Niti Aayog draft is a clear statement of intent to better recognize migrant labor policy; the contribution of migrants to the economy; and to support them in their efforts. This puts forward a number of radical ideas; including the adoption of a rights-based approach and the establishment; of an additional layer of institutions to create a more enabling policy environment for migrants. It proposes a new national migration policy and the formation of a special unit within the Ministry of Labor to work closely with other ministries. The new framework will bring much needed; convergence in line departments and will be a major step towards a universal understanding; of the causes and effects of migration as well as interventions.
The policy calls for improving the record on the implementation of several labor laws in the country, by which; and by and large, labor have failed to differentiate the lives of migrants. It discusses at length the provisions under the Equal Remuneration Act; Bonded Labor Act, Building and Other Construction Workers Act and Interstate Migrant Workers Act. The draft invites the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda as well as Sustainable Development Goals aimed at protecting labor rights. It acknowledges the challenges of welfare provision for a highly fragmented migrant workforce due to lack of recruitment patterns and data. And it refers to the importance of collective action and unions and has detailed plans for improving data on short-term migration; particularly seasonal and circular migration. As a statement of goals, the draft should be celebrated a lot.
But the policy needs to pay close attention to the reasons for the poor implementation; of labor laws that are linked to the political economy of recruitment and placement. Labor migrants from rural areas find work in urban economy and high-productivity rural enterprises; either through kinship networks or labor market intermediaries. These networks are critical to the supply of workers who can be deployed to jobs where there is a demand for hard-working and controllable workers who will be tied to the job.
One way to ensure that workers do not leave due to harsh conditions is to force them through a notorious system of advances. Although illegal; such an arrangement is attractive to migrants from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds because they cannot raise large sums of money to pay for weddings, housing and loans. The document references unfair hiring practices; but in reality there is no analysis of why the system persists and how it is enabled by the employment structures of businesses and enterprises. Another area where the draft needs to be strengthened is addressing the gender gap in employment. Household work is one of the most important occupations for migrant women of relatively disadvantaged backgrounds. Although the new policy aims to include all types of marginalized migrants; it may do more to make explicit mention of the challenges facing domestic workers.
It will be very easy for them to stay out because India has not ratified the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers and the Domestic Workers Bill 2017 has not become law. Other types of home-based work, which are very important for female migrants, can likewise be excluded. Another issue here is that tribal migrants have clear ambitions about their ability to think for themselves and decide how they offer migration opportunities. At the beginning of the draft we see a commitment to accreditation to the migrant agency; but it is less clear in the section where the policies of tribal migration are discussed. Tribal migration is constructed as a process under which recruiters are “tempted” or even smuggled.
Domestic work, which is mentioned in this context, is an important source of income for thousands of tribal women of poor backgrounds in the eastern states. Of course, there are some examples of abuse, but these do not represent the experience of the majority. There is a need to better understand how migrants weigh their own costs and risks against the potential benefits of working in the city. Controlling tribal migration would go against the objective of recognizing the migrant agency.
To conclude, the draft policy is a good start that; with some adjustments, can reduce the vulnerability and risks faced by labor migrants and ultimately lead to the creation of a more sustainable model of development.