Housing Migrant Workers: The Biggest Ambiguity in Labour Policies Framework?

According to the 2011 Census, India has 5.6 crore inter-state migrants, which is 33% less than the number that was observed in the previous census conducted in 2001. This population is mainly employed by the unorganised/informal sector and plays a significant role in the accelerated growth story of India’s urban infrastructure. The current policies have not been successful in equipping the migrant labour workforce with crucial amenities like housing in the cities they have migrated to, which added to their quandary during the COVID pandemic. Provision for habitation for the migrant workforce has only now been brought to the forefront for discussion, which reflects the failure of the government and detachment from the transformative constitutionalism mechanism.

Article 38 of the Constitution requires that the State should make an effort to promote the welfare of the people by securing and protecting social order in which social, economic and political justice is available to all the institutions of life. Despite their large numbers and integral role in the urban economy, migrant workers have been neglected and deprived of their constitutional rights. 

Scope under Current Housing Policies

A key piece of legislation governing the inter-state migrants in India is the Inter-State Migration( Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, which was aimed to protect the rights of migrant workforce and provide decent conditions of employment. It lays down that the Inter-State migrants must be registered and should be provided with suitable accommodation by their registered contractor employer. However, considering the abysmal living conditions of the migrant workers and the lack of any form of registration at jobs of the unorganised sector, it is evident that this legislation has failed to create the desired effect and implementation. Migrant workers have not only lost their jobs, but have also been forced to move back to their home States. In addition, there are not many policies that expressly discuss the shelter and security provisions for the low-income migrant workers in a detailed manner. Many draft national housing policies have been framed in the past, however, the National Urban Housing and Habitat Policy (NUHHP), 2007 was one of the first central policies that remotely addressed the housing needs for the migrant workforce. It aimed at ensuring “affordable housing for all” which is also in line with a sustainable development goal, which would create better living conditions for all. This Policy had nothing specifically for the migrant workers, except the discussion on increasing supply of rental housing for them. New housing amenities for the low income group of migrants had not been made available. The Policy had focused on providing habitation to urban poor, which is a chunk of population distinct from migrant workers in terms of permanence of residence, registration with social security schemes, recognition under economic groups based on their income and other factors.

The Model State Affordable Housing Policy for Urban Areas (2013) was expected to complement and coherently operate with the Rajiv Awas Yojana to create rental housing units and dormitories for new migrants. However, new housing units were not approved to be provided, which meant that there was no progress in the status of housing facilities for migrant labour from the 2007 Policy. Despite an urgent need for government subsidized housing benefits for this group of the labour force, none have been comprehensive enough to recognise and formulate specific provisions for migrant workers clearly. The 2015 Smart Cities Mission, that aims at comprehensive development of cities and focuses on providing housing amenities for all, makes no mention of classes/economic groups to avail housing benefits through this policy and yet it has been interpreted to be an all-inclusive policy for better city infrastructure development in India. The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PM-AY) has been argued to be the biggest housing policy initiative, with the goal to provide 20 million affordable housing units by March 31, 2022, both in urban and rural areas. Under the scheme, government-funded housing in the cities have been converted into Affordable Rental Housing Complexes (ARHCs) under the PPP mode through concessionaires. This is also the first scheme where segregation amongst the urban poor and migrant workers (as different classes of population) has been made. Since this policy is newly introduced, it is yet to prove its effectiveness.

The inconsistency in classification and segregation of economic groups to avail benefits of various housing schemes so far, reflects that the rights of migrant workers have repeatedly been neglected and in fact remained unacknowledged. Much like the Central government, State governments have also not been successful in ensuring the provision of housing facilities for migrant workers. 

Only now have the States started to chalk out housing and accommodation policies for the migrant workers. The Uttar Pradesh government has sought permission from the Central government to allow migrant workers to register as eligible beneficiaries for PM Awas Yojana and has also planned to set up a Migration Commission to look into welfare schemes for the migrant labour population. Moreover, the governments of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha signed an MoU to ensure that seasonal hostels are made available for the children of migrant workers. Kerala has been the only State that recognised and facilitated the housing needs of migrant workers even before the COVID crisis turned into an economic emergency for the migrant labour force. The State has introduced the Apna Ghar Project which ensures that each migrant worker is able to secure rental accommodation which is both sanitary and economical. It is currently valued at Rs 8.5 crore, and can potentially house 640 male migrant workers. This accommodation is stipulated to cost in between Rs 750 and Rs 1,000 per month. 

Urgent Need for Policy Reforms

As an outcome of the COVID pandemic, reverse migration has become the norm, a trend which traces its roots in the lack of secure housing facilities for the labour population migrating from their place of residence for want of better employment opportunities. India, being one of the founding members of the International Labour Organisation, should ideally adhere to and implement the Workers Housing Recommendation,1961, which has the primary objective to ensure “adequate and decent housing and a suitable living environment” for the labour force of countries that have ratified to the ILO Conventions.

There are a lot of inconsistencies in India’s labour laws, which has also contributed to the failure of the government to provide for shelter to the migrant workforce. As a result, some modifications should be brought about in the labour laws and policies. The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2019, which has been introduced in the Parliament with an objective to replace 13 labour laws and create an all-inclusive system should be approved and codified. It would also replace the 1979 Act and reiterates the provisions relating to the entitlement of migrant workers to receive a displacement allowance equal to 50% of the monthly wages payable to them. The Code was referred to a Standing Committee, which came up with various recommendations. It suggested that a separate chapter regarding the Inter-State Migrant workforce should be introduced in the Code, which would specifically address the issues faced by them. It also noted that the Code should have initiatives similar to those adopted by Odisha for migrant workers such as a toll-free Shramik (labour force) Sahayata Helpline, Migrant Labour Help Desk, seasonal hostels for the children of migrant workers among others.

Furthermore, salient features of the Draft National Urban Rental Housing Policy, 2015, which expressly addressed the need for urban rental housing properties for migrant labours, should be included in the newly launched scheme of Central government under PM-AY for the migrant workers. This would allow the tenants/beneficiaries to get a housing unit on lease from the government for a fixed number of years. Empirical study and research should be conducted in every State to gather data regarding the percentage of migrant workers from each State. This data can be used to facilitate Inter-State services by signing MoUs to ensure that migrant workers are provided with housing and other basic facilities. 

The migrant workers are mostly illiterate and unaware of their rights, hence dominated by silence, they are compelled to arrange for their own living spaces most of the time. Since it becomes a burdening expenditure, they tend to remain homeless by temporarily sheltering themselves in open spaces. There is a need to raise awareness and educate migrant workers of their eligibility for claim under various welfare schemes. For this purpose, helplines and migrant labour help-desk should be set up in every State, just like Odisha.

Housing for All will mean nothing, if positive and evolutionary changes are not introduced for the most disadvantaged of the population. Due arrangements must be made by the government to regulate and foresee the protection of the rights of migrant labour population. This will help devise context specific policy to tackle the problems faced by them, out of which, right to safe and decent living conditions can prove to be a crucial starting point.

By Aiswariya Pratap Jena, Research Associate, Policy