The heartbreaking migrant crisis following the initial shutdown captured the imagination of the people and forced political decision-makers to take certain measures for them in the schemes advertised to help the poor. The crisis of migrants after the second wave was quiet. Although moderated in part by the continued operation of public transport, it nevertheless affected millions of migrants. It also came in the wake of the first crisis, in which the same workers who have suffered since the first shutdown were confronted with another period of necessary migration and unemployment. Yet this crisis is only a part, albeit an important one, of the recurring crises affecting the lives of the vast majority of informal workers, greatly exacerbated by the pandemic and policies that have followed it.
On June 29, the Supreme Court finally handed down its verdict on the migrant labor situation and also gave a sort of status statement of how little things had changed for them in the intervening period. The judgment was limited in scope, limited to the framework of existing social security schemes, but it was remarkable for two main reasons. First, it acknowledged that there was a large-scale exclusion of migrant workers and other informal workers from existing schemes due to the lack of their registration and outdated entitlement lists. It noted that no benefits will be denied to migrant workers in the absence of one Aadhaar short and that food aid will be provided to migrants who were not covered by the National Food Security Act. Second, it linked informal workers and migrant workers, both of whom are excluded, and ordered that the portal for the registration of all informal / migrant workers be fully operational by 31 July.
Nearly a decade and a half ago, the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector (NCEUS) had pointed out that the circular migrant workers were a disadvantaged segment among informal workers. We now estimate that these migrant workers make up almost 60 per cent of occupationally vulnerable workers outside agriculture. Based on its approach, the NCEUS had advocated for a comprehensive law to protect the rights of all informal workers, including migrants, domestic workers and domestic workers. It had also recommended a universal self-declaration registration mechanism with the issuance of a smart social security card and a national minimum social security package, which is available to all informal workers by law within a specified time frame.
When drafting the Law on Social Security for Unorganized Workers, which was approved by Parliament in December 2008, the then government removed the mandatory elements of the NCEUS proposal and contained neither a national minimum package of social security nor the provision on mandatory registration. The Supreme Court ruling may well now push the government towards the other, but it will only be seen in the course of time.
That Covid-19 the crisis has highlighted the many commonalities between all financially and occupationally vulnerable informal workers and seasonal / circular migrant workers and revealed fault lines and gaps in the existing social protection system. But at the same time, it has also highlighted the additional vulnerabilities that segments of informal workers face, based on their social and cultural identity and position in the labor market. During the crisis, a number of studies have focused on the condition of these workers. Azim Premji University’s State of Working India Report 2021 presents a study of studies along with the results of its own studies. Aside from job losses, it reports deterioration in job quality, indebtedness as a coping strategy, and lower incomes compared to pre-lockdown levels, pushing hundreds of millions of households into poverty. While circular migrants were hardest hit, the effects were disproportionate for the poorest households and women and young workers. Apart from the PDS, the social protection network provided protection to a few households, and the benefits of the extended schemes also remained limited, especially for migrant workers.
This crisis should draw the attention of policy makers to the provision of a minimum level of guaranteed social security / social protection for all informal workers and their households within a specified time frame. This would imply a clear framework and an obligation to spend greater public resources on social protection, as a large class of workers in India do not have an identifiable employer and a contributory social security framework will not work for them. Investing in social protection is not charity or “helicopter money”, as some call it contemptuous. It is an investment in workers’ productivity and in fair growth. It is, as the UN put it in 2009, when it clarified the Social Protection Floor Initiative (SPF) after the global financial crisis, the surest way out of a crisis by increasing demand at the bottom of the pyramid. The report of the ILO Advisory Committee, in which India was represented by its Secretary of Labor, provides a strong justification for introducing a universal SPF during economic crises. As a result, all ILO members adopted Recommendation 202 on Social Security Floors at the 2012 International Labor Conference.
Unfortunately, in the years before this crisis, the government reversed the trend of increasing public spending on social protection. Estimates show that government spending on all major social protection programs fell from 1.96 percent of GDP in 2008-09 to 1.6 percent in 2013-14 and to just 1.28 percent in 2019-20.
Skeptics may ask how the government can achieve a universal SPF under the economic constraints imposed by the current crisis. Undoubtedly, the government should have spent more on the poor during the crisis, since the allocated expenditures were insufficient and negligible as a percentage of GDP. More importantly, these were discretionary, ad hoc, one-off expenses, whereas additional resources should have been used as part of a concrete plan to provide a guaranteed minimum, invoked as a right.
To end the silent, painful and lasting crisis for the workers, as well as the crisis for the economy, the government must immediately recognize the right to social security, embedded in both the Indian Constitution and international conventions, embrace ILO Recommendation 202 and work towards them in a timely manner manner.
This column was first published in the print edition on July 17, 2021 under the title ‘The Silent Crisis’. The author is Director, Center of Employment Studies, Institute for Human Development and former member of NCEUS.