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This 2008 law could have given migrants safety net for lockdown, but was never implemented

Officials claim the Unorganised Sector Workers’ Social Security Act had some flaws that hampered its implementation, but experts say successive govts slept on it.

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New Delhi: The thousands of migrant labourers facing a crisis amid the Covid-19 lockdown would have had a safety net if a 2008 law providing social protection to unorganised workers had been implemented. But successive governments have failed to do so.

The current database with the government shows 28 lakh migrants were in relief camps opened by state governments. These migrants were made to furnish their Aadhaar and bank account details. However, officials have said seven to eight crore migrants either continue to reside within the industries they were working in, or have travelled back to their homes. The government has no details about these workers.

One of the provisions in the Unorganised Sector Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008, passed by the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government, was for a database of unorganised workers, which would have helped migrants in the current situation.

Officials now say the law had some inherent flaws that prevented its implementation, which has led to the current crisis. But experts say governments could have fixed it and implemented it in the intervening years.

Also read: Why Modi govt dropped the idea of transferring cash to migrant workers during lockdown

Crux of the law

Social security schemes primarily cover only the organised sector, but India’s economy is largely informal. According to various national sample surveys, over 90 per cent of India’s workforce is employed in the unorganised sector. Therefore, workers don’t have access to social security provisions, such as pensions, insurance or provident fund.

The 2008 law intended to provide social security and job protection to at least 37.5 crore workers, according to the objectives stated in the draft bill when it was moved in Parliament. It covers unorganised workers of two categories: self-employed and wage-employed. Eight social welfare schemes are outlined in it for the beneficiaries.

The law provides for the Union government and states to constitute “social security advisory boards” to recommend “suitable welfare measures for different sections of unorganised sector workers”. A key feature of the law allows state boards to issue smart portable identification cards to unorganised workers for developing a database of migrants employed in different cities.

Database would’ve helped migrants in lockdown

According to labour economist Prof. Shyam Sundar of XLRI, Jamshedpur, if the administrative measures under the law had been operative, a database would have enabled states and Centre to provide immediate relief to migrants in the present crisis.

“The law envisages a system to prepare a database of unorganised workers employed in certain industries to give them some visibility. Under the act, states have to establish worker facilitation centres (WFC) where migrant workers can register themselves for a ‘smart portable identification card’,” he said.

“WFC had to act as a bridge between the unorganised sector and local authorities,” Sundar explained, but added that none of the measures have been implemented.

Smart cards, he said, would have made it easy to trace transient migrants. “Right now, authorities have done it through apps and accounted for 5 million migrants, which I believe is a gross underestimate,” Sundar added.

Also read: Why fixing unorganised sector can be Modi’s biggest Covid-19 economic challenge

‘Flaws’ that hampered implementation

Officials say the implementation of the law has been hampered by some design flaws.

“The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector had recommended two separate bills for agricultural workers and unorganised non-agricultural workers. The act does not differentiate between agricultural and non-agricultural workers,” a labour ministry official told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity.

“In order to register as an unorganised worker, an individual must be 14 years of age and declare himself an unorganised worker. There is no process to verify such declaration in the Act,” the official added.

Experts say the law was passed in a hurry because of pressure from Left parties who were then supporting the ruling dispensation. The Left moved amendments, providing for a national welfare fund and health and insurance schemes for the workers, according to an analysis by the PRS Legislative Research.

“The intention was to protect workers in the unorganised sector, including agriculture, tobacco, handloom, construction and leather,” said Tapan Sen, former CPI(M) MP and leader of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

But the law required its intended beneficiaries to earn the equivalent of below-poverty line wages. “A large percentage of unorganised workers do not fall under the BPL limit,” Sen said.

‘Government slept over it’

However, Prof. Sundar said the flaws were not a reason to dump the law. Rather, the successive governments should have worked to improve it.

“Even assuming the law is a damp squib, as it bifurcated the unorganised sector, the question that comes to the fore is have we administered the act as per the scheme? And the answer is no,” the XLRI economist said.

“The government has slept over it for over 11 years now. Neither the UPA (n)or NDA had the will to amend the law, if it was required to widen its ambit to include the left-out category of migrants,” he added.

Also read: Social security net could be Modi govt’s route to protect unorganised workers


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  1. No point in covering up saying this or that. The govt.
    Has failed to combat poverty and has exposed its capabilities.

  2. We have been so dependent on foreign aid workers and charities bailing us out that each time theres been natural or human disasters that the government who’s job is to look after its public has been rendered helpless abd useless in times like this.

  3. The law was a sound piece of legislation although it had some shortcomings which required to be weeded out.
    However, like the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Scheme, this too was condemned as a useless, pointless and hopeless law.
    Sometimes political apathy by one Government followed by political prejudice to a proposal by another, may be politically advantageous to them for the time being, but spell disaster to the citizens

  4. Crying over spilt milk … What’s the point in discussing what we could do …

    We should learn from history and not repeat the same …

    Let us give solutions rather then getting our thoughts stuck at something which cannot be changed …

  5. This is Pathetic.The 2008 Act for the unorganized workers that should include migrant worker also,
    should be brought alive and implemented esp.when the appeal of the P.M to keep them on roll during
    lock down went unheeded.
    This is much worse than the hire and fire system prevalent in Capitalist economies.There at least
    the food costs are kept low and affordable for this kind low income workers.This is also not there in India though we boast of huge agricultural production.
    The immediate need for family maintenance,not clear if there are NGOs who can help thru collection of
    funds from willing donors and distribute to them.The Print may highlight if there are such NGOs.
    Since the no.involved is in Crores ,this problem may persist ,even if the pandemic begins its slow down
    process and there is a need to supplement the governmental efforts at local level.
    Currently in addition to helping to move this people to their hometowns intact,they need working funds
    for their families,assurance of work post lock down and more importantly to treat them humanely
    and respect in general the dignity of Labour. we believe in the dictum that’ WORK IS WORSHIP.’

  6. Without any preexisting data, central and state governments finding tough to reach the migrants working in unorganized sectors. Already our central and state governments budgets are overloaded with lots of welfare schemes and loan waivers, that they are finding tough to get more funds much needed now. Without social reforms economic problems cannot be solved. Like mandatory family planning that should also include financial + insurance plans whether govt or personal or both, age of marriage should not be less than 21, proper gap between pregnancies, 100% hospital delivery, no domestic violence, women upliftment must, no child marriage, proper + compulsory education, everyone above 18 should have bank account, income declaration after 25 yrs of age should be must, etc.

  7. The Act is an enabling legislation and is quite simple with no specific schemes. States were to register all unorganised sector workers category wise and prepare schemes for them with contribution from employers, workers, State and Central gifts. This could have been done through Welfare Boards categorywise.Tamil Nadu has a number of Boards. It has nothing specific about migrant workers. They governed by Interstate Migrant Workers Act. The employer is required to pay return fair to workers, hardly ensured.

  8. Call it whatever, the law was flawed by design.
    This is the price we pay for privacy while the bottoms are bare.
    The privacy only helps a few who can argue in the highest courts in the name of the poor to protect their now interest.
    Basically NO compulsory AADHAR

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