Stuck in the middle: Perpetual denial of rights to Indian migrant informal workers

“They are asking for a photocopy of the ration card to give food, even in the lockdown! Is this legal? The photocopy shops are not open and does state aid mean asking for these documents in return?”, asked Abeera angrily (a lower-class Muslim domestic worker in Delhi from Bihar).

“You know I told you all my documents got destroyed in the flood when I was working in Assam. I had filed an application form to make my identity documents, but it has been 6 months and several rounds to the district office; I still don’t have it. And now in this crisis, how will I receive any benefit at all? I am not even home”, shared Bhaskar helplessly (a lower caste construction worker in Delhi from Orissa).

Abeera and Bhaskar shared this with me on the phone on 12th April 2020. I met them in 2019 during my fieldwork in India when we spent many months making several rounds to various government offices and the courts demanding their right to identity documents, payment of wages by their employers, and for justice against the physical harassment they had suffered in the workplace for more than half a decade. These were ‘normal times’. Even in those ‘normal times’, these internal migrant informal workers experienced significant social, economic, and legal inequalities.

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis and its disproportionate impact on migrant informal workers in India reveal these inequalities more than ever before. On the one hand, some people are now working from home, have paid leave, or can take leave and rely on their savings to practice physical distancing. But on the other hand, there are those who cannot work from home, take leave, or protect themselves and others from the pandemic even if they want to. These are not the choices available to them. Many domestic workers have been told not to come to work without pay. Migrant construction workers and brick kiln workers are stranded without wages and have lost jobs. Self-employed street vendors, sex workers, small shop owners, local restaurants, rickshaw drivers, entertainment industry workers, and others do not have customers. Their everyday survival depends on daily wage work which cannot be done from home.

The lockdown has impacted these workers disproportionately by stripping them of their already scarce rights to livelihood, food, shelter, water, and dignity. Stranded migrant workers are being subjected to showers of chemical disinfectant in a horrific spectacle of indignity; they are not paid by the employers even for the work done before the lockdown; or are left to walk miles on foot to their home states. Because of this, as of 4th April 2020 22 workers had lost their lives, not because of COVID-19, but because they had to walk for miles on foot without food or water. Many more have died since then. In this way, the COVID-19 crisis reveals the myriad ways in which Indian society is complicit in maintaining deepening social inequalities and is blatantly ignorant to suffering.

The apathy of the Indian State and judiciary

The national lockdown which began on 24th March 2020 (subsequently extended to 3rd May 2020 and then another two weeks with some relaxation in designated areas) with four hours’ notice and without any economic support has worsened the condition of migrant informal workers across the country. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) order dated 29th March 2020 on the restriction of movement of migrant workers is ill-informed, unrealistic, and ignores the difficult realities of migrant workers stranded with no food or water. Migrant workers are already excluded from many welfare measures which are based on their proof of residence. Restricting movement across state borders has exacerbated their suffering and exploitation. Even though some states have taken positive measures to provide social and economic security to workers, the central government has not responded with any firm commitment to provide social protection and welfare measures. After 36 days of keeping these workers in unimaginable misery for no reason (which included death and starvation), the MHA order dated 29th April 2020 allows for the inter-state movement of workers subject to consultations between sender and receiving states. Some states including Maharashtra, Bihar, Gujarat, and others have developed protocols in response to the same. A further order dated 1st May 2020 also allows the Ministry of Railways to operate special trains for workers. However, only time will tell if this will improve the dismal condition of migrant workers as, barring some states, there is still no national commitment to extend compulsory economic and social support to workers.

The MHA order dated 19th April 2020 further complicates the situation. It allows the states to engage the stranded workers in construction, manufacturing, and industrial activities. This is problematic for several reasons. Giving the “choice” of work to vulnerable and poor migrant workers, it is a token gesture. The order does not address the exploitable and unhygienic working conditions including non-payment of minimum wages and failure of various state welfare schemes that existed, even before the lockdown. By not addressing the same in a pandemic of this scale, the state is continuing to withdraw from its responsibility to provide economic and social security by using workers as disposable and expendable resources.

The highest court of the country has contributed to this crisis. In response to a Public Interest Litigation demanding the right to payment of minimum wages to stranded migrant workers, The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of India asked “why are wages required when meals are being provided by the government?” As Gautam Bhatia explains, this overlooks two basic constitutional rights which have been denied to migrant workers as a result of the lockdown. First, the ‘right to equality’ enshrined in Article 14 of the constitution. With the lockdown, workers have lost their jobs and transportation has been shut. The consequences of this have been disproportionately borne by the migrant informal workers who cannot work from home. The state should have been cognizant of this inequality before planning the lockdown. Second, the ‘right to life’ which includes the ‘right to livelihood’ under Article 21 has been denied to millions of stranded migrant workers. Not all migrant workers have been able to access government-provided meals. Many are enduring prolonged hunger and making distressed calls to various civil society organisations.

Either the state and the judiciary have forgotten that migrant workers exist, or they are just comfortable in denying them their constitutional rights. Arundhati Roy very provocatively points to this in her essay by sharing a quote from a migrant worker stranded on the borders of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh: “Maybe when Modiji decided to do this [the lockdown], nobody told him about us. Maybe he doesn’t know about us”. The “us” here is over 90% of the country’s workforce. The abysmal low to which the migrant worker has sunk in an era of neoliberal globalisation is frightening. The state and the judiciary are complicit in this. This complacency is dangerous as it overlooks the everyday structural inequalities practised against lower caste people in Indian society. This is empathetically captured by Muhammad Umar Memon (in his translation of Manto’s work): “one does not have to be persecuted by a real flesh-and-blood villain; even the landscape can sometimes oppress and persecute”.

Therefore, it does not matter that the constitution may try to portray the workers as humans, as full persons and as citizens of India; the everyday reflections of their social existence, especially during the ongoing pandemic suggests that legal citizenship is not enough “to make some count as much as others”. 70 years on since the enactment of the Indian constitution, the state, judiciary and society have failed to address Bhimrao Ambedkar’s concern for the looming social and economic inequalities for the poor disadvantaged worker.

 “On the 26th of January 1950 (when India’s constitution was enforced), we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics, we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality….How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?”

Bhimrao Ambedkar (Constituent Assembly Debates, 17th November 1949)

Internal migration and informal workers in India during ‘normal times’

Millions of informal workers move internally within India in search of a livelihood. They are people rejected by the social, economic, and political structures of their “home states” where, according to one migrant construction worker in Delhi, “there is no work, land or state benefits due to caste-based discrimination”. The recipient state does not welcome them with open hands. They do not get basic citizenship rights anywhere – not in their home state (because of their lower caste status) and not in the destination state (because of their internal migrant status, or because of the contested nature of their type of work). Internal migrants in India, even as citizens, suffer from what Sayad articulates as “double exclusion” in the context of immigrants: “they are both here and there”. As a result, they hang between the dual embodiment of being citizens of India and internal migrants in need of livelihood. As one construction said, “We have this health card. But they do not treat us because of our background. Everybody wants money; a poor man will not have that kind of money. So, we take debt to go to a private hospital.”

Since there are so many of these migrant workers, the labour market takes advantage by paying them minimal wages that barely sustains them. A brick kiln worker in Delhi recollects that “We sometimes get 150 Indian Rupees (£1.57) a day. But if we fall ill and have to go to the doctor, we must borrow 250 Indian Rupees (£2.71) from the employer. This keeps piling up since the day wage is rarely enough. So, we have to work; sick or not. There is no holiday”. The violence of neoliberal globalisation, along with the degradation of human life and commodity fetishism, has not been more visible than in the everyday exploitation and indignity suffered by workers in the informal sector. Millions of people in the informal sector are subjected to deplorable working conditions, underpayment or non-payment of wages, without social security, and many are subject to severe physical, sexual and mental exploitation, abuse and violence.

This is unsurprising as the status and experience of being treated as a social reject – of untouchability – is associated with coming from a lower caste. Caste then does not just define social stratification but also becomes a political category, defining citizenship. As Bannerji unequivocally states, “The code of conduct for the heroic and holy nation is of a perpetual war and the need to treat society as a battlefield…But their war is also against the weak, the poor, the defenceless, who hold the nation ‘back’. They are the ‘inferior’ people whose lives are solely meant to provide services for the upper classes and upper castes”.

In this way, they live on the edge; vulnerable, marginalised, exploited, and discriminated against.  Despite being citizens, they have little or no access to subsidised food or ration, water, shelter, or dignity. They also cannot find any refuge in the legal system owing to the “deemed illegality of their status” due to the non-portability of their identity across state boundaries. This creates real effects, ranging from hunger to unemployment and severe exploitation including violence to death.

Legal citizenship and denial of rights and personhood

During my fieldwork in India in 2019, I noticed that various acts of social and economic inequality are normalised. It is as if the state has psyched itself up to ignore inequality. For instance, it has become normal to continuously taunt and disrespect sex workers in a shelter because of their work. It has become normal to make construction workers sit on the floor in the sun outside a district office saying “this is how they are most comfortable” (according to a higher caste labour officer in Noida) because of their lower caste. It has become normal to make a group of domestic workers wait in a courtroom for an entire day without giving them any indication of time because their time is unimportant, even if it means losing a day’s wage for them. It has become normal to fill up a truck with poor brick-making workers and not tell them where they are going because “they won’t understand anyway” (said a police officer during a rescue operation). It has also become normal to promise people that they will be given justice and then not pick up their calls, leaving them to fend for themselves in more exploitative situations. All of this is normal not with all people, but with a specific group of people: people who come from a lower caste and class and are therefore “no-bodies”. It is therefore alright to treat these “no-bodies” with no respect or dignity. Their exploitation and indignity in everyday life are justified because of their social standing.

The constitution of India explicitly gave rights to all citizens. As a result, citizens from various classes and castes can present themselves before the state as rights-bearing persons. This rights claim is a claim to recognition based on the assumption that the rights are already guaranteed. However, their everyday treatment by the state shows that despite being citizens, the inclusion of people for rights and justice depends on their “social standing”. Mills and Pateman argue that the “myth of a liberal all-inclusive polity” hides that citizenship rights rest on social standing. Within this complex conversation between social standing and political inclusion, there are stories of migrant workers that make them non-existent or invisible; where their suffering is justified by depriving them of what Hannah Arendt terms as the “right to have rights”. By making them non-existent, their legal personhood is also excluded, made invisible, and repressed. In this way, the state has over time created second-class personhood, a category of persons who cannot easily receive constitutional protections and rights. Therefore, any state or non-state institution can get away by delaying or denying justice.

The quest for wholesome personhood through resistance

Multiple systems of socio-economic inequality persist to oppress the subaltern migrant worker. But as Alf Gunvald Nilsen reminds us, this also transforms the subaltern’s quest for recognition through resistance. Despite all of the hurdles placed in their way by a looming bureaucratic neoliberal state, the subaltern struggles to claim their rights from the state as deserving agents and not merely as cases of charity. Migrant informal workers protesting against the lockdown in Surat and other cities because the lockdown does not give them food and water (let alone the right to livelihood and payment of wages), or workers walking on foot for miles back home because transportation has been shut, are examples of such resistance. These subaltern struggles expose the lie of universal personhood and equality guaranteed in the constitution as they are continuously placed in a position of subordination, indignity, and inequality.

As Manto’s work has so persuasively and passionately taught us, a person does not forfeit their right to dignity and livelihood because of their work or class. We must go past their social labels to see their human possibility. For this, we need to move our focus from the liberal notion of the subject-self to the outer world of power relationships, where the quest for wholesome personhood is still incomplete and ongoing. To advance this quest, the COVID-19 pandemic must be seen as a “portal” to finish the project of providing comprehensive social and economic security for migrant informal workers. Portable identity across state borders along with universal social protection including health entitlements, housing, food security, unemployment allowance, maternity benefits, and pensions are the urgent needs of the hour. Banging plates, lighting lamps, making quilts, and doing yoga are not going to help fight COVID-19, let alone the desperate hunger, indignity, and death faced by the many migrant informal workers across the country. The leaders of the biggest democracy in the world need to act as such if they intend to save the life of every Indian” which includes more than 120 million migrant informal workers.

I express solidarity to all the social activists, lawyers, and other frontline workers who continue to fight for the rights of migrant informal workers in India, despite all constraints and unimaginable odds.

(This article reflects the unfolding of events up until 1st May 2020)


Pankhuri Agarwal is a PhD Researcher in Sociology at the University of Bristol. Her PhD research is a multi-sited ethnography of the lived legal experience of internal migrant workers in India who are in the legal process from 3-30 years. She focuses on their experience of exploitation, personhood, and rights to critique the slavery-freedom binary underpinning anti-trafficking and modern slavery laws.

Image Credit: ILO Asia-Pacific via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)