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MIGRANT VULNERABILITY TO COVID-19: CHALLENGES AND RESPONSES

BY

Sonalika Gupta


The world has suddenly awakened up to the truth of a virulent disease, “The COVID 19” this worldwide pandemic that has emanated an unparalleled wave of a public health crisis, economic instability, and social challenges. Of late, the government came out with unprecedented measures to save human lives by putting lockdowns in the entire Indian Territory. If saving human lives is the principal objective, it’s worth asking ourselves: could the lockdown, which is important, can save a life?


Though it’s a protective measure, it brings another deadly danger to the vulnerable section of society.

The populations of 10 crores migrant workers, who are projected to account for 20% of India’s workforce, have been the worst sufferer of the lockdown put in the entire territory[i]. The lockdown has not only stopped the movement of an individual but also has locked down the income of every individual to make their living. They are trapped in various cities, states without any wages, money, food, and home. They work in essential, but low paid and vulnerable jobs like the cleaner, laundry work, factories, hotel cleaning etc without any job securities and safety, which make them more prone to contagious diseases[ii]. Their earnings not only feed them but their family also and this lockdown has made them jobless and blurred their motive to stay with fear of hunger they are forced to go back to their villages, but there comes a new dilemma to these migrants, how will they go back? Owing to lockdown, every transportation system has been suspended and this forced migrant workers to travel a hundred or a thousand of kilometres to reach their home. Even some are women migrant workers who are pregnant and travelling with their child without any food and basic sanitation. Not only migrant workers their children are a part of vulnerable sections. In a doomed incident, a 12-year-old girl died after walking more than 100 kilometres from her workplace in Telangana bhupalpally to her native village of Chhattisgarh [iii]. This insight impacts the vulnerable section of society. India has the law to regulate labour movement from state to state. The Interstate Migrant Workmen Act 1979 requires the registration of migrant workers to obtain basic needs [iv]. But still half of the migrant worker is unregistered, which makes it difficult to predict the movement of workers during the crisis.

GOVERNMENT MEASURES AND LOOPHOLES: The Indian government has unveiled a Rs 20 lakh crores relief package for India.

Access to Food supplies

The stimulus plan would cover around 800 million people over the next three months. The package contains 5 kg of wheat or rice per person every month, a gas cylinder per month for poor families, and some cash subsidies[v]. In any ration shops around the country, national portability ration cards can be used easily.

But these are not likely to reach migrant labourers or workers who are far from their registered addresses. Also, over 100 million people are possibly excluded from enrolment in the public distribution system because state-wide the number of people subsidized for food grains not updated for reflecting population increase. Also, an all India survey in the course of the lockdown proclaims that 96% of the migrant workers got no government rations and 90% did not recompense [vi].

Access to Transportation

At first, only Uttar Pradesh arranged transportation to Delhi for the migrants to be taken home and later on the state was permitted by central to operate buses and trains for migrant workers. “Shramik Special” trains to ferry migrant workers and others stranded [vii].

But why still people avoid boarding the train and preferring to travel miles by walking in a group? The answer to this question is poverty, lack of wages, fear of starvation. The migrant does not have enough money to pay for the train expenses. The shramik special train services are not free of cost but charge fares with additional charges over normal. The labourer who lacks the money to quench their need for food then how will they be able to pay the fare for trains.

Later on, the petition was filed to the Supreme Court to provide free travel back to their home however it was rejected by stating that it was the responsibility of state governments.

Access to Housing

Under PM Awas Yojana, Scheme for accommodation for migrant workers [viii], the government-funded housing in cities being regenerated in affordable housing complex through the public-private partnership will give abundant need to the improvement of the real estate sector and alternative connected industries.

Labour law and migrant worker

About 200 unemployed migrant workers have lost one’s life in mishaps while cycling or going home since the lockdown in late March. These workers are the foundation of a developing economy who the government, law enforcement agencies, have let down with no effectiveness. Their condition has put a spotlight on the inadequate and ineffective implication of existing laws such as the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979.

Also, many states have begun to amend legislation, such as Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat etc., with the furtherance of the migration of labour to their home town which led to a labour shortage in the state, which forces states like Karnataka to stop the movement by cancelling migrant workers' train services, but this violates their fundamental right to travel freely around the territory of India [ix].

Similarly, Gujarat empowers production line and business unit to set up punitive measures against migrant workers returning to their home state, however, its violate Article 23 of the constitution of India, which sets out- a “right against exploitation” prohibiting human trafficking, beggar, forced labour[x].

In this Supreme Court, the PUDR vs. Union of India[xi] held that legislation protecting the contract labour and intergovernmental migrant workers was outlined to ensure basic human dignity; breach of these laws would infringe Article 21 right to life. The laws are not enough until they are implemented.

Nobody would toil for less than the minimal remuneration without any force or composite – and that composite could include starvation, misery, or penury. However, the changes introduced by states eliminate the fundamental protection of labour law instead of uplift workers to return by guaranteeing wages or salaries and better working surroundings.[xii].


The Uttar Pradesh Temporary dispensation from Such Labour Laws Ordinance, 2020, for example, suspends the implementation of all labour laws in the state for the next three years, except for 1976 Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, Section 5 of the 1936 Payment of Wages Act (which relates to the timely payment of wages) and for the safety and security of workmen have been maintained [xiii].

All these will exploit their rights when they need it at the time of crisis where there will be absolute exploitation of them due to economic regression all over the country.


Hence, there is a need to introduce a National Migrant Workers Commission at the central level supported by the state level. Commissions must accumulate and take up registration of migrant workers to robust the database for the testing and grievances. Mitigating further danger to public health by providing financial relief through direct cash transfers, MGNREGA, etc. And providing employment opportunities with skill training centres, as well making them aware of their legal right under central and state laws. Need for comprehensive labour law to provide the best standard of protection and welfare to the labourers. A long-pending issue is the portability of migrant workers voting rights, which will empower migrant worker political voices in the country.

Now, this is a time of reflection, for recognising that regardless of what we can or cannot do in such dire times, one thing we can do is learn to be empathetic because everything will not be hunky-dory in upcoming years.

[i] Ranjini Basu, Migrant Agricultural Workers in India and the COVID-19 lockdown (2020), FOCUS WEB (June 07, 2020, 10:05 AM), https://focusweb.org/migrant-agricultural-workers-in-india-and-the-covid-19-lockdown/

[ii] UN Women, Guidance note: Addressing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women migrant workers, UN WOMEN(April 26, 2020, 10:12 AM), https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/04/guidance-note-addressing-the-impacts-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-women-migrant-workers.

[iii] India Today, 12-year-old walks 150 km from Telangana to her Chhattisgarh home, dies of exhaustion, INDIA TODAY (Aug. 10, 2020, 10:20 AM), https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/12-year-old-walks-150-km-from-telangana-to-her-chhattisgarh-home-dies-of-exhaustion-1669297-2020-04-21/.

[iv] Ajay Kumar, India’s human chains are its Constitution’s shame, THE LEAFLET ( Aug. 13, 2020, 5:11 PM), https://theleaflet.in/indias-human-chains-are-its-constitutions-shame/.

[v] Anumeha Verma, COVID-19 creates more uncertainty for migrant workers in India, GLOBAL VOICES (Aug. 13, 2020, 5:20 PM), https://globalvoices.org/2020/04/23/covid-19-creates-more-uncertainty-for-migrant-workers-in-india/#.

[vi] Id. at 4.

[vii] The Economic Times, Indian Railways announces 6 ’ Shramik Special’ train to ferry stranded migrant workers, THE ECONOMIC TIMES (Aug. 13, 2020, 5:22 PM), https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/industry/transportation/railways/indian-railways-announces-6-shramik-special-trains-to-ferry-stranded-migrant-workers-students/articleshow/75491163.cms?from=mdr.

[viii] ET Online, Summing up Modi’s COVID stimulus: Big takeaways from the big COVID package, THE ECONOMIC TIME (Aug. 13, 2020, 5:22 PM), https://m.economictimes.com/news/economy/policy/summing-up-modis-covid-stimuls-takeaways-so-far-from-the-mother-of-all incentives/amp_articleshow/75758840.cms.

[ix] INDIAN CONST. art. 19, cl. 1, sub cl. (d).

[x] Arundhati Katju, Changes proposed to labour laws are unconstitutional, THE INDIAN EXPRESS (Aug. 13, 2020, 6:22 PM), https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/migrant-crisis-relaxation-in-labour-laws-india-trade-union-coronavirus-arundhati-katju-6416305/lite/.

[xi] 1982 AIR 1473.

[xii] Arundhati Katju, Changes proposed to labour laws are unconstitutional, THE INDIAN EXPRESS (Aug. 13, 2020, 6:22 PM), https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/migrant-crisis-relaxation-in-labour-laws-india-trade-union-coronavirus-arundhati-katju-6416305/lite/.

[xiii] Id.

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