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Lifting the veil on India’s invisible migrant workers

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A migrant labourer carries cement sacks, Jalandhar, India, 30 January 2023 (Photo: Reuters/ANI).

In Brief

Ninety per cent of Indian workers earn their livelihoods in the informal sector, lacking job security, pensions, paid leave and benefits. Precise estimates are unknown, but as many as 40–100 million of these workers are estimated to migrated for employment to India’s cities each year. In March 2020, millions left the cities and returned to the Indian countryside, reeling from lost employment, accommodation and poverty during India’s COVID-19 lockdowns.


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Indian policymakers responded to the challenges faced by these migrants with new welfare schemes, including access to free food grains, affordable rental housing and opportunities for training. In 2023, India’s economic growth appears to be resuming. GDP growth is projected to be 7 per cent over the 2022–23 fiscal year. The International Monetary Fund refers to India as a ‘bright spot’ in the world economy. Urban migrant-receiving sectors such as construction and transportation appear to be poised for a comeback.

But it is uncertain how India’s internal migrants will navigate these opportunities. There is almost no data available to study this population. India’s national labour market surveys were discontinued in 2016. In 2018, India’s government also discontinued the Labour Bureau’s Quarterly Enterprise surveys. The government now relies on limited surveys from the Periodic Labour Force Survey that gathers short-term data for selected urban areas. Private entities, such as the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, produce estimates of unemployment that seem at odds with the economic trends reported by the government.

Evidence from small studies suggests that migrants suffered significant losses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Analysis from the International Labour Organization found that Indians aged 15–64 lost an average of 14.6 per cent and 6.3 per cent of their work hours in 2020 and 2021 respectively — nearly double the global rate. Another study showed that formal workers’ wages fell 3.6 per cent and informal workers’ wages fell 22.6 per cent.

There is also evidence that migrants are scared to return to the cities despite the losses they incurred. A longitudinal study found that while some male migrants have returned and even recovered their pre-pandemic incomes, many men have chosen to remain in rural areas, despite earning just 23 per cent of their previous income on average. Women migrants have regained less than 65 per cent of their pre-pandemic incomes regardless of where they are.

India’s labour market has also changed since the pandemic. Some migrants find that their old jobs are not paying what they used to. A complicating factor here is that India does not have a uniform minimum wage. India’s Economic Survey 2018–19 acknowledged that there are 1915 different minimum wages defined for various scheduled job categories across multiple states.

A new proposal that would limit the number of unique minimum wage rates to between 4–12 per state has not yet been passed. In the absence of a guarantee, a worker who returns to the city in search of employment may lack the confidence or negotiating power to bargain for higher wages.

There is also the possibility that expanded welfare programs could discourage migration. The government is in the midst of launching a new registration systems for unorganised workers. It has also rolled out new health insurance and social security schemes for them. India’s largest public works program, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, was also expanded. Evidence suggests that these safety nets are helpful, but coverage is still an issue — only 24 per cent of Indians have access to even one such scheme. It is unlikely that these schemes will provide long-term economic security.

Ultimately, the issues of missing data, vulnerability to job losses, eroded negotiating power and limited access to safety nets may stem from migrants’ lack of political organisation. According to India’s electoral rules, eligible voters can only vote in their ‘ordinary place of residence’. Most short-term migrants are unable to vote in their home constituencies. This leads to large-scale disenfranchisement and disempowerment. Until the images of desperate migrants walking home from cities went viral in March 2020, migrants were at the margins of politics and policy.

Here, a real bright spot for India’s migrant workers has recently emerged. On 28 December 2022, India’s Election Commission announced its intentions to pilot remote voting for domestic migrants, enabling them to vote in their home states. The key innovation here is a remote electronic voting machine that can verify voter identities and record votes for multiple constituencies. The machines are new and many of the details are yet to be worked out. But with sufficient oversight and accountability, migrants could emerge as an important voting bloc. This is a positive development for India’s rural migrants and Indian participatory democracy.

Shareen Joshi is Associate Professor in the Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

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