Status of Migrant Workers in India - an overview

Status of Migrant Workers in India – An Overview

John VM Juliana*

Migration is not a new phenomenon in the history of a global society. In fact, the movement of population from place to place is one of the earliest social phenomena and is an important feature of human civilization.  Migrations have taken place due to various social and cultural disorders in the history.  In general, the primary causes for migration of people is in search of livelihood and survival.   Migration in India has existed historically and has mostly influenced by social structure and patterns of development.  One cannot deny that the large numbers of people have been forced to migrate from their native place during the colonial period and since independence the development policies have accelerated the process of migration either voluntarily or by force in terms of employment and survival.  So, this paper is an attempt to highlight a few major factors and components on the issues related to the impacts of migration.

Reasons for Migration:

According to Indian Census 2001, the reason  for migration have been classified in to several categories i.e. work/employment, business, education, marriage, moved at birth and moved at marriage etc.,  It is observed that  employment among males and marriage among females are the main reason for migration.  But in reality today both men and women are equally migrating from their place of origin in search of work/employment.  Socio-economic factors, extreme poverty and debt crisis are major causes for work related migration. Migration in India is predominantly within state and state to state and it depends on source of livelihood.  The total migrants as per the census of 1971 are 167 million persons, 1981 census 213 million, 1991 census 232 million and 2001 census 315 million. 

Employment opportunities for the migrant labourers, particularly to the forced migrants are highly available in three major sectors i.e. construction, brick or quarry chambers and domestic household works.    It is estimated that there are at present around 80 million migrants of which, 40 million are in the construction industry, 20 million are domestic workers, 2 million are sex workers, 5 million are call girls and somewhere from half a million to 12 million work in illegal mines otherwise called “small scale mines”.[1]

Plight of Forced Migrants:

Migrants are inherently vulnerable as subjects of Human Rights from the time they leave home to initiate their migration.[2]  Majority of migrant workers particularly the unskilled are forced to migrate from their place  for survival and they are solely depend on their employer for want of basic necessity to adjust themselves in the new locality, which is culturally and traditionally far from their  native place.  In addition to that frequent movements from one place to another lead them to lose certain entitlements they enjoyed in a place where they lived before migration.  Forced migrants and their families are often land up in bondage and trafficking. 

Bonded Labourers:

The employers particularly the owners of construction companies, brick chambers and quarry chambers exploit this situation and harass the labourers as slave.  They have a wide network across the country and through the network they trace the people who are in extreme poverty and debt trapped and offer them to clear all their dues and in return made them to work in their chambers as bonded labourers.  Those who have been trapped as bonded labourers work 12 to 16 hours a day with a very little wages and often their families too work tirelessly.  Most of these workers are from families that have for generations toiled in construction companies, brick units and quarry units in different parts of the State and are not aware of their rights or the welfare measures the State and Central governments offer them. People from Bihar, Odisha, Utter Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu are the major victims of bondage. 

Bonded labour exists mainly in the informal and unorganized sectors, which employ around 90 percent of Indian Labour force.  This type of slavery used to be more common in rural and urban brick chambers and quarry chambers, where as the mobility of outsiders are strictly controlled.  However it is also very common in domestic house hold works, carpet industries, matches, cigarettes and crackers industries and in manual scavenging in all major cities.[3]

Domestic Workers: 

Most domestic workers are from the marginalized sections of society and a large number of them are Women and Children.    Each household in urban and semi-urban employs children and women as baby sitters, domestic helpers with minimum wage and they work almost 24 hours cycle. 92% of the domestic workers are women, girls and children and 20% of these females are under 14 years of age, as per a study conducted by the organization “Social Alert”.  Census 2001 indicates that about 185, 595 children are employed as domestic workers and in dhabas (roadside tea and food stall). Employers prefer children since they can make children to work long hours with minimum wage.  Easy to handle them and in no way they can form union and demand more wage.  Women and Children those who are employed in the households often beaten up and sexually harassed by the owners.  Especially the girl children have been facing physical and emotional abuses and they are not allowed to freely move with others. 

Human Trafficking:

Virtually every country is affected by this crime.   Women and Children are the major victims of human trafficking, which is an extreme form of Human Rights Violation.  In India a large number of children and women are trafficked not only for the sex trade but also for other forms of exploitation.  Trafficking in children is on the rise and nearly 60 percent of the victims of trafficking are below 18 years of age.  Majority of the trafficking is within the country but there also large number trafficked from neighbouring Nepal and Bangladesh.  Child In Need Institute (CINI) based at Calcutta had come out with different stories that most of the tribal youngsters in Jharkhand State volunteer in to commercial sex work.  A study of CINI- Calcutta revealed that these tribes were earlier employed in Construction Company as labourers and after the work they were sexually tortured by the Contractors.  Instead of being tortured every day at workplace, they have decided to volunteer full time in sex trade. 

Excerpts of Reported Cases of Violations:

1.        The revenue divisional officer in Kancheepuram district rescued 13 bonded labourers from a rice mill after being tipped off by the International Justice Mission. The workers were released on Thursday night following a rescue operation conducted by the RDO Dr M Veerappan along with IJM volunteers. These labourers were brought out of Mohan Chetty Rice Mill after five to six years of bondage, an IJM spokeswoman said. The operators of the Mohan Chetty Rice Mill paid the victims approximately `50 to `60 per person, per day, which is below the Tamil Nadu Minimum Wage of `136.02 per day. The labourers were made to work for more than 12 hours each day. The mill owner also denied the labourers freedom of movement and the freedom to work outside of the facility. The RDO issued release certificates to the 13 bonded labourers, officially identifying them as victims of bonded labour and entitling them to government rehabilitation funds. – The New Indian Express 22 Sept 2012
2.       Forty bonded labourers were rescued from brick kilns in Jammu and Kashmir's Budgam district, an NGO claimed today. Bonded Labour Liberation Front led by activist Swami Agnivesh said the labourers were rescued from the brick kilns in Budgam district last week. Bonded labourer Ratnabai Sahoo, who managed to escape, said, "I have been working with my family for the last 11 years. Not for once have we been allowed to go back to Chhattisgarh. We are paid Rs 700 as for the entire week wages. "When we asked the brick kiln owner to allow us to go home, he said you have to pay Rs 3 lakh which you had taken as loan, then only you will be allowed. I and my son were thrashed very badly but we managed to escape somehow from their custody. "After we left, my husband was beaten and tortured mercilessly," she said. Commenting on their social conditions, Agnivesh said, "These labourers have been working in the brick kilns here for the last eleven years. We rescued some of them in February- March this year and sent them back to Chhattisgarh." "But in Chhattisgarh, these labourers were not adequately rehabilitated," Agnivesh alleged. – PTI news 5 September 2012

3.       A 15-year-old trafficking victim was rescued by a joint team of Agra police, NGO Shakti Vahini, and NCPCR (National Commission for Protection of Child Rights). The girl, from Darjeeling, had been brought to UP and was being forced into marriage. She was rescued from a house in Tundla-Agra Road on September 6. The girl was trafficked on September 1. A missing report had been filed after the girl's mother complained to police. The mother suspected one Arun, who stays in Agra. After running from pillar to post, the victim's mother contacted Shakti Vahini, which reported the matter to NCPCR. Raids were conducted and the girl was finally rescued. During counselling, the girl said trafficker Arun had brought her to Tundla by Mahananda Express. From Tundla she was taken to Agra. The girl also said the trafficker was showing her around to sell her off. – Times of India 9 September 2012
Constitutional Provisions:

Migrant work forces are subject to torture, exploitation and bondage since the migrants are heavily depend on the employers.  The Government of India made an enactment in 1979 of the “Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979”.  Including this under the Constitution of India, there were about 44 acts have been enacted catering to different aspects of labour namely, occupational health, safety, employment, training of apprentices, fixation, review and revision of minimum wages, mode of payment of wages, payment of compensation to workmen who suffer injuries as a result of accidents or causing death or disablement, bonded labour, contract labour, women labour and child labour, resolution and adjudication of industrial disputes, provision of social security such as provident fund, employees’ state insurance, gratuity, provision for payment of bonus, regulating the working conditions of certain specific categories of workmen such as plantation labour, beedi workers etc.[4] 

Migration and Law:

I wish to state the emancipated Acts which are available for the commons use. But in midst of all the vulnerability prevails.

Name of the Act

(a)       Labour laws enacted and enforced by Central Government
1.          The Employees’ State Insurance Act, 1948
2.         The Employees’ Provident Fund and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952
3.         The Dock Workers (Safety, Health and Welfare) Act, 1986
4.         The Mines Act, 1952
5.         The Iron Ore Mines, Manganese Ore Mines and Chrome Ore Mines Labour              Welfare (Cess) Act, 1976
6.         The Iron Ore Mines, Manganese Ore Mines and Chrome Ore Mines Labor Welfare           Fund   Act, 1976
7.         The Mica Mines Labour Welfare Fund Act, 1946
8.         The Beedi Workers Welfare Cess Act, 1976
9.         The Limestone and Dolomite Mines Labour Welfare Fund Act, 1972
10.        The Cine Workers Welfare (Cess) Act, 1981
11.         The Beedi Workers Welfare Fund Act, 1976
12.        The Cine Workers Welfare Fund Act, 1981

(b)       Labour laws enacted by Central and enforced by both the Central as well as             the State Governments
13.        The Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 1986.
14.        The Building and Other Constructions Workers’ (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996.
15.        The Contract Labour (Regulation and Abolition) Act, 1970.
16.        The Equal Remuneration Act, 1976.
17.        The Industrial Disputes Act, 1947.
18.        The Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 1946.
19.        The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of             Service) Act, 1979.
20.       The Labour Laws (Exemption from Furnishing Returns and Maintaining Registers by       Certain Establishments) Act, 1988
21.        The Maternity Benefit Act, 1961
22.       The Minimum Wages Act, 1948
23.       The Payment of Bonus Act, 1965
24.       The Payment of Gratuity Act, 1972
25.       The Payment of Wages Act, 1936
26.       The Cine Workers and Cinema Theatre Workers (Regulation of Employment) Act,            1981
27.       The Building and Other Construction Workers Cess Act, 1996
28.       The Apprentices Act, 1961

(c)       Labour laws enacted by Central Government and enforced by the State         Governments
29.       The Employers’ Liability Act, 1938
30.       The Factories Act, 1948
31.        The Motor Transport Workers Act, 1961
32.       The Personal Injuries (Compensation Insurance) Act, 1963
33.        The Personal Injuries (Emergency Provisions) Act, 1962
34.       The Plantation Labour Act, 1951
35.       The Sales Promotion Employees (Conditions of Service) Act, 1976
36.       The Trade Unions Act, 1926
37.       The Weekly Holidays Act, 1942
38.       The Working Journalists and Other Newspapers Employees (Conditions of Service) and             Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1955
39.       The Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923
40.       The Employment Exchange (Compulsory Notification of Vacancies) Act, 1959
41.        The Children (Pledging of Labour) Act 1938
42.       The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976
43.       The Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act, 1966
44.       The Unorganized Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008

Despite of several acts and regulations, the atrocities and exploitation against migrant labourers are becoming unavoidable because the migrant work force is predominantly in the unorganized sector and it is very difficult to document the statistics and track the ground situation. Several measures have been taken to trace the problems of the migrant workers by several institutions but only few cases are rarely reported and brought in to the notice of concern departments.  It is because of the backing of the politicians, the employers keep exploiting the migrant workers.


Migration in India is mainly within the Country.  Unfortunately, proper statistics on migration workers is not available.  It is practically difficult to study the nature and dimension of migration in details.  NGOs and Research Institution, who have been active in empowering the migrant workers, regularly updates the problems faced by migrant workers within their capacity.   But it is not sufficient enough to strive to protect and promote the rights of the migrants workers across the country.  In the struggle to protect the migrant labourers, the government, non-governmental organizations, civil society, pressure groups have to play an important role.  Law cannot be the only instrument to take care of all until and unless the people should aware of the law and enact accordingly.  So let us jointly uphold the rights of the Migrants by being human rights defenders.

* John VM Juliana is currently serving as Programme Manager, Vigil India Movement, Bangalore.   He has served several National and International Development and Programme Centers including the Ecumenical Christian Centre, Whitefield as its Programme Secretary. 

[1] B.K. Sahu – Migrant Workers: Present Position and Future Strategy Towards Social Security
[2] N. Ajith Kumar – Vulnerability of Migrants and Responsiveness of the State: The Case of Unskilled Migrant workers in Kerala, India
[3] Modern Slavery in India: Cases of Bonded Labour
[4] Ministry of Labour and Employment – Labour Laws and Other Regulations for the 12th five year plan (2012-17)
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