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This 1979 inter-state workmen law could help avert migrant crisis if enforced strictly

The Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, was framed to prevent the exploitation of migrants.

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New Delhi: The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), in an intervention application Friday, drew the Supreme Court’s attention to a 41-year-old law that could have been used to safeguard the interests of migrant workers, had it been implemented effectively.

The commission sought “proper and effective implementation” of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, which was framed to prevent exploitation of inter-state migrant workers, protect their rights and create a database of transient migrant labourers.

It also invoked the law to provide journey allowance to migrant workers and advised the inclusion of a new clause in the law to provide emergency measures in situations such as the Covid-19 pandemic or natural disasters.

The NHRC moved the application while the apex court was hearing the migrants’ crisis case and suggested short- and long-term measures to alleviate the hardships faced by the workers due to the nationwide lockdown and slowdown of economic activity.

The central government had tabled a new bill in Parliament — the Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019 (OSHWCC) — to replace the existing law.

A parliamentary panel had given a report on the Code in February 2020, which was intended to regulate the health and safety conditions of workers in establishments with 10 or more workers, and in all mines and docks. It subsumes 13 labour laws relating to safety, health and working conditions.

However, according to experts, the central and state governments have conveniently forgotten the existing Act, which if implemented could have resolved the current migrant crisis.

ThePrint takes a look at what the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 is all about and the reasons for its failure or lack of implementation.

Also read: Supreme Court could give Centre, states 15 days to send all migrants back home 

Objectives of the law

The law was framed in 1979 by the Janata Party government, two years after Emergency was imposed. According to advocate Satvik Verma, a committee was constituted in 1977, on the recommendation of labour ministers of states, and concerned about possible exploitation of these migrant workers, it proposed the law to regulate the employment of inter-state migrant workers.

The committee felt the existing Contract Labour Act, 1970 was insufficient to protect the rights of the workers.

The law was introduced and tabled in Parliament immediately after Emergency was lifted as several labourers were needed in cities to bring about economic development, Verma told ThePrint.

“It started as a politically-motivated reform in the aftermath of 1977 but slowly lost its meaning.”

Also read: ‘One policy, one portal’: SC gives Delhi, UP, Haryana one week to plan interstate movement

Protection to migrant workers under the law

According to the law, contractors and establishments that employ migrant workers have to obtain a licence from the state to which the workman belongs (home state), as well as the state in which they are proposed to be employed (host state).

The licence may contain conditions regarding arrangements under which the inter-state migrants will be recruited, the remuneration payable, hours of work, fixation of wages, and other essential amenities to be provided. Before hiring the workers, the establishments are required to obtain a certificate of registration.

Within 15 days of hiring, the contractor is required to provide complete details of migrant workers to the registering authority. It is incumbent upon the contractor to maintain data of all migrant workers and provide them a passbook containing details of their employment.

Some of the other measures under the law include — appointment of an inspector to visit the establishments where workers are employed, an explicit provision regarding the due date by which wages are to be paid, a migrant’s entitlement to a displacement allowance, suitable residential accommodation, adequate medical facilities, and protective clothing.

Punishment of non-compliance is stringent and includes a jail term.

The new OSHWCC retains some provisions of the law, including contractors having to obtain licenses, displacement and journey allowances for workers. However, penal provisions have been excluded.

The parliamentary panel had advised that every state should also have a helpline number for the workers.

Also read: 80-year-old Covid patient who moved Delhi HC for free treatment dies before hearing date

‘Lack of will by subsequent govts failed the Act’

Advocate Mohit Paul, who represents the NHRC in the Supreme Court, said the tragedy could have been averted if the legislation already in place had been strictly enforced.

“A lot of migrant labourers in the organised sector could have been covered if the law was effective,” said Paul.

According to the 2011 Census, India has 5.6 crore inter-state migrants, with most coming from the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

A majority of them work in the unorganised sector, and are daily wage earners. Moreover, according to experts, less than 5 per cent of the migrant workers are enrolled with government agencies.

Verma said most inter-state workmen aren’t even aware of their rights.

“It is never the lack of legislation but it is always the lack of will, efficacy and implementation of the law that fails it,” he said. Successive failure of the government and the executive to enforce the Act has left it ineffective, he added.

“One reason for their (migrants) neglect is they are not a vote bank,” said Verma.

According to Paul, the government must take a cue from the present crisis, and to avert such a tragedy in the future, existing legislation should be strictly enforced.

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  1. Unfortunately our government is incompetent in fulfilling the needs of workers in our country .In this pandemic they have faced the worst situation ever although government tried to control the situation but there are under planned work from the side of government.Our workers are not that educated to know the law made for them your article is quite simple and easy to understand the law and concept.I also wrote about this topic in different perspective.
    The Inter-State Migrant Workers Deserve Justice!

  2. Under One nation concept, a person ought to have full freedom to work anywhere in the country. The act appears to promote regionalism and Inspector Raj. What were the local labour department officials doing and what is the guarantee that the same department would ensure compliance now.

  3. This old law looks more like a regressive, licence-raj piece of legislation that would make employers think twice about employing contract labour from other states as it contains extremely stringent and punitive clauses.

  4. Ease of doing business and labor laws don’t sit together. IMO, migrants or workers in general should self update respective governments or unions or associations who they think are appropriate for their well being. It’s those organisations be it public or private whose responsibility is to negotiate a deal with job contractors and companies. Again it should all be voluntary. New rules and laws will be a draconian approach.

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