The Migrant Worker Law That India Forgot: The ISMW Act Of 1979

Zero migrant workers registered in Delhi in 5 years, just 85,000 across India. Why did the Govt ignore the ISMW Act?

3 min read

Nowhere in the world, except India, did we witness acute migrant worker distress during the Corona pandemic. We all saw images of our migrant workers suffering with no work and no money when the lockdown was imposed. Lakhs were forced to walk home, hundreds dying on the way.

But many of these lives could have been saved if we had not forgotten the law of the land.

Have you heard of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen, or ISMW, Act? It’s a law that was enacted in 1979 to prevent the exploitation of inter-state migrant workers, a law ignored by the Centre and our State governments.

RTI Reveals - Govt Failed To Implement ISMW Act

Under the ISMW Act, every establishment and contractor employing five or more inter-state migrant workers has to register the establishment and the workers with the government. But RTI replies received by transparency activist Anjali Bhardwaj from the Labour Ministry expose the apathy -

Here are 4 stunning data points:

  1. In the last 10 years, between 2010-20 only 84,875 inter-state migrant workers have been registered under the ISMW Act. Employment data scientist Dr. Amitabh Kundu estimates that there 2.1 crore inter-state migrant workers in India, of which at least 61 lakh workers should have been registered under the ISMW Act, not a mere 85,000!
  2. Delhi, where lakhs of inter-state migrant workers are employed, did not register a single worker under the ISMW Act between 2015-20!
  3. In the last 10 years only 1993 contractors and just 372 establishments have been issued licenses under the Act. The number should be in lakhs.
  4. Action was taken against just 515 contractors and employers in the last 10 years for breaching the provisions of the ISMW Act. That means, almost no one.

The Forgotten ISMW Act - Its Benefits

Successive State and Central governments have simply ignored the Act and failed to enforce it allowing lakhs of migrant workers to be exploited. Even more so during the Covid-19 pandemic. Here is how the ISMW Act could have reduced the distress of our migrant workers –

  1. The registration of workers under the Act would have helped the government to keep a track of the number of migrant workers employed across India. The Central government has admitted in Parliament - it has no data on how many migrant workers were hit by the pandemic, how many had lost jobs, how many needed urgent financial support, how many died. If the govt didn’t have this basic information then how could it have helped these lakhs of workers?
  2. All contractors registered under the ISMW Act must regularly provide details of migrant workers they employ. Contractors failing to do this should have been taken to task, but the govt has looked the other way for years.
  3. Under the Act, employers must provide accommodation and free clothing to workers. Clearly, in many cases, this did not happen. We saw lakhs of migrant workers returning to their villages because they did not have enough money to pay room rents in the cities.
  4. Establishments are also supposed to pay journey allowance to migrant workers if they travel to their villages. Again, we know this did not happen – lakhs of migrant workers walked hundreds of kilometres as they did not have money to pay for railway or bus tickets.
  5. The Act also says that if registered migrant workers’ rights are abused then the government must provide free legal assistance to help them get compensation. But of course, this too, did not happen.

Only Limited Access To Free Ration

Other measures to support migrant workers during lockdown also proved to be inadequate. In May, the government started the Atma Nirbhar scheme to provide free ration for migrant workers who had no ration card. But this scheme lasted just two months.

In July, Narendra Modi extended the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) till November, promising free food grain to those who come under the Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) and to Priority Household or PHH ration card holders. But to avail of this a migrant worker would need a ration card.

The PM claimed that PMGKAY would help 8 crore migrant workers across the country.

But the question is - How would a migrant worker in the city benefit from this scheme without a ration card?

The government enacts laws and announces schemes to serve our migrant workers but doesn’t do enough to ensure that they actually benefit from them. Is that fair?

For instance, shouldn’t the government have extended the Atma Nirbhar scheme for migrant workers well beyond June?

Will the visible suffering of India’s migrant workers be a wake-up call for the Labour Ministry and push them to actually implement the ISMW Act?

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