Failure to Protect Migrant Workmen amid COVID – 19:

Does the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 need Reform?

“I seen hundreds of men come by on the road an’ on the ranches, with their bindles on their back an’ that same damn thing in their heads . . . every damn one of ’em’s got a little piece of land in his head. An’ never a God damn one of ’em ever gets it. Just like heaven. Ever’body wants a little piece of lan’. I read plenty of books out here. Nobody never gets to heaven, and nobody gets no land.”                        

John Steinbeck, the Grapes of Wrath[1]

These lines depict the helplessness and plight of a significant portion of the country – approximately 30 Percent[2] of India’s population. Each individual left their family behind and travelled thousands of kilometers to migrate to a whole new place with a strange environment. They settle for working in conditions that aren’t great just to feed their family and survive.

An Important piece of legislation which governs the working conditions and facilities to be provided to migrant workers is The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act of 1979, hereinafter to be called as ‘the Act’.

This article critically analyses the abovementioned Act and sheds light on the non-execution of its mandatory provisions resulting in a miserable life for the migrant workers. It also reviews the scope of its reform and will try to provide a glimpse of the Proposed Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code of 2019[3] which would assimilate itself into 13[4] Labour laws including the Inter State Workmen Act, 1979.

The whole world is suffering through a pandemic[5] and one of the worst affected are none other than the migrant workers reeling under no funds to buy necessities such as food or pay rent for shelter, far away from home and family. Their families are suffering too because their only source of income is drastically affected.

At this juncture, the role of the Central as well as State Governments[6] gets highlighted in protecting the migrant workers and their families at all cost. The Union ministry of Labour and Employment announced that no employer, public or private, should terminate their employees, particularly the casual or contractual workers or reduce their wages[7]. However, many migrant workmen have lost jobs and many haven’t been paid their salaries or wages by their employers during Lockdown[8] even after this notification[9]. These underprivileged migrants also are not able to afford rent and face the fear of falling seriously ill while being away from their families[10].

State governments do not have a list of such migrant workers, which can only be possible due to the non-implementation of “the Act”.
A major lacuna of this law begins with its definition clause itself. According to Section 2(e) which defines “inter-state migrant workmen” – A person would be registered as a migrant worker only by or through a contractor[11]. But, many of these workers do not migrate to other states for work through any contractor and by virtue of this act, those workers would never get registered as a migrant worker. If due action were taken in a timely manner under the act, the remaining workers could have been registered and states would, in consequence, have been in a better position to take steps to protect such workmen during the pandemic. However, almost no state seems to have implemented this law in letter and spirit[12]. Further, the laws are too vague and leave a great deal of discretion in the hands of bureaucracy.

According to the Labour Bureau[13], which is an apex organisation for providing database at the national level for policy formulation, evaluation and research at the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment, a high proportion of AGEGC (Agricultural sector excluding only growing of crops, market gardening, horticulture and growing of crops combined with farming of animals) and non-agricultural sector workers, in both the rural and urban areas, work in the informal sector forming 72 percent of the workforce.

Most of the workers in the unorganized sector in India work without any contract leading to the employers having no regard for any labour law, including the Inter-State Workmen Act, 1979. Most of the employers don’t even have a register or other records regarding the migrants workers working in their establishment, thereby misusing the loophole relating to absence of contract and of one relating to section 2(e) which is a mandatory obligation to be followed under Section 23 of the Act[14].

An important provision for the employers to follow is providing the workforce with “journey allowance” under section 15 of the Act. If this was adhered to, the workers would not have walked hundreds of kilometers to reach home[15]. Following this, many safeguards and duties have been provided by the ‘Act’ that are merely black and white characters scripted on paper and are never looked at by the executors of law.

The vague language of Inter-State Workmen Act, 1979 roots it down to the exaggerated duties placed on the contractor. Section 12 begins with duties of a contractor which includes duties regarding maintaining a passbook of inter-state migrants. It then continues to section 16 which talks about facilities to be provided by a contractor. Ultimately, section 17 provides for the responsibility of looking after the payment of wages. In between displacement allowance[16], journey allowance[17] and extinguishment of a loan to inter-state migrant by a contractor upon the completion of his work[18], the contractors feel overburdened, disincentivizing them from conforming to the law. It seems the government tried to provide the migrant workers with a flowery legislation while not having any safeguards or checks on it.

The administrative failures in executing these important legislations can be blamed for the miserable condition of the migrant workers in these tough situation of COVID-19. The Supreme Court of India has from time to time directed the administrative machinery to implement the Inter-state Migrant act 1979 properly and effectively, while also providing guidelines for doing so[19].

In an landmark case[20] relating to labour laws and “The Act”, the Supreme court culled out the intention of legislature in framing the Inter-state workmen Act, 1979;

“It was felt that since Inter State migrant workmen are generally illiterate and unorganised and are by reason of their extreme poverty, easy victims of abuses and malpractices, it was necessary to have a comprehensive legislation with a view to securing effective protection to Inter States migrant workmen against their exploitation and hence the Inter State Migrant Workmen Act was enacted”.

In another judgement[21], the apex court brought out the defects in government machinery in implementing labour laws. This lack of implementation is generally connected with not enough surveys, checks on contractors and employers, lack of framing of rules under the act regarding lucid licensing criteria, lower prosecution rates in labour law cases, and providing severe punishment to those who abstain from following it.

The apex court reiterated the point of implementation of social welfare laws in yet another landmark case of Bandhua Mukti morcha[22]:

“We firmly believe that it is no use having social welfare laws on the statute book if they are not going to be implemented. We must not be content with the law in books but we must have law in action. If we want our democracy to be a participatory democracy, it is necessary that law must not only speak justice but must also deliver justice.

Despite existence of several labour laws and Landmark judicial precedents, their enforcement has been minimal. There is no job security and contractors exploit workers by creating a fear of sacking their jobs. This increases the vulnerability of the workers in the unorganized sector. Although several acts have the provision of payment of specified remuneration to the labourers, there are malpractices prevalent in the system.

A legislation should always take into consideration the ground reality of the society. In spite of being just an aspirational document, it needs to provide justice to the people for whom it has been drafted and not just make them false promises.

The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 was drafted in a state when framers were anxious over the Dadan Labour Malpractices, thus producing such an aspirational document. Thereafter, it has proved to be a failure in protecting the rights of Migrant workers in the country and requires reform on various fronts. For this, we look forward to upcoming legislation on labour law – Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019[23], which would accumulate the scattered legislations and provide one single book to look at for the migrant workers.

The hopes are high for the new legislation, and the hope that it does not become a law for its sake and is implemented in its true sense is alive.


[1] The Grapes of Wrath, the best-known novel by John Steinbeck, published in 1939. It evokes the harshness of the Great Depression and arouses sympathy for the struggles of migrant farmworkers. The book came to be regarded as an American classic.

[2] Number of intra-state and inter-state migrants in the country (duration of residence 0-9 years)
by rural urban status – India 2001, by rural urban status – India 2001, https://censusindia.gov.in/Census_And_You/migrations.aspx

[3] INDIA, Act No. 186 Of 2019,                                           

[4] Section 134 of the Proposed Law Repeals 13 Laws – Act No. 186 of 2019

134. (1) The following Acts shall stand repealed with effect from such date as may be notified in this behalf, namely:—

(g) The Inter-State Migrant workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979;

[5] WHO announces COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, 12-03-2020, http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/health-emergencies/coronavirus-covid-19/news/news/2020/3/who-announces-covid-19-outbreak-a-pandemic.

[6]“Labour” is a subject in the “Concurrent List” under the Constitution of India where both the Central and State Governments are competent to enact legislations subject, however, to reservation of certain matters for the Central Government. 

[7] D.O. No. M-11011/08/2020-Media, March 20, 2020, https://labour.gov.in/advisories-covid-19

[8] Migrant workers’ plight: Ignore at your own peril, Apr 17, 2020 https://www.deccanchronicle.com/opinion/columnists/170420/migrant-workers-plight-ignore-at-your-own-peril.html

[9] Supra Note 7

[10] COVID-19 Crisis Through a Migration Lens, Migration and Remittances Team Social Protection and Jobs World Bank, Pg. 11, April 2020 

[11] (e) “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;

[12] K.P Krishna, Migrant Workmen Act, 1979 must be rationalised to remove requirements that disincentivise formalisation, May 9 2020, https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/india-lockdown-inter-state-migrant-workmen-act-6400710/

[13] Union Ministry of Labour and employment, Report on Employment in Informal Sector and Conditions of Informal Employment, IV (2013-14), https://labour.gov.in/sites/default/files/Report%20vol%204%20final.pdf

[14] Supra Note 8

[15] See COVID-19: Migrant workers walk on foot in MP to reach home town, May 15 2020, https://www.dnaindia.com/india/video-covid-19-migrant-workers-walk-on-foot-in-mp-to-reach-home-town-2824872

[16] Section 14 Inter-state workmen act, 1979, Act No. 30 of 1979

[17] Section 15, id

[18] Section 19, id

[19] Public Union for Civil Liberties vs. State of Tamil Nadu and Ors. (2013) 1 SCC 585, 16

After hearing the amicus curiae and other Learned Counsel appearing in these proceedings and also taking note of the previous orders passed by this Court, we are inclined to give the following directions, apart from the directions already issued:

“(8) The District Magistrate and the State Government/UTs would see that the Minimum Wages Act, the Workmen Compensation Act, the Inter- State Migrant Workmen Act, Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act are also properly and effectively implemented.”

[20] Labourers Working on Salal Hydro Project vs. State of Jammu & Kashmir and Ors. (1983) 2 SCC 181

[21] Labourers Working on Salal Hydro Project vs. State of Jammu & amp; Kashmir and Ors. (1983) 2 SCC 181

[22] Bandhua Mukti Morcha vs. Union of India (UOI) and Ors. (1984) 3 SCC 161

[23]INDIA, Bill No. 186 of 2019

Abhishant Kumar from School of Law, UPES Dehradun

Abhishant is a passionate law student thriving for knowledge and understanding the intricacies of society in relation to law.

Editor: Sanskriti Sood

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