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The Human Rights of Migrant workers: Existing Laws and Need for Reforms

by Nikita VadrevuMarch 12, 2018


The desire for a decent livelihood and better standards of living has always encouraged people to move from one place to another in search for better jobs The right to work and livelihood are one of the most significant human rights and has been a part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments notably International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.  Therefore the migration of people for work has been a regular phenomenon since ages.  This paper focuses on the migration of workers within one India i.e. State to State and region to region andthe major issues faced by them.

The intra country migration in characterized by lack of alternate livelihoods and skill development in source areas[1]. The large gap between urban and rural areas in terms of development, infrastructure and standard of living is the major reason for this. The economic disparity between different states has also resulted in people migrating from one state to another. However, the migrant workers in India are one of the worst victims of human rights violations.


Migration of Labour in India


The Economic Survey 2017 shows the fact that the Indians are very prone to migration. Though there are various types of migration such as rural to rural, rural to urban, urban to rural and urban to urban, the concept of rural to urban and migration from a poor state to a rich state are very prevalent. The reasons include poverty, a seasonal agriculture economy and underdevelopment in their own place of origin.

According to the 2011 census, there is about a 453.6 million migrants in India. These migrant workers are mainly engaged in domestic work, construction work, agricultural labour and taxi driving. This migration on one hand is crucial to skill development, access to health care etc. On the other hand, the migration is risky as the migrant workers are often the victims of the various social, economic, cultural and political oppressions. [2]


Migrant Worker: Definition

A “migrant worker” is a person who either migrates within their home country or outside it to pursue work such as seasonal work. Migrant workers usually do not have an intention to stay permanently in the country or region in which they work.

The United Nations defines “migrant worker” as a person who is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national.[3] The definition given by UN clearly covers only international migration and the related issues.  According to section 2(1) (e) of Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, “inter-State migrant workman” means any person who is recruited by or through a contractor in one State under an agreement or other arrangement for employment in an establishment in another State, whether with or without the knowledge of the principal employer in relation to such establishment. According to section 2(n) of the “Unorganized Workers Social Security Act, 2008, “Wage worker” means a person employed for remuneration in the unorganized sector, directly by an employer or through any contractor, irrespective of place of work, whether exclusively for one employer or for one or more employers, whether in cash or in kind, whether as a home based worker, or as a temporary or casual worker, or as a migrant worker, or workers employed by households including domestic workers, with a monthly wage of an amount as may be notified by the Central Government or State Government, as the case may be. The definition given by the above two legislations categorize migrant workers into organized and unorganized workers.  While the inter- State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 covers only contractual workers, the  Unorganized Workers Social Security Act, 2008 talks about the unorganized workers.


Human Rights Violations faced by Migrant Workers in India

The migrant workers lacks basic living amenities such as proper housing, clean drinking water, sanitation facilities. Various studies on the migrant workers show that they either live in slums, tents or at times in make shifts huts. The migrant workers who do construction work lives in the make shifts tents near the construction sites.  Those work as domestic maids live in slums where the living conditions are unsafe and in adequate. The temporary settlements of the migrant workers are often in the unauthorized land and there is a threat of evacuation also. As the housing and sanitation conditions are very poor, they are susceptible to various diseases.

The labour welfare provisions such as minimum wage and weekly holidays are not available to the migrant workers. As many of the migrant workers are in unorganized sector, these welfare provisions are not applicable to them. The available benefits do not reach to them because of nepotism, corruption and ignorance of the migrant workers.

The working conditions of the migrant workers are also often worse. They work in unsafe environment and are prone to various work related accidents. This is especially prevalent in the construction works and factories. There is an obvious lack of occupational health and safety measures for them. The workers do not have provisions of compensation and insurance overs. Another problem faced by the migrant workers is that they are often trapped in bonded labour and debts. The workers are often uneducated and illiterate and are financially exploited.

It has also been found that the women migrant workers especially women are often sexually exploited. They are vulnerable to rape, sexual harassment, child trafficking, prostitution and women trafficking. They do not have access to justice such as courts, police stations because of their economic and social vulnerability. In many places, the police falsely implicate the migrant workers.

The migrant workers face from various legal problems. They often do not have identity cards and documents.  Due to lack of proper documents, they are not part of census data and are missed out in BPL surveys. They are unable to be a part of electoral system is denied the right to vote. They cannot avail the benefits of nationalized banks including savings, investment and loans. The children of migrant workers do not have access to education because of the lack of identity cards.


Laws on Migrant Workers

The Constitution of India provides every citizen various fundamental rights and provides for various directive principles. These constitutional provisions are applicable to the migrant workers as well. They are as follows.

  • Article 16. Equality of opportunity in matters of public employment

(1) There shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the State

(2) No citizen shall, on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, descent, place of birth, residence or any of them, be ineligible for, or discriminated against in respect or, any employment or office under the State

  • Article 21. Protection of life and personal liberty – No person shall be deprived of his lifeor personal liberty except according to procedure established by law.
  • Article 21 A. Right to education – The State shall provide free and compulsory educationto all children of the age of six to fourteen years in such manner as the State may, by law,determine.
  • Article 23. Prohibition of traffic in human beings and forced labour

(1) Traffic in human beings and begar and other similar forms of forced labour are prohibited and any contravention of this provision shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law

  • Article 38. State to secure a social order for the promotion of welfare of the people – (1)The State shall strive to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting aseffectively as it may a social order in which justice, social, economic and political; shallinform all the institutions of the national life.

(2) The State shall, in particular, strive to minimize the inequalities in income, andendeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not onlyamongst individuals but also groups of people residing in different areas or engaged indifferent vocations.

  • Article 39. Certain principles of policy to be followed by the State – The State shall, inparticular, direct its policy towards securing a that the citizens, men and women equally, have –
  1. the right to an adequate means oflivelihood;
  2. that ownership and control of the material resources of the community are sodistributed as best to sub-serve the common good;
  3. that the operation of the economic system does not result in the concentration of wealthand means of production to the common detriment;
  4. that there is equal pay for equal work for both men and women;
  5. that the health and strength of workers, men and women, and the tender age of childrenare not abused and that citizens are not forced by economic necessity to enter a vocationsunsuited to their age or strength;
  6. that children are given opportunities and facilities to develop in a healthy manner andin conditions of freedom and dignity and that childhood and youth are protected againstexploitation and against moral and material abandonment.
  • Article 41. Right to work, to education and to public assistance in certain cases- The Stateshall, within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effectiveprovision for securing the right to work, to education and to public assistance in cases ofunemployment, old age, sickness and disablement, and in other cases of undeserved want.
  • Article 43. Living wage, etc., for workers – The State shall endeavour to secure, bysuitable legislation or economic organization or in any other way, to all workers,agricultural industrial or otherwise, work, a living wage, conditions of work ensuring adecent standard of life and full enjoyment of leisure and social and cultural opportunitiesand, in particular, the State shall endeavour to promote cottage industries on an individualor co- operative basis in rural areas.


Unorganized Workers Social Security Act, 2008

In 2008, the Central Government enacted the Unorganized Workers Social Security Act, 2008. This is an important legislation as it covers the unorganized workers particularly migrant workers who are neglected in all labour law provisions. Section 3 of the Act directs the Central Government and State Governments to make and implement social security schemes to the unorganized sector migrant workers.. This includes life and disability cover, health and maternity benefits, old age pension etc., education schemes for children etc. The Schedule 1 of the Act lists various schemes for the unorganized workers such as Indira Gandhi National Old Age Pension Scheme (IGNOAPS), Janani Suraksha Yojana (JSY), Janashree Bima Yojana (JBY): (scheme),Aam Admi Bima Yojana (AABY): (scheme), Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (RSBY): (Scheme),National Scheme for Welfare of Fishermen and Training and Extension: (scheme),Handloom Weavers’ Comprehensive Welfare Scheme.[4]

The Unorganized workers Social Security Act which however has hardly been implemented anywhere in India even after a decade of it coming into force. The reason behind this is the lack of interest of the Government. The migrant workers also have very less awareness about the legal provisions available to them.


Domestic maids in East Delhi ( A case study on migrant workers)

The city of Delhi has always been a settlement for migrants from the historic times.  The conquests, the partition and the advantages of it being the capital and a metropolitan city are the various reasons for it. The district of east Delhi has various slums and migrant colonies where the migrant workers from the north India and East India are residing.  The men among them work in various factories in Noida, or in meagre jobs in the upper/middle class resident colonies of East Delhi. The women predominantly work as domestic maids in the in the upper/middle class resident colonies of East Delhi.

The domestic maids of east Delhi live in poverty as the earnings that they get are very meager. They are mostly illiterate. The rented rooms of the chawls  or the slums where they live are very congested and over populated. The land owners often ask for exorbitant rents, water bills and electricity bills and exploit them. The women are often the victims of domestic violence and sexual violence.The jobs of these maids are not regulated by any of the labour laws. The main reason behind this is the lack of proper laws for them and its implementation. Many of them do not avail any social security benefits and do not receive minimum wages.  They do not have weekly holidays and proper leisure hours.Some of the maids do not have proper identity documents, ration cards and BPL cards. Due to this, their cost of living is also very high. The children of these maids do not get proper education as they also start working at a very tender age. The children also work as domestic maids, child care takers in houses. Sometimes, the girls get married at a very early age and suffer from various miseries.

On the other hand, these women do not want to return to their villages due to the seasonal character of the agriculture and lack of development in their villages.The case study on these domestic maids clearly shows the gloomy picture of conditions of migrant workers in India. The existing schemes and laws are not accessible to them.


Conclusion and Suggestions

The migration of labour is very important for the economic growth and development of the country. Despite contributing for the economic growth substantially, the migrant workers are the victims of economic, social, cultural and political exploitation. The situation is worsened by the fact that they do not get any benefits from their place of origin and the place of migration. The migrant workers largely belonging to the unorganized sector are disadvantaged by lack of adequate labour benefits also. The constitutional ideal of economic justice is only achieved by providing them basic facilities and bringing them to the mainstream.

Following are the suggestions for the welfare of the migrant workers in India.

  • Adequate Laws for the welfare of migrant workers.
  • Governments to implement more schemes for the migrant workers.
  • Provisions of identity cards for the migrant workers.
  • Access to Education for the Children of migrant workers.
  • Access to justice systems in case of violations on them.
  • Civil Society Organizations to take initiatives.



[1] http://in.one.un.org/page/decent-work-for-migrant-workers-in-india/

[2] http://in.one.un.org/page/decent-work-for-migrant-workers-in-india/

[3] United Nations Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, United Nations. Retrieved 30 November 2006

[4] https://blog.ipleaders.in/laws-related-to-migrant-labourers-in-india


Author : Sreedurga T.N, Assistant Professor (law), Amity Law School, Noida, Amity University, Noida (UP); [email protected];

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