Experts Support the Government's Efforts to Help Migrant Workers

Experts convened on behalf of Mr C Ananda Bose, Head of the Central Government Migrant Desk,Weigh in on How Best to Support Migrant Workers

Helpful suggestions from a panel of experts from various fields addressed to Central and State functionaries as they work to resolve the nation's migrant worker crisis 

Between May 5th and May 19th a select group of experts in diverse fields convened at the request of Dr. C. Ananda Bose of the Expert Commission on Migrant Labour. Two of the meetings held also benefited from the insights of Mr Bhoom Rao, Chairman of the National Contract Advisory Board

 The group's conversations and related research gave rise to these recommendations: While a great many ideas were shared, (some extremely good) the focus of this note is to synthesize the conversation into big, vital and recurring ideas that most would agree merit careful consideration. These ideas may not be new but the consensus is that they are vital. 
The remaining ideas can then webe seen within the context of the big ideas.

Big ideas;
  1. Should we spend the money for migrants? During our deliberations, the Chairman of the Contract Workers Board astutely framed the discussion. He reminded the experts in various fields, that even though we had a strong and competent government, our economy was entirely dependent on labour. (Thereby implying that ways had to be found to support the 600 million or so migrant workers. Failing which we would be risking a crushing collapse to the indian economy and impeding its recovery.

Thus spending money on some form of short term income support that results in their registration (both in their home and destination states) and their return to work would be money well spent.

  1. Can we afford to spend money in a contracting economy?

The hard truth is that if we do not not have the political will to invest now, there will be no recovery.

Prof. Bhattacharjea, former Economics Department Head of the Delhi School of Economics, gave his opinion to the group as follows (paraphrased): Even if we do not have the funds, we must come to terms with the cold hard fact that only unprecedented, aggressive spending (deficit financing) will get us out of the mess the nation is in.

The highest deficit India is contemplating for the year 2020-21, is 6.2 percent, according to Fitch.

Admittedly this is well over the 3 percent announced by the Finance Minister at the last budget.) Then again Prof. Aditya reminded the group that the US (albeit with a larger, more stable economy) is bracing itself for a deficit as high as 15 percent of GDP.

Once we bite the bullet and accept that the Government must be the funder of last resort, we can also look at potential sources of money that may take longer to access.

In addition to the PM Cares Fund, these sources of funding could include:

  • Unclaimed PF payments. According to Mr Bhoom Rao, there were Rs.30,000 crores in unclaimed PF funds that could be tapped into.

  • Worker Welfare Boards (states like Kerala are already borrowing from them.

  • The sale of "Covid War Bonds' by the government, in India and to the NRI population abroad.

The Indian government has already made tough choices between Health and Economic stability. Decisions had to be made. They could never be perfect but they were taken decisively.  

Funding the migrant community with a minimum alternative income package calls for more of the same courage.

As C. Balagopal (formerly of the IAS and founder of one of the world's largest blood bag systems) reminded the group, "Economics is about 'Trade offs" with tough choices having to be made between Community Health and Economic Stability. To recover stability we will have to spend our way back to having a healthy migrant labour system. 

Since we have concluded that we have to invest in our migrant workers and that we cannot afford to abandon them, the next question is …

  1. What are the outcomes we need to be spending towards.

Immediate Outcomes Needed: Migrant workers who want to go home should be taken home asap
  • They would be safer and cost less there.

  • Their trauma would have a chance to heal.

  • In the process the government would know where they were and how to send them short term funding. 

  • With the migrant workers home, even small payments would be sufficient.

  • Costs could be shared wherever possible between the sending state, the receiving state, the employer and contractor.

  • Additional release of foodgrains could be released to migrants in lieu of extra cash (especially when workers did not have sufficient documentation or bank accounts for direct payments. (According to Prof. Aditya, almost 85 million tonnes of food grains were stacked in our warehouses.)

  • Some workers still dont have Jan Dhan accounts. Putting even small amounts in migrant worker accounts will encourage others also to set up their accounts.

Mirai Chatterjee, Chairman of SEWA, the grass roots organization has estimated that the average urban migrant family would need at least Rs 7,500 per month to subsist. Back in their home state they may need only a third of that for three to six months.

Ms Chatterjee also pointed out that large numbers of migrant workers (40 percent of the informal economy) were self employed and that a registration process that provided a subsistence allowance was needed for them too. 

Prof. Bhattacharjea also pointed out that it may be easier to get information and reach labour contractors  who served large organizations. Much of the information we need could be arranged with the cooperation of the Ministry for Corporate Affairs. In view of reports that contractors had not passed on the payments to the workers, corporates should be required to report how much they had paid their contractors in March. The MCA could also require all corporates to report whether and how much they had paid their own workers in March and April. 

  • Medium term outcomes needed : Before returning to work the government would have the chance to pre-register them or incentivize their contractors or end employers to follow a pre-registration protocol.

  • Mr C. Balagopal recommended making it possible for different kinds of workers to directly register with State Labour Departments.

The Interstate Workmen's Act of 1979 was well meaning legislation passed during the Morarji Desai administration. It proposed registration of workers in the home as well as the work state. There was a procedure for licensing of labour contractors and punishments for contractors who did not adhere to the provisions of the Act. 

The world's manufacturers are looking to move manufacturing capacity away from China. So far, it would seem that Indonesia (with the largest muslim population in the world) is poised to receive the most new manufacturing projects leaving China. Quelling migrant labour disquiet and holding labour contractors more accountable will is essential to making us a serious contender.

Some of the funds set aside for migrant worker welfare should be used to incentivize workers, contractors and states to follow the provisions of the Interstate Workman's Act. The statute calls for maintenance of a pass book for individual workers which is no longer necessary. 

As Mr Bhoom Rao pointed out, jobs, workers and contractors could be available on a portal which would simplify the process. This would also allow the government to monitor the situation unobtrusively. 

Long term Outcomes we should be working towards:

  • Payments from Construction Worker Boards should not be reduced if the worker is receiving another government benefit. Some states do not allow registration in multiple welfare boards.(Dr Aditya).

  • Justice Chidambaram felt that better Housing Benefits must be provided for migrant construction workers. Funding incentives should he felt be offered to building contractors who are prepared to invest in prefabricated housing for workers at building sites.

  • Mr Radhakrishnan, IAS, Former Chairman of Innovation Council wanted during the recovery phase of the economy to encourage infrastructural construction projects that would facilitate employment despite a soft labour market.

Migration patterns point to a gradual homogenization of the Indian population. In well run states like Kerala, more and more workers are opting to stay and bring their families with them. A study from the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation projects that by 2025, Kerala may have migrant workers that account for 25 percent of the state's population.

Other Ideas of Interest Shared by Panel Members:

  • Dr Alexander, former Chief Secretary of Karnataka pointed out that discrimination against migrants was not acceptable.

  • Mr Lukose Annadurai,was concerned that in many states, labour unions were needed to register a potential member of a worker welfare board.

  • Mr P.K Das former Member of the Central Board of Taxation wants to streamline transportation infrastructure and commerce between District and State Capitals. Also wanted States,Districts and Panchayats to compete in various development criteria.

  • Mr Das also pointed out that money tied up in land could be freed up for greater liquidity. He averred that his home state Odissa had 470 mms of coastline which could be commercially exploited (with the proviso that Coastal zone regulations were adhered to). Mr Das also felt that Real Estate Investment Trusts and Construction Investment Trusts were under utilized in India.

  • Justice Chidambaresan also felt that minimum wage law should not be tampered with in an effort to increase employment. 

  • In preparation for our meetings we also had useful conversations with legal educator, Prof Kamala Sankaran. She pointed out that the government had already agreed to contribute towards EPF payments in companies that employ 20 workers or more. That efforts to provide ESI coverage (with health insurance) need to be pursued with all who qualify.

The bottom-line: Perhaps the issue is not whether the Government can afford to pay a stop gap alternative minimum payment for three to six months to stranded migrant workers. The real issue is can we really afford not to rehabilitate them. Without their support many of our cities and industries would grind to a crashing halt.

While the problem is huge as it impacts well over 600 million people, it is also forcing us to recognize that migrant workers run many of our cities and industries. The Covid crisis is forcing us to address long time injustices to our migrant labour community. 

We have thus far avoided large scale systemic backlash from disgruntled migrants. If we do not fix this now, we may not get off so lightly the next time there is a crisis of some sort. 

It will be much harder and probably even more expensive to revisit this later.

Note of thanks: 
Prof. Ravi Srivastava's two white papers provided information on best practices introduced in innovative states like Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Jharkhand. Each has its own unique demographic issues and hence approaches migrant problems in that context. Jharkhand for example has been attempting to stop the trafficking of tribal women, Orissa has been working in the Bonded labour market starting with the Dadan Labour Act (1975). Kerala's work with plantation workers resulting in the Small Plantation Welfare Fund. We owe him and his student researchers a deep debt of gratitude.

Writing services provided by Pravin JP Arapurakal, with information generously provided by some of the finest minds in the country. Those who want to make suggestions or provide feedback may email
Arattupuzha, Aranmula. May 22, 2020


  1. Expert openion here is what we have to accept, adapt and put into practice. Unfortunately the present government from the previous experiences only have initial enthusiasm. Don't seem to take such important and urgent projects as seriously as it should in the best interest of the public. Let's hope for the best.


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