still stranded in other states are barely sustaining. The social workers are providing help to the distressed people but are eventually running out of funds. There seems to be no legal rights securing the lives of these migrants. Death is the only escape they seem to have right now. There are hundreds being reported dead along their journey home but these are just the ones which find their way to the newspapers, the real data might be distressing. Labour is a concurrent subject whereby both the centre and the state have access to legislate and act. The Inter-State Migrant Workmen act 1979, have several provisions which make sure healthy working conditions for the labourers. But the lack of implementing such laws whether in letter or in spirit is absolutely negative. Amidst these several states have decided to scrape certain labour laws, the chief among them being Uttar Pradesh which has decided to suspend 35 out of its 38 labour laws. This is said to bring much needed investment into the state for maintaining the economy. Although the new changes await the approval of the Centre many have criticized this move stating that this will only worsen the already weak labour laws.

Awaited Reforms

In 2018 a new bill called the Occupational Safety, Health and Working conditions Code[5] was introduced by the Central Government, which was subsequently re-Introduced in 2019 as the previous one had lapsed due to the elections. This bill aimed at assimilating and replacing 13 major laws for the labourers. The basic laws which it subsumed within itself are namely Factories Act, 1948; Mines Act, 1952; Dock Workers Act, 1986; Contract Labour Act, 1970; and Inter-State Migrant Workers Act, 1979. This act fails to mention the fate of migrant labourers in case of a widespread pandemic.

The due process and their safe return to their native places or methods to sustain themselves while being stranded at a completely different place without any money, food or shelter. Everyday food might not be a concern for upper economic rungs of society but for the people with daily incomes and zero savings it is a foothold situation. They help us meet our extravagant desires but when it comes to their survival, they have no one to depend upon. They stand under the hot summer sun in long queues awaiting government ration supplies and going hungry till the next supply if the ration finishes off when it’s their turn.  The visuals are quite deplorable with throngs of migrant workers walking on the highways with small children lugging along the burden of their little possessions.

Conclusion

The past has been calamitous, the present is dreadful and the future is obscure. The fate of thousands is at line and there are no particular laws shielding them from the onslaught of everyday grievances. There seems to be no way out for them. Some tired of the tedious process of everyday life have ended up taking their own lives. The physical health of these people is balancing precariously on the edge while their mental health is taking a nosedive into eternal suffering. Most of these labourers do not possess any knowledge of their rights and laws protecting them. They barely know to write or spell their names.

This heinous circumstance which they have been put to at current times only goes on to show how we have desecrated humanity.  There shall be tougher times to come with the absence of a proper vaccine for the disease but the worse affected will be the labourers.  The widespread virus has attracted the media towards the dire circumstances of the labourers and even worse laws protecting them or rather the absence of laws protecting them.  Most of these workers lack proper skill for the jobs which they do; generally they are exploited and left to fend for themselves when they are no longer useful to the employers. Demanding compensation for damages done to them is usually through zero intervention of the legal procedures as most of them fear the expenses that come with it, as the result they are marginalized by the affluent ones. It is of utmost importance to bring major reforms in labour laws and educate the labourers about the same.


[1] Pavithra K M, Explainer: What is the Epidemic Diseases act of 1897?, Factly, https://factly.in/explainer-what-is-the-epidemic-diseases-act-of-1897/

[2] Sunil Prabhu, Anindita Sanyal, Centre Invokes National Disaster Management Act, Takes Control Of Coronavirus Battle In States, ndtv, (May 21,2020, 14:34PM), https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/coronavirus-centre-invokes-national-disaster-management-act-takes-control-of-covid-19-battle-in-stat-2200288

[3] Arfa Javaid, What is the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act of 1979?, Jagranjosh, (May 22, 2020, 19:54PM), https://www.jagranjosh.com/general-knowledge/migrant-workers-protection-law-1589300556-1

[4] INDIAN CONST. art 21.

[5] Ministry: Labour and Employment,The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019, prsindia, https://www.prsindia.org/billtrack/occupational-safety-health-and-working-conditions-code-2019

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