Prateek Joinwal, a 3rd year law student at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata analyses the gross human rights violation faced by the displaced migrant workers due to COVID-19 in India.

Introduction

The pandemic caused by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (‘2019-nCoV’) has compelled States to implement policies targeted towards curtailing the pernicious manifestations of the virus. Likewise, in its bid to prevent community transmission of the 2019-nCoV, the Government of India had implemented a nationwide lockdown on March 24, 2020. Ever since the first phase of the lockdown was enforced, the newspapers were inundated with reports of migrant workers walking several miles en masse from regions within the National Capital Region (NCR) to their hometowns.[1] Even the third phase of lockdown has not shown signs of any improvement in the predicament of the migrant workers; for, while the first phase was marred by the helplessness with which thousands of migrant workers were forced to march homewards, the third phase is marred by the visuals of the same workers protesting in front of the railway stations.

Rather unsurprisingly, several reports have revealed that migrant workers – international as well as within a country – have been especially vulnerable during this 2019-nCoV crisis.[2] The quagmire faced by such workers is not merely limited to the facet of mobility in the midst of a nationwide lockdown but is interlinked with the overarching violations of the basic human rights of these workers, who are often dubbed as the ‘nowhere people[3] in our society. There have been instances where some of these workers have been denied entry in their native places out of fear that they might be infected[4], in other cases they have been made the victim of hate speech which has militated against their possibility of coming forward for screening.[5] The crisis of the workers was further exacerbated by the Hon’ble Supreme Court’s order on April 07, wherein, it refrained from interfering with the decisions taken by the Government vis-à-vis the migrant workers amid the 2019-nCoV lockdown.[6] 

It has been argued that migrants’ specific patterns of vulnerability often lie at the intersection of class, race and status; since migrants are overrepresented in low-income and discriminated minorities, and encounter a multitude of challenges linked with their lack of entitlement to health care, exclusion from welfare programs, and fear of stigmatization and/or arrest and deportation.[7] This blog piece is aimed towards highlighting the plight of these workers and engender a discourse on the gross human right violations incumbent during the State imposed lockdown. Part I of this paper elucidates the basic rights of the migrant workers and how the same have been encroached by the State and its beneficiaries. The discussion shall culminate with the concluding remarks, along with providing some measures to ameliorate the stance of the migrants, in Part II of the paper.

  1. Analyzing the paradox: Migrant Workers and Human Rights.

The World Health Organization (‘WHO’) had declared the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right, in 1946.[8] Additionally, while the ICESCR stipulates the Right to Health as an international legal obligation, the U.N, High Commissioner for Human Rights had urged the Indian State to ensure that measures to respond to the pandemic are “neither applied in a discriminatory manner nor exacerbate existing inequalities and vulnerabilities”.[9] Previous epidemics have shown us that stigmatizing viral transmission only further places populations at risk and reduces access to care. Along similar lines, the WHO Director-General T.A. Ghebreyesus has urged for a “whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach” by the States while tackling the 2019-nCoV.[10] 

It has been observed that migrant workers have not been accorded the same status as other members of the community, leaving them in a precarious situation vis-à-vis curing the spread of the 2019-nCoV.[11] It is unfortunate that poor working and living conditions, marked by abhorrently deplorable access to clean drinking water and sanitation facilities, have become a grim reality for all the migration workers.[12] Often, these workers are denied the right to an adequate standard of living, including housing owing to which they are mandated to live in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions, with limited or no access to health services.[13] Their predicament has only worsened in the period of lockdown, with migrant workers being placed at risk from the impact of the pandemic due to the harsh containment measures, poor working conditions and the exploitative labour systems.[14]

Even though Article 19(1)(d) and (e) of the Indian Constitution guarantees them the right to move as well as reside and settle in any part of India, their citizenship rights have nevertheless been confined to the mere legalistic entitlement to an identity without much access to the more substantive social and economic rights. The same has shown to keep them at the periphery of the political and social paraphernalia, which constantly tends to deny or overlook their existence.[15] The question which arises at this juncture is whether the right to life and dignity guaranteed under Article 21 has any meaning for these workers whose lives have been rife with the anathema of state repression?

  1. Policy Recommendations for an Inclusive Framework: The Way Forward?

In order to effectively curb the outbreak of the 2019-nCoV, it imperative that displaced populations are provided with access to infection prevention and control measures, along with integrating the community of migrant workers within the framework of the national health-response processes. While the Government had implemented a relief package of 1.7 trillion rupees for the vulnerable populace on March 26[16], it is evident that the same has not been effective in ameliorating the stance of the migrant workers within the Indian demographic. Thus, it is quintessential for the Government to look into the recommendations UNESCO-UNICEF and the Working Group on Migration for ending the plight of the workers displaced during the lockdown. 

Additionally, the Government should work towards paying the pending wages for all work done by these workers under the MNREGA and expand its scope to those forced out of work by the lockdown. It is unfortunate that the displaced populations, including the migrant workers, are often the first to be stigmatized and unjustly blamed for the spread of a disease, yet they are also among the most vulnerable people during a pandemic—to both the virus itself and the measures enacted to effectively control it. Our country should also consider taking interpretative cues from other nations who had addressed a similar quagmire in their battle against the spread of the virus. For instance, Portugal had temporarily accorded full citizenship rights to every migrant and asylum seeker within its borders, which allowed the displaced populace to get the benefit of the country’s public healthcare regime.[17] 

On similar lines, even migrants in Thailand have been entitled to 2019-nCoV screening and treatment procedures irrespective of their legal status; with the documented workers being covered under the ambit of the country’s ‘Migrant Health Insurance Scheme’.[18] Thus, in its endeavour to tackle the pandemic while upholding the sanctity of the rights of the displaced populace, our State must incontrovertibly undertake additional social protection measures or widen the ambit of the current social security schemes so as to alleviate the rigours of those who are at the risk of being disproportionately affected by the crisis.


Prateek Joinwal is a Third year law student from West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata


[1]Anand Mohan J., As capital sleeps, migrants keep on moving — and getting stopped, The Indian Express (May 16, 2020, 6:04 AM), https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/as-capital-sleeps-migrants-keep-on-moving-and-getting-stopped-6412170/.

[2]Fasani Francesco & Mazza Jacopo, A Vulnerable Workforce: Migrant Workers in the COVID-19 Pandemic, Publications Office of the European Union 1, 2-3 [2020].

[3]A.K. Ghosh & A.R. Chaudhury, Migrant Workers and the Ethics of Care during a Pandemic in R. Samaddar (ed.) Borders of an Epidemic COVID-19 and Migrant Workers 91-92 (Calcutta Research Group 2020).

[4]Krishnadas Rajgopal, Coronavirus lockdown | Migrant workers should not be prosecuted, says Supreme Court, The Hindu (June 09, 2020, 11:25 AM), https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/coronavirus-lockdown-migrant-workers-should-not-be-prosecuted-says-supreme-court/article31784841.ece

[5]Ananya Tiwari, Delhi: Before train ride, Endless lines at Screening Centres, The Indian Express (May 21, 2020, 2:27 AM), https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/coronavirus-covid-19-lockdown-migrant-labourers-delhi-6419985/.

[6]Shruti Mahajan, Migrant Workers’ plight during Coronavirus Lockdown: Will did not interfere in government decision for few days, CJI SA Bobde, Bar and Bench (April 07, 2020, 12:20 PM), https://www.barandbench.com/news/litigation/migrant-workers-plight-during-coronavirus-lockdown-will-not-interfere-in-government-decision-for-few-days-cji-sa-bobde.

[7]Lorenzo Guadagno, Migrants and the COVID-19 Pandemic: An Initial Analysis, 60 Int’l. Org. for Migration 1, 5 (2020). 

[8]Andrea S. Christopher & D. Caruso, Promoting Health as a Human Right in the Post-ACA United States, 17 AMA J. Ethics 958, 959-61 (2015).

[9]COVID-19 Lockdown: U.N. Human Rights Chief Expresses Concern About Migrant Workers, The Wire (April 03, 2020), https://thewire.in/world/india-covid-19-lockdown-un-human-rights-chief-migrant-workers

[10]Ling San Lau et al., COVID-19 in humanitarian settings and lessons learned from past epidemics, 26 Nature Medicine 647, 648 (2020).

[11]Frayer Lauren, Coronavirus Lockdown Sends Migrant Workers on A Long and Risky Trip Home, National Public Radio (March 31, 2020, 7:02 PM), https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2020/03/31/822642382/coronavirus-lockdown-sends-migrantworkers-on-a-long-and-risky-trip-home.

[12]S.N. Roy et al., Migrants in Construction Work: Evaluating their Welfare Framework 5 (Centre for Policy Research 2017).

[13]Pramod K. Nayar, The Long Walk: Migrant Workers and Extreme Mobility in the Age of Corona, 4 J. of Extreme Anthropology 1, 2-4 (2020).

[14]R.B. Bhagat et al., The COVID-19, Migration and Livelihood in India: A Background Paper for Policy Makers 6-8 (International Institute for Population Sciences 2020).

[15]Adhir R. Chowdhury, Govt has been groping in the dark on the migrant issue. This must change, The Indian Express (May 22, 2020, 9:49 AM), https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/migrant-labour-crisis-india-coronavirus-lockdown-modi-govt-adhir-ranjan-chowdhury-6421503/.

[16]Asit Ranjan Mishra, Sitharaman announces 1.7 trillion packages for the poor hit by the lockdown, LiveMint (March 27, 2020, 12:45 AM), https://www.livemint.com/news/india/covid-19-centre-announces-rs-1-7-trillion-package-for-migrant-workers-poor-11585207289279.html.

[17]Mia Alberti, Portugal gives migrants and asylum-seekers full citizenship rights during coronavirus outbreak, CNN (March 31, 2020, 2:22 AM), https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/30/europe/portugal-migrants-citizenship-rights-coronavirus-intl/index.html.

[18]Pramod K. Nayar, supra n(13).

IMPORTANT – Opinions expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IJOSLCA.

 

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