Migrant workers: We’ve cried enough, it’s time to rehabilitate them

If not for the COVID-19 lockdown, we would have remained blissfully unaware of the ordeals of migrant workers. They are the ‘informal labourers’ which the IMF defines as the ones with no written contract, paid leave, health benefits or social security – mostly employed by the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) sector. Back in March when India resigned into a nationwide lockdown, this set of the population was caught unaware. Media reports floated stories of how employers left their calls for help unanswered. In desperation, many resorted to their homebound journey on foot. A number of them did not make it. Those who pulled it off had a long future of uncertainty staring at them.

Now the markets are opening and the urban businesses want them back. For these informal workers, it’s a tough decision. There’s fear – what happens if the lockdown like crisis hits again? But staying back would mean unemployment pushing them deeper into poverty.

These workers play a significant role in driving the national and international supply chain as well as supporting the rural communities with their earnings. A no return decision would mean a breakdown of this whole process.

Here are a few things we can do to rehabilitate them and build a system that’s resilient and can withstand future shocks.

Creating a safety-net

The ‘naka’ or the daily wage workers who get hired by contractors on an everyday basis are the most vulnerable. They are unaccounted with no standardisation of wages or benefits like accommodation.

The Modi Government launched the Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan, worth INR50,000 crore, to provide employment to returned migrant workers as part of its Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan. Are the benefits of this scheme reaching the migrant workers?

What we need is a   that can capture information about the labourers and their transactions with the contractors. This system should also track how many of these workers know about different welfare schemes and how many are availing the same. This will make bodies like Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board (BOCW) – through which they can access government funds, more effective. It will also make the concerned stakeholders more accountable to the workers’ welfare.

Harnessing new opportunities

A number of new roles, which did not exist in the pre-COVID phase – have emerged. These are jobs like tele-callers in the health sectors and sanitisers for homes and vehicles among others. Traditional roles like electricians, plumbers, fabricators, too are witnessing a surge in demand.

This is an opportunity to help these workers acquire additional skills and create demand for their work in multiple sectors. At LabourNet, we are driving a pilot project to reskill and upskill 1 lakh people in these crafts.

We are already seeing some traction. Beneficiaries like Satish C, who has been upskilled in sanitisation, has found work as vehicle sanitiser. Many are working as sanitisers for government offices and hospital premises. Air-conditioner mechanics, plumbers and electricians are catering to home essential services.

Sewing machine operators like Mamtha Tavarekere and Gayathri Nagappan, have been able to continue earning by stitching masks and supplying to multinationals.

Complementing our effort is the government’s action plan to reskill unemployed migrant workers. Some of the key features of the plan are training based on the current demand and employment exchange that directly connects potential workers to the employers.

Local networks

The reverse migration from financial and manufacturing hubs will continue as many may decide to stay back in their natives. This means villages will become the concentration hubs for skilled workers like gem polishers, masons and skilled artisans.

Labour economists feel that because their professional networks are in urban areas, it will be hard for most of them to find opportunities. Can we create local clusters of excellence by bringing together various skilled workers who can cater to nearby smaller cities. This network can be scaled up in the due course of time to attract bigger companies from urban areas. Workers can work for these bigger establishments in a remote engagement model.

A specialised local support ecosystem can be built which will empower these skilled workers to take up micro-entrepreneurship targeting the local communities.

It’s all about giving the migrant workers the choice of either staying back at their natives or travelling to the cities. Both should have enough opportunities. The long term benefit of this is an equitable distribution of prospects which can bridge the prosperity gaps between cities and villages.

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