internal worker migration, Working Peoples' Charter, informal workers in India

The Crises of Internal Worker Migration

Ideas and Issues
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April 18, 2021

Pearl River     One of the great demographic trends of the last century has been the inexorable movement of displaced workers from rural and agricultural life to metropolitan areas, both domestically and globally.           In China, Nigeria, and India especially, this wave of displaced workers on the move for jobs has created megacities of fifteen million and more in the last several generations.

In India, despite the size of Delhi, Mumbai, and other giant cities, almost half of the national population and workforce is still rural tethering many migrant, informal workers still to their villages where they have families, relatives, and often registrations critical for voting and rations. The pandemic has exposed critical fault lines in the informal and service economies of the cities and the unstable migrant character of much of the workforce. ACORN India’s members and organizations in Bengaluru, Delhi, and Mumbai have been working in these gaps for years, but at no time more critically than during the last year.

We were scheduled to meet in coming days in the Maldives, where travel, USA passports, and easy visas are still available. The current surge in India made those plans evaporate as our ACORN directors correctly feared that they might be quarantined for weeks if they traveled. Talking to them, the most urgent conversations focused on the way their cities are emptying out. Most of our membership consists of informal workers, many of whom are also migrants. The latest surge has put them all in motion once again to their home villages, fearing another indeterminate lockdown where their livelihoods are blocked, marketplaces are shutdown, and there are few governmental programs that address their situations. In Delhi, our Janophal affiliate runs eighteen migrant night centers, so we feel the pulse of these shifts acutely.

ACORN is part of a coalition of more than 150 organizations of informal workers called the Working Peoples’ Charter that has been particularly vocal in demanding that the government take steps to support workers, including 140 million internal migrants.   A recent statement of the coalition on the one-year anniversary of the first, abrupt lockdown the WPC underscored this situation saying,

In urban areas, workers are bearing the burden of economic recovery through poverty wages, normalised 12-hour workdays, and a continued lack of social security. At both the rural and urban ends of migration corridors, work and living conditions continue to be exploitative and undignified. In response to the unprecedented nature of the labour and migration crises—as well as the attention, the issue received—the state has responded in limited ways… including the One Nation, One Ration Card, while possibly introduced with good intent, have serious conceptual and implementation flaws, and vulnerable groups have not been able to access these entitlements yet. While these efforts are a step in the right direction, it is deeply concerning that India does not have a central, formidable policy or law to safeguard its migrant workforce despite the horrors of last year.

For all of the talk about remote work in the pandemic in the modern world and lessons learned, there are hundreds of millions of people whose voices aren’t being heard, but where real programs and solutions are desperately needed.