• Socio-Legal Review

Social and Economic Integration of Migrant Labour: A Policy Response

- Simi Sunny*


The World Economic Forum, in an October 2017 report, declared India home to one-fourth of the 100 fastest-growing cities with inter-state migration having doubled in the decade of 2001-2011.[1] It stated that the internal migration in India continues to grow at a high rate of 4.5 per cent annually and results in five to six million people moving per year. This trend raises concerns on the readiness of the Central and state governments to respond to such a huge movement, and their ability to protect the migrants socially and economically. Migration in the era of globalization has created immense pressure on the functioning of the welfare States especially with respect to the extension of social rights to the migrant labourers.


The migrant labourer, while moving from rural to urban areas, leaves behind the traditional social network that reproduces their existence at an emotional and social level. The low-skilled migrant labourers create an informal economy, which reinforces the social, economic, and political inequalities. The federal social security systems fail to cushion these inequalities since the geographical and occupational mobility prevents their access to identity and residential proofs in the destination state that form the basis for all social assistance programmes. India with its diverse and complex migration history, both transnational as well as internal, faces a critical challenge of providing social security to its migrant population. In this context, the article critically analyses the policy framework for inter-state migrant labour in India with a focus on the Kerala state’s legislative response to migrant labour inflow from various states of India.[2]


Policy Framework for Social Security

While many countries across the world have enacted social security programmes to assist the economically and socially vulnerable transnational and internal migrants, the development of social security measures in India has been limited. Social security in India derives its objective from the directive principle contained Article 41 of the Indian Constitution. It states: “The State shall, within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effective provision for securing the right to work, to education, and to public assistance in cases of unemployment, old age, sickness and disablement, and in other cases of undeserved want.” The non-justiciable nature of the directive principles has limited the scope of substantiating the principles with concrete legislations.


In India, social insurance principles have largely been accepted as the main basis for social security legislations and are directed mostly at workers in the organized sector. The Employees State Insurance Act, 1948 and the Employees Provident Fund Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1952 were considered landmark legislations for social security. Both the legislations have targeted the fundamental problems of labour including migrant labour by such provisions that take care of the workers in the exigencies of sickness, ill-health, and other contingencies of life including old age. The Provident Fund Act was supplemented by the Family Pension Scheme in 1971, Deposit-Linked Insurance Scheme in 1976, Maternity Benefit Act in 1961, and Payment of Gratuity Act in 1972. However, the migrant workers who largely form the informal labour market do not fall under these safety nets because of the lack of provisions to recognize their mobile nature and temporary work tenures. The migrant specific policies that followed, attempted to fill this gap by introducing registration systems to regulate the inflow of migrant labourers and putting in accountability measures for the employers and contractors.


The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 was ground-breaking in this context but exists only on paper and has failed to meet the objectives. The Act is ridden with formulation flaws like recognition of migrants hired through a contractor only; no defined direct engagement with the principal employer; lack of provisions for security of employment; no obligation on the part of the employer or the contractor; or penalties for offence.[3] Apart from these flaws within the legislative framework, a major reason for its failure has been the concurrent nature of social security laws and labour laws in India, which means that they are enacted and implemented by the Central government and the state Governments. The responsibility for the effective enforcement of the provisions of the Act gets dissipated between the Central, host state and home state governments. Huge variation among Indian states on labour regimes has acted as a major hurdle in the implementation of such welfare schemes for the migrant workers.


The Kerala Migrant Workers Scheme 2010

A key shift towards effective state labour regime for migrant workers was made by Kerala in 2010.[4] In the face of high influx of migrant labour in the state, Kerala became the first state in India to enact a social security scheme for the migrants, called the Kerala Migrant Workers Scheme, 2010 (“the Scheme”). The scheme is an attempt by the Government to increase work security through termination benefits, treatment, and accident allowance. It also tries to provide a social cushion to the families through allowance in case of a labourer’s death and even education allowance for his/her children. The Kerala government also brought in the Kerala Compulsory Registration of Migrants Act, 2012 for effective implementation. The Labour Department announced the establishment of special centres in all the 14districts for to ensure a speedy registration process.

The Government estimates in 2017 showed that approximately 53,000 migrant workers had registered under the Scheme, out of the approximate inflow of 25 lakh migrant workers in Kerala.[5] This low intake is a result of inherent flaws in the social security legal framework. have created. An essential feature of the implementation of social security schemes in the case of migrant labourers is registration at the migrant destination. However, registration becomes a critical hurdle in the delivery of social security provisions to the migrant labourers due to the constant movement within the state and between various states. Since a high proportion of migrant labourers are seasonal in nature, they go back to their villages at different points in the year. Additionally, these migrant workers generally do not even stick to one job or firm but are always shifting places and jobs that are better paying and offer better facilities. In such cases, the migrant labourer is apprehensive about registering in a particular area.


A major onus of the implementation of the Scheme is on the employers. The employers have to confirm the employment of migrant labourers in their company or establishment, which works as the proof of job. However, the employers are not keen on their registration. The constant mobility of the workers works to the advantage of the employers, as it helps them to access labour force at will – according to the changing labour requirements, which is an excuse to keep them permanently ‘casual’ and thus, relieves them of the burden/liability of offering them mandatory labour benefits.


Along with the proof of job, the migrant labourers also have to submit an identity proof as a proof of their age and their address, in order to access the benefits of this social security Scheme. The lack of identity proofs not only prevents their access to this particular Scheme but also to other forms of social security measures or public services.


Another major reason for the low take up is the low level of motivation among the labourers to register for the welfare. A high percentage of the target population migrates to Kerala as a result of unemployment in the home state or low wages in the other employment generating states. The goal for the migrant labourers is merely to find a suitable employment with decent wages. In the struggle to find employment on a daily basis, enquiring and registering for a scheme is low on their priority of things.


While the Kerala Government made a crucial attempt at filling the social security gap among the labour migrants, the nature of migration and the structural requirements of the Scheme have limited its scope and implementation. The seasonal nature of labour, lack of motivation on behalf of the migrants, lack of regulation on behalf of the employers, and the cultural and language barriers act as hurdles to the take up of the Scheme.


The Way Forward

A major challenge of any social security programme for migrant population is rooted in the unorganized/informal nature of the migrant group. However, the legislative framework for social security in India has primarily focused on the organized sector. A coherent national strategy for the migrant labourers should facilitate their transition to formal structures in order to extend the social security nets to them.[6] The transition to formality effectively tackles the unsafe work conditions, low skill levels, low wages, unregulated working hours etc.


Definite employer-employee relationship plays a critical role in this process given that the employers are the consistent point of contact for informal migrant labourers. The host states should ensure that the employers provide effective labour and social protection to its labour employees. Apart from the monitoring and regulation of working conditions and wages, the state government should ascertain pro-active initiation of social security benefits for its migrant labourers by the employers. The home and host states also have the added responsibility to promote awareness of social and economic rights among the migrant population. Given the concurrent nature of the labour legislations, the national policies should clearly delineate the roles and responsibilities of the home and the host states for an effective implementation.


The economic integration through welfare extension has to be complemented by social integration. In the case of migration this becomes critical because breakdown of social relations is what differentiates them as a group suffering from poverty without geographical mobility. The dual disadvantage can be dealt with through dual social security mechanism. There has to be a consistent effort to integrate the migrant labourers into the society by creating platforms for their participation. The State also has to attempt to sustain good relations between the migrant and the local population. The social integration co-efficient will, as a result, promote economic integration.


*Simi Sunny is a Research Associate at Indian School of Development Management and an alumnus of Masters in Public Policy, NLSIU.



[1] Interstate migration in India doubled between 2001-2011, The Economic Times (Oct. 25, 2017), https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/interstate-migration-in-india-doubled-between-2001-2011-wef/articleshow/61225119.cms.


[2] The article borrows its analysis from author’s unpublished dissertation research submitted as part of the Masters in Public Policy course at National Law School of India University.


[3] M Rajeshwaran, Inter-State Migrants- the Law and Judiciary, Inter-State migrant workers in India with special reference to construction industry in India (2015).


[4] Welfare scheme for migrant workers, The Hindu (May 01, 2010), http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-kerala/Welfare-scheme-for-migrant-workers/article16028622.ece.


[5] Data bank project for registration of migrant workers in Kerala, The Economic Times (June 28, 2016), https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/data-bank-project-for-registration-of-migrant-workers-in-kerala/articleshow/52956126.cms.


[6] International Labour Organization,Decent Work and the transition to formalization (2007), http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_emp/---emp_policy/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_125519.pdf.

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