This article is all about the situation of the migrants. When the highly contagious COVID-19 pandemic surrounds the entire world, we must not forget about the helpless migrants who have left their homes to search for livelihood. This article also deals with the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act,1979 in such a way as why was this law framed, how does the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act,1979 help in protecting the migrant workers also what action are to be taken. This article also describes as why was this law ineffective and does this law require changes? Lastly, the article is concluded with some suggestions and observations.


The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown by the government has exposed the vulnerability of the informal sector workers in India, especially of inter-state migrant workers in big, metropolitan, middle cities and concrete centres.

Before the lockdown, these workers were working in both casual and contract work, while few of them were self-employed doing petty jobs to earn money. The lockdown rendered them jobless overnight. Usually, they make barely enough to subsist, and those few who can earn are paid the minimum wages. Petty economic activities do not seem to be economically remunerative, and in most cases, they do not even cover basic sustenance needs.

Under such circumstances, inter-state migrant workers with little or no savings could not survive within the urban centres beyond some days.

These inter-state migrant workers had no money to pay rent or purchase anything. After some days, they began to depart the cities, and owing to the lack of transport; they began to steer back to native places on foot, some as far as 2000 km away. The country stood witness to these ‘long marches’ during April, May and even June. Many such workers passed away before they could reach their destination.

The government of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have made it mandatory for the registration of the migrant workers, a clause which is already a part of the law. The Centre has also planned to bring in few changes to the law through a replacement code.

Most of the Indians did not know about the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 until the news channel started highlighting the migrant crisis.

Initially, when the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act was set in motion, labourers were hired by the contractors or the organizations to work on large construction projects. These labourers had no fixed working hours. Moreover, they were ill-treated and often, weren’t even paid for the services which they have rendered.

The existing laws were not enough. Hence newly codified law was announced with an explanation saying that – “the Inter-State migrant workers are generally illiterate, confused and usually have to work under unfavourable conditions and because of these hardships, some administrative and legislative arrangements both within the State from where they’re hired and also within the State where they’re engaged for work are necessary to secure effective protection against their misuse.”

Structure of Migration

Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act

Migration is the movement or an action of people travelling from one place to another in search of work staying away from their usual place of residence, within internal (within-country) or across international (across countries) borders.  The recent government data on migration comes from the 2011 Census.  According to the Census, India had 45.6 crore migrants in 2011 (38% of the population) as contrasted to 31.5 crore migrants in 2001 (31% of the population).  Between 2001 and 2011, while the population grew by 18%, the amount of migrants grew by 45%.  In 2011, 99% of overall migration was internal and immigrants (international migrants) constituted of about 1%.

Internal migrant flows can be categorized based on origin and destination.  One kind of categorization is: i) rural-rural, ii) rural-urban, iii) urban-rural and iv) urban-urban.  As per the 2011 census, there were 21 crore rural-rural migrants who formed 54% of classifiable internal migration (the Census did not classify 5.3 crore people as originating from either rural or urban areas).  Rural-urban and urban-urban movement accounted for around eight crore migrants each. There were about 3 crore urban-rural migrants (7% of classifiable internal migration).

Another way to classify migration is: (i) intra-state and (ii) inter-state.  In 2011, intra-state movement accounted for almost 88% of all internal migration (39.6 crore persons)

Why was the law framed?

Many reformers within the Janata Party government of the 1970s were worried about the exploitation of migrant workers recruited from poor places for construction projects. These workers were usually paid a meagre amount of wages, and contractors would hardly keep promises that were made to them. A panel was formed on the recommendation by the labour ministers of states in 1977, who later recommended the law governing the employment of inter-state migrant workers. It said that the Contract Labour Act, 1970, failed to protect their rights seeing which the Parliament had eventually passed the new law in 1980.

How are the migrant workers protected?

Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act

The contractors or the organization that employ migrant workers have to get their workers registered with the Central or the State government. The registration of the labourers depended on with whom the contractor or the organization is registered with. It can either be the Centre or the State government. The law requires contractors to obtain licenses from the States from where the labourers will be brought. Besides labours working for 15 days, every contractor or the organization is advised to provide every detail of migrant workers to the registering authority.

They must also keep a record of all the registered migrant workers and furnish them with a passbook containing details of their employment. The establishments must provide a displacement allowance of fifty per cent of the wages and fares in augmentation to wages during any disturbance period. They are also required to provide accommodation and health facilities. According to the law, the employment of migrant workers without registration is prohibited, and it is mandatory for the state governments to appoint an officer to verify its execution.

What are the penal provisions within the law?

According to the law, in case of any violation, the defaulter will be jailed for up to a year and also fined of RS. 1000. This provision gives power to the Labour Officer to investigate and take statements from workers any time. In case any obstruction is created while a Labour Officer is discharging his/her duties, one will become liable to be imprisoned for up to two-years.

Why has the law been ineffective?

As observed by most of the experts, the government often tends to forget about the laws that were made. After the economic liberalization within the 1990s, there was an increase in the migration of migrant workers to urban areas, fast-emerging industrial towns or in the Metropolitan cities. There is a lightning hike in the number of migrant workers, which is again not a good sign for a developing country like India.

According to the 2011 Census, India had 56.6 million migrant workers mostly from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh in agreement with the State Labour Department, but 5% of the migrant workers are registered with government agencies. Odisha, nevertheless, encompasses a helpline and facilities for children of migrant workers. There is no clause for organizations to file yearly reports on migrant workers employed and allowances that are paid to them. The law relies on the powers of inspectors, which may be misused.

Framework of migration

Migrations that occur these days are often painful. Such migrant workers face a lot of hardships and insecurity besides having no guarantee of work. Due to the absence of viable livelihood opportunities within the rural agricultural sector (both farm and non-farm), workers have moved towards the big, metropolitan and middle cities which have a high accumulation of industries and a sprawling urban informal sector.

A majority of the out-migrations can be traced to States like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh,  and Odisha. Workers from these states move to the National Capital Region (NCR), Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu for work and mostly get settled as informal workers. A generous number of workers amongst these are involved in construction and others in urban informal sectors. Most of these workers migrate with their families. Women members of their families work as domestic workers.

Migration network operates through the contacts of friends and families. Words of mouth have a crucial role. Barring some established construction companies, contractors in home states don’t have any significant role to play.

Contractors or organizations of the state that provide work to these migrant workers engage them as contract labourers, but their migrant status remains unexpressed or unspoken. Relatively, a particular number of inter-state migrant workers are self-employed and involved in petty economic activities in cities. Employer-employee relations don’t exist, and also the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act isn’t applicable in such instances because there is no mediator or agency involved in hiring them.

The economic imperative behind such migrations are to be found in occupational distribution across sectors, read with the sectoral distribution of value. In 2019, 43.21 per cent of the workforce was employed in agriculture, while the secondary industry employs 24.89 per cent. Consequently, the tertiary sector, which is also known as the service sector or the third sector gives employment of about 31.90 per cent of the workforce.

The portion of the population working in agriculture is decreasing day by day, but even then it is still the most economical source of employment in India. Employment elasticity of the secondary sector is incredibly low, and this sector could not absorb the surplus labour released from the first sector in any significant numbers. A part of such excess labour ends up working in the urban informal sector within the tertiary sector, to seek livelihoods through petty economic activities.

The categorized division of remuneration clearly shows that roughly 18% of the GDP is from the agricultural sector, 30% from the economic sector and 52% from the tertiary sector. Given the occupational distribution, this suggests that an oversized number of workers are still stuck within the primary sector, indicating huge underemployment and low productivity.

The service sector is relatively more productive, but without corresponding growth within the secondary sector, this might not be sustainable within the long term. The service sector stagnated immediately after the announcement of lockdown due to COVID-19, leaving thousands of inter-state migrant workers of informal sectors helpless with no style of legal protection.

Radical overhaul needed

Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act

The migrations that happen today aren’t contractor-guided, as postulated within the ISMW Act. The procedure has changed exceptionally from the mid-70s to late-90s and onwards. The role of contractors and agents in migrations has decreased significantly, and migrations nowadays are often the difficult ones that happen on its own.

Further, the inter-state migrant workers continue to move from one place to another across states in search of higher employment opportunities. This process or occurrence is often described as footloose workers in writings and it’s challenging to document such migrations within the framework of Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act 1979.

Additionally, it has become tough to bring the latest migrations within the purview of the prevailing labour legislation and particularly the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act. This particular piece of legislation needs a radical overhaul to become relevant within the present context.


There was a lack of a proper legal framework to govern the entire scenario, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic situations which lead to significant problems for the migrant workers. Despite the lack of governance, the Centre announced the Occupational Safety, Health and Dealing Conditions Code in the Lok Sabha in July 2019 to include and replace 13 labour laws including the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act.

A committee has suggested a separate part on migrant workers in the law and asked every state to have a help desk for the migrant workers. It noted the Code should have similar initiatives in line with that which Odisha has adopted for migrant workers such as a toll-free helpline, help desk, seasonal hostels for his or her children, strengthening of the anti-human trafficking units and also the setting-up of migration support centres.

The Union labour ministry plans just to accept the panel’s recommendations and has planned for a special Social Security scheme for migrant workers. Officials said that the provisions of the Code should apply to all or any migrant workers including domestic and people working in small factories.

Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh sought to create registration of migrant workers mandatory with labour departments and to increase schemes like subsidized ration under the general public Distribution System to them within the states of their employment through the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ scheme. The Majority of States have also decided to continue with helplines for workers started during the lockdown.

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Comments to: Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act,1979- Critical Analysis
  • August 14, 2020

    A very informative article. It\’s a must read issue. Keep it up.

  • August 15, 2020

    Very well Articulated. Appreciate the the efforts put in to perform so much research.

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