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Government 'fails to take up' Indian migrants' unpaid wages issue with other countries

By Rafeek Ravuther, Chandan Kumar, Dharmendra Kumar* 

The migrant workers were one of the most vulnerable sections during the pandemic. India experiences large-scale movement of migrants internally and internationally. After the outbreak of the pandemic, migrant workers continued to face injustice especially in getting wages in expedited manner.
In the international context, India, the home of 9 million cross-border temporary labour migrants, carried out the largest repatriation exercise ‘Vande Bharat Mission’. Even though the Indian government addressed the immediate requirement of repatriation, it failed to understand and recognise their post-arrival grievances, like back wages, social protection etc.
Recently many workers were deported from the middle- east region. Amidst the establishment of grievance mechanisms such as Consular Services Management System (MADAD) and helplines in Pravasi Bharatiya Sahayata Kendra (PBSK), the unresolved grievances remain high. The number of unresolved cases in the past years (2019 and 2020) is 6,988.
This figure only includes Gulf countries except for UAE. As per the Government of India (GoI), 17,848 labour complaints were received by Indian Missions and Posts from Indian workers outside the country that included non-payment of wages or salaries between March 2020 and December 2021. Some of those who had lost their work were terminated and repatriated forcefully. Only a handful of workers received all benefits and dues.
Currently, the national and state governments do not offer any specific platform to address the issue of wage theft among internal workers in the country. The informality and temporariness of their job often prevented them from reaching out to common legal platforms such as labour courts and tribunals.
Similarly, wage theft was poorly addressed across various migration corridors over the years due to the lack of access to justice mechanisms and labour protection systems both at the country of origin and destination.
In this context, the Centre for Indian Migrant Studies (CIMS) and the Working People’s Coalition (WPC) along with other civil society and trade union partners has organised a national consultation on Justice for Wage Theft on 23-24 September at New Delhi. It is a country-wide multi-stakeholder discussion to understand and evaluate the issue of wage theft and stakeholder responses during the pandemic among internal and international migrants.
The Campaign Against Wage Theft identified that this persistent issue should not only be seen in the context of the pandemic. The campaign has become widespread across all major migration corridors and is also internationally recognised by the UN.
This conference was a rare opportunity for groups working with internal and international migrant workers to come together, and discuss this complex subject in a comprehensive manner. 
After day one of the conference the gravity of the issue was realized. It involved discussion on themes such as nature and extent of wage theft, government responses to the issue, non-government stakeholder responses and the future of access to justice mechanisms and lastly, how to improve access to justice for Indian migrants within India and outside.
Manoj Jha, Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha, gave the inaugural speech where he addressed the migrant workers issues and how these workers are given false promises to get access to better wages and social protection in the deception of currency exchange rates and their passports are confiscated.
He asserted that migrant workforce are invisible citizens whose discourse is nowhere in the radar. He expressed his solidarity to the campaign while suggesting that we should develop a platform or advocacy tools for drawing knowledge for the Parliamentarians so that they can take it forward through various mediums.
Other speakers included Anup Satpathy, Gayatri Singh, Dr Binod Khadria, Amish, Akhil, Sr Lizy Joseph, Ramendra Kumar, Shaji Mon, Santosh Poonia, Dr Atul Sood, Parvathy Devi, Binoy Peter, Adv.Subhash Chandran and Rejimon Kuttappan.
It was discussed that the common feature of both internal and international migration is the gross labour rights violations, such as wage theft, lack of access to social protection, prohibition of right to association and collective bargaining, occupational hazard and precarious working conditions. There are limited provisions hence inadequate protection in national/international labour laws.
To stop wage theft it is needed to be connected to the social concept and gendered norms of the society
To stop wage theft it is needed to be connected to the social concept and gendered norms of the society. To quantify the extent of wage theft, multiple examples were highlighted that included: the employer and labour department’s ignorance towards wages less than minimum wages, not adhering to 8 hours work a day, minimum wages not being revised and non-payment of overtime.
Workers' rights to organise, access to remedy, operational and effective grievance redressal, bilateral agreements, access to living wages, adaption of digital payments, accountability of the state, responsibility of the state to provide social protection and to introduce the wealth tax were some of the suggestive focus points.
Above all, it was addressed that the Indian government’s reluctance to proactively initiate discussions at the national/bilateral/multilateral levels is a hindrance in every attempt to retrieve unpaid wages from abroad.
Indian delegates demanded that the Government of India should implement an international justice mechanism for migrant workers to address grievances on unpaid dues. The consultation was held prior to the Conference on Access to Justice for Migrant Workers held at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from 2-4 October.
The outcome expected of the Wage Theft Campaign is to understand the nature of wage theft among Indian migrant workers (both international and internal), to review the responses of state and non-state stakeholders and to seek responses from sending countries.
On day 2 discussions took place around the themes: social Protection and wage theft: Using OSH and ESIC as tools to strengthen ‘wage campaign”, access to regular wages and social protection provisions for women migrants during pandemic, experiences of various states and sector, floating the idea of building campaign on ‘wage theft’ In India and lastly, group discussions towards strengthening wage theft campaign on 3 broad topics of how do we deal with wage theft & inequality, ESIC and grievance redressal mechanisms took place.
Various suggestive points and issues were discussed that included: applicability of minimum wages, basic working conditions, ramification on workers when they complain, role of government to intervene when workers file the claims and are subjected to termination.
Issues faced by migrant domestic workers were highlighted as they are unregistered and without any clear terms of employment. Further, dialogue & representation of women migrant workers, unionisation & challenges of trade unions to organise workers, lack of employment that pushes workers into vicious circles of exploitation,
Registration of workers and employers with emphasis on workers from marginalised sections taking up issues forward through litigation and lobbying were also weighed in. With respect to National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) there is violation of both Payment of Wages Act and Minimum Wages Act in many states. As a collective we need to contextualize this within the wage theft campaign.
To move forward components of our demands, coordination between national and international laws and ILO conventions in the Indian context need to be considered. The movement to protect the rights of workers needs to be taken forward in solidarity in a collaborative manner across the country. In conclusion, strategies & roadmap for the campaign were presented.
The outcome expected of the Wage Theft Campaign is to understand the nature of wage theft among Indian migrant workers (both international and internal), to review the responses of state and non-state stakeholders and to seek responses from sending countries.

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