Migrant Labourers: A Vulnerable cluster in the Society: Simran Baradia


Author: Simran Baradia[1]

ISSN: 2581-8465


India being characterized as a relatively immobile society than other developing nations estimates, three out of every ten Indians are internal migrants. And, as we talk about this paper, there are abundant who are uncounted and invisible. In recent years, several changes in India has helped in shaping the flow and pace of migration. The flow of growth in the last two decades has significantly widened the gap between rural and urban areas, and it has steadily focussed in a few areas and a few states. Migrant labourers, however are the ones who become more vulnerable to discrimination and exploitation as many of them are poor, illiterate and are surviving in slums and hazardous locations prone to disaster and natural calamities. Thus, in search of better life and facilities they move to cities. Migration indeed is necessary for a city to prosper but the city lacks in ensuring infrastructure and security to the migrants. There is a lack of urban policies and schemes concentrating on the needs and settlements of migrant labourers. They largely contribute to the economy of the state which is overlooked and less known to the citizens. There are no government policies that clears the air on the facilities to be given to migrants or for their protection from exploitation. Thus, migrants from time and back remained as a vulnerable cluster in the society exposed to insecurities and discrimination. This paper talks about the political, economic, and social barriers that migrant labourers face, and the policy issues and solutions surrounding their challenges.

KEYWORDS: internal migrants, migrant labourers, discrimination, exploitation, lack of infrastructure, insecurities and barriers.


The greatest nations are defined by how they treat their weakest inhabitants.[2]

Internal migration is domestic migration within one geopolitical entity, usually a nation-state. Internal migration spiked primarily by employment and marriage helped in designing the economic, social, and political environment of India’s developing regions. A common pattern of movement from rural to urban regions, in a process described as urbanization, has also spiked a form of internal migration. Internal migration is basically a shift for education or for economic improvement or due to natural disaster or civil disturbance. The growing territorial disturbance in employment opportunities also must have impacted the pace and pattern of migration. Undistributed growth and a growing differential between agriculture and industry is a necessary association of the pattern of development. Also, migration has historically played a crucial role in minimizing the gap in living standards between the sectors where the growth is still fuelling and in the more dynamic sectors.

Marriage being a general influence to internal migration in India, mostly among women, but a significant share of internal shifting is driven by long-distance and male-dominated labour migration. These patterns can be permanent, semi-permanent, or seasonal. Seasonal or recurring migrants in particular are marked differently when it comes to labour market experiences and conditional challenges than those who are more permanent and skilled migrants, but precise data on seasonal migration flows and a scientific accounting of the experiences of those migrants depict major gaps in existing knowledge. Regardless of the duration of their stay, labour migrants face myriad challenges at their destinations during a country that’s being dizzy in its diversity of languages and cultures. Among the challenges: restricted access to basic needs like identity documentation, social entitlements, housing, and financial services. Many migrants, precisely those who relocate to a region where the local language, culture and customs are different from that of their region of origin are more likely to face harassment and political seclusion.

Government responses to India’s significant internal migration are limited because the legislation that does have some provisions for workers’ rights has hardly enforced. The response of India’s diverse civil-society organizations has been more active, with the nongovernmental sector often stepping in to fill the gaps in welfare services, education, and labour rights that are left by the government.


  • URBANIZATION – An inflation in the demand for labour in urban areas and better wages inflated the rate of migration. The pull factors of higher job facilities, good salary, more income, medical and academic facilities are attracting the agricultural people to manoeuvre to the cities in order that even they can provide their families a better living. The push factors of no job facilities, low wages, drought and other calamities, less medical and education compel people towards cities.
  • MARRIAGE – Marriage is a crucial social factor for migration, from one rural area to another rural or urban area, especially in case of females.
  • EMPLOYMENT – Search for better employment in industries, trade, transport and services results in rural-urban and urban-urban migration. 
  • EDUCATIONDue to scarcity of educational facilities in rural areas, people migrate to the urban areas for better academic opportunities. Also, institutions in cities provide scholarships which serves as a hope for many. In the 2011 census, about 1.77% people migrated for education.[3]
  • LACK OF SECURITY – Diplomatic and political harassment and inter-ethnic conflicts is also a reason for internal migration.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND DISASTER INDUCED FACTORS force people to move from rural to urban areas due to gradual deterioration of changing environmental conditions. There can also be forced displacement due to reasons such as developmental projects, infertile lands, critical situation of farmers, floods and draughts.  


  • DOCUMENTATION AND IDENTITY – Getting their identity approved is one of the major issues impoverished migrants face when they arrive in a new place, a problem that can remain persistent for years or even decades after they migrate. Identity documentation that is approved by the state government is obligatory for ensuring that a person has an authorized and secure citizenship status and can avail benefits that the state provides. A birth certificate is the foremost evidence of citizenship in India, and is the chief document that can be used for applying other documentations, such as ration cards and voter IDs. However, there are some variations across the country on how such documents are issued and used.

A huge problem catering to identification is that many unprivileged people are born at home or in rural or remote areas, not in places such as hospitals or clinics where birth certificates are issued. Also, officials often show unwillingness when it comes to accept the documentation provided by some migrants because of multiple reasons, including incurring bribes or discrimination. Overall, their migrant status makes it difficult for them to obtain identity documents in the area where they want to move to. The basic difficulty in establishing identity mostly results in a loss of access to entitlements and social services. Lack of identification symbolizes that migrants are not able to access provisions such as subsidized food, fuel, health services, or education that are reserved for the financially vulnerable sections of the population. The issue of lack of access to education for children of migrants further exasperate the multi-generational transmission of poverty.

  • HOUSING – Migration of labours and slums are directly proportional to each other, as labour demand in cities and the significance of rural-to-urban migration creates a huge pressure to accommodate more people. Across the nation, the situation of slum dwellers is characterized by inadequate renewal of the space and local governments that do not provide low-cost housing for the urban poor.

People staying in slums who happen to be migrants too, sometimes face the added problem of establishing the status of an occupant, the right to live and organize on a particular piece of land, and the right to compensation if the tenancy of that land is seized by the government for reconstructing of that property. However, many seasonal migrants suffer when they cannot make it to the slums. Unaffordable rents force them to live at their workplaces such as construction sites, mines, under the bridges and flyovers, shop pavements, or in open areas in the city. This further immortalizes their vulnerability to harassment by the police and the local authorities.

  • LIMITED ACCESS TO FORMAL FINANCIAL SERVICES – Despite the financial imperatives that drives migration, migrant workers especially remain without bank accounts. Being deprived of banking facilities, migrants lack the most appropriate option for keeping their money safe. In order to get away with the threat of theft, they make uncertain and unsafe arrangement and thus, in the end they are left with zero savings. Due to this, the situation sometimes forces them to avail safe-keeping services from local shopkeepers, who in return charge a fee for this service. Many migrant workers end up choosing the informal channels to send money to their home. Even if they use courier services or send it through bus drivers, they charge high service rates.
  • POLITICAL EXCLUSION – In a place where someone is always expected to live in uncertainty and in a state of continuous drift, migrant workers also compromise opportunities such as fair exercise of their political rights. Because migrants are not allowed to vote outside their place of original residence, they are often restricted to make any political demands for entitlements or seek reforms. Local politics also have major involvement in the lives of internal migrants. The amalgamated idea of local identity politics and migration creates rigid political situation in many cities and regions across India, including Assam in the Northeast, Andhra Pradesh in the South, Amritsar and Chandigarh in Punjab as well as cities across Northern India. Mumbai is a particular stark example of local identity politics that marginalize internal migrant populations, but it also depicts a basic reality of the Indian states system, which is divided by language and cultural groups. Since most Indian states are, by design, the local homelands of India’s different ethnic and linguistic groups, migration between states often creates competitive and rigid politics between migrants and locals.

However, unlike Mumbai, some migrant destinations do not have a local backlash. For example, Bihari migrants in Kolkata comprises a majority of that city’s labour migrants, but there is no substantial nativist strain in Kolkata’s politics. As with other aspects of internal migration in India, results may differ greatly by geopolitical context.

  • RAMPANT EXPLOITATION – Migration patterns are moderated by a complicated chain of contractors and agents or brokers who perform the crucial function of establishing sources and recruiting workers. The lower most hook in this chain are more often migrants who already serves as a crucial part to the same regional or caste-based social network in their areas. The chain then develops and step towards destination- based contractors who form a band of workers from different geographical locations and hook them lastly with the chief employers. While these networks do serve the purpose of providing migrants with information and subsequent access to work opportunities, they largely operate in the informal economy. There are no written contracts, no legally enforceable agreements regarding their wages or other benefits, and no commitments with regards to the regular provision of work.

The presence of such elaborate contractor networks also means it’s almost impossible to repair accountability for almost all practices described. In most cases, the workers never come in contact with the principal employer directly. Thus, easily absolving himself of any responsibility concerned with the welfare of the working staff. The fact that migrants are scattered throughout an expanded urban or rural canvas, seriously inhibiting their potential to stack themselves in a more organized way. This further weakens their power to bargain in terms of wages, benefits, and conditions required for working.

Migrants, completely dependent on the middlemen for information, end up working in low-end, low-value, hard, and risky manual labour and are constantly subject to exploitation with little or no opportunity for legal recourse. Their work lives are determined and organized according to the exploitative practices such as manipulation in income rates and tireless activities, non-payment or withholding of wages, long working hours, terrible or awful work conditions, and verbal and physical abuse. Female workers, specifically in domestic and construction employments, are often sexually exploited in return for the offer of regular work and stable wages. Accidents and deaths at workplaces are also extremely common in the construction sector, which is overlooked by employers without even giving a second thought to social protection.


Domestic workers who serve in middle waged homes in Delhi, drivers working for taxi companies in Gurgaon, the development workers in Kerala and also the agricultural labourers in Punjab altogether have one thing in common – they’re migrants.[4] Following are some of the possible solutions for making the lives of migrants a bit easier:

  • AWARENESS – Making people aware of their entitlements is the key towards a better understanding within the working crowd. If they are well aware of their rights, they will speak for themselves when treated as marginalized. Getting them realized that even they are in demand they are treated as unwanted.
  • STRICT REGULATIONS – Government should take strong actions in terms of enactment of laws concerning the conditions of internal migration. There should be mandatory and basic livelihood training given to people in villages, specially where agriculture has been a huge concern for the bread earners. 
  • DECODING THE PROVISIONAL FACILITIES – Making provisional societies will be of no use if the targeted population is not getting the benefit of it. There are several NGOs and societies developed specifically for migrant labors but there is no systematic check on them. Even the records of the donations made for the welfare of the labors goes unnoticed.
  • CREATING CHANNEL FOR SKILLS – Conducting programs or workshops specially for seasonal migrants, where they can learn new skills and earn money out of it. Installing ways in which women can work and give time to their families can also lessen the burden of the living in a family.
  • STRENGTHENING PANCHAYATS AND VIGILANCE COMMITTEES – Setting up district facilitation centres, migrant information centres and gender resource centres. Strengthening the role of panchayats in registering workers and vigilance committees to protect against bonded labour and child labour.  
  • ESTABLISHING A UNIVERSAL HELPLINE FOR MIGRANT WORKERS – Creating helpline channels will guide workers in getting update of seasonal and full time works. It will also act as an AI for getting the statements recorded by the workers and their families.


  • The ILO Multilateral Framework on Labour Migration (2006) – It calls for the conclusion of social security agreements for the benefit of migrant workers (Guideline 9.9. p. 18). Social security agreements are treaties which coordinate the social security schemes of two or more countries to ensure the portability of social security entitlements.[5]
  • Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), Public Distribution System (PDS), Atal Pension Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana (PMJJBY), Ujjwala Yojana (LPG), Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) and some more. Although many do not get benefit of these once they are out of their place of origin. Though the parliamentary standing committee has urged to extend the policy without distinguishing between place of origin and place of work.

The government has already started working on its one-nation-one-ration card mission, but spreading it out to across the length and breadth of the country would take some time. Had the scheme been put in place throughout the country, the reverse movement of crores of migrant labourers now underway would have been curbed. Currently, the social security schemes under ESIC and EPFO for organised sector workers are portable. ESIC subscribers are eligible to avail benefits at any part of the country, while EPFO is providing its subscribers with a flexible universal account (UAN) number that will remain the same throughout even if one switches jobs.[6]


  • The first international instruments providing for more comprehensive solutions to the problems facing migrant workers include the Migration for Employment Convention, 1949 (Revised) (No. 97) and the Mi-grant Workers (Supplementary Provisions) Convention, 1975 (No. 143), as well as their accompanying Recommendations.[7] Forty-five states have ratified Convention No. 97 and 19 have ratified Convention No. 143.[8]
  • The long-term objective of the UN Convention is to discourage and eliminate irregular migration and at the same time to further the rights and protections of persons migrating for employment, including those that find themselves in an irregular situation. Other significant aspects of the Convention include the very fact that ratifying States aren’t permitted to exclude any category of migrant worker from its application (Art. 88), the “indivisibility” of the instrument, and the fact that it includes every type of migrant worker, including those excluded from existing ILO instruments. The Convention also provides for a broad definition of “family” taking into account a more modern and up-to-date composition of it (Arts. 4 and 44(2)).[9]


Out of about 98 million, total intra-state and inter-state migrants in the country during last decade, 61 million have moved to rural areas and 36 million to urban areas. Migration stream out of rural areas (73 million) to another rural areas was quite high (53million) in comparison to from rural to urban areas (20 million). About 6 million migrants went to rural areas from urban areas. On the basis of net migrants by last residence during the past decade, i.e., the difference between in – migration and out – migration, in each state, Maharashtra stands at the top of the list with 2.3 million net migrants, followed by Delhi (1.7 million), Gujrat (0.68 million) and Haryana (0.67 million) as per census. Uttar Pradesh (-2.6 million) and Bihar (-1.7 million) were the two states with largest number of net migrants migrating out of the state.    There are various reasons for migration as per information collected in Census 2001 for migration by last residence. Most of the female migrants have cited ‘Marriage’ as the reason for migration, especially when the migration is within the state. For males, the major reasons for migration are ‘work/employment’ and ‘education’.[10]

Despite the significant increase in internal migration recorded in 2011, the nature of movement remains relatively unchanged since 2001. Bulk of the movement (62%) is within the same district. Another 26% is between districts within the same state. Only 12% of movement is inter-state.[11] 

  (Source: Census of India.)


The ongoing pandemic, COVID-19 has severely affected the lives of many migrant labourers. Many could not reach their homes because of the nationwide lockdown, many tried fighting it by starting the journey on foot but could not make it. But the atrocities faced by migrant labourers’ dates back to many years ago and this is still going on as their vulnerability has been taken for granted. The level and variety of internal migration patterns in India, as well as the agitation spurred within them, is enormous. A simple overview of this tangled process makes it transparent that in spite of the huge contribution of migrants to the nation’s economy, the social security provided to them still remains meagre and scattered.

While the nation and legislation have failed in ensuring security to these millions of internal migrants, some civil-society interventions across various high migration sectors in India offer a number of appropriate and context-specific solutions that the state authorities can install and work upon in order to protect this marginalized cluster of workers. There is an urgent need of a successful national strategy that ensures access to entitlements and concentrates on basic work conditions in building a sustainable and replenishable path to progress. 


  1. Internal migrant statistics, census 2001 & 2011.
  2. United Nations, ‘Decent Work for Migrant Workers in India’ <https://in.one.un.org/page/decent-work-for-migrant-workers-in-india/>
  3.  International Labour Organization, ‘Social protection for migrant workers’ <http://www.oit.org/global/topics/labour-migration/policy-areas/social-protection/lang–en/index.htm> para 3
  4. Surya Sarathi Ray, ‘Covid effect: Social security cover for migrant workers on cards’ Financial express (India, 31 May 2020) 4 <https://www.financialexpress.com/economy/covid-effect-social-security-cover-for-migrant-workers-on-cards/1976320/>
  5. ILO Recommendations, 86 & 151
  6. Delhi High Court, ‘International Legal Framework for the Protection of Migrant Workers’ page 25, para 5 <http://www.delhihighcourt.nic.in/library/articles/may/International%20legal%20framework%20for%20the%20protection%20of%20migrant%20workers.pdf>
  7. Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, ‘Census of India: Migration’ <https://censusindia.gov.in/Census_And_You/migrations.aspx> para 3
  8. Supriyo De, ‘Internal Migration in India grows, but inter-state movements remain low’ (18 Dec 2019) 2 <https://blogs.worldbank.org/peoplemove/internal-migration-india-grows-inter-state-movements-remain-low>


Simran Baradia is a 2nd year law student of B.A.LLB at Lloyd Law College, Greater Noida. Her interest in Migration & Refugee laws, International Human Rights Law and socio-legal field has encouraged her to write this particular piece of work that is primarily dedicated to the migrant labourers and their families. She is a member of Migration and Refugee Law Centre as well as Content Writing Society at Lloyd Law College. She is engaged in learning more about the issues faced by migrants and refugees through various workshops and lecture series. She has been involved in mediation and arbitration competitions too. She is very thankful to Pro Bono India for giving her the opportunity to present her work.

[1] 2nd Year BA.LLB student at Lloyd Law College, Greater Noida.

[2] Jorge Ramos, Mexican author and journalist.

[3] Internal migrant statistics, census 2001 & 2011

[4] United Nations, ‘Decent Work for Migrant Workers in India’ <https://in.one.un.org/page/decent-work-for-migrant-workers-in-india/>   

[5] International Labour Organization, ‘Social protection for migrant workers’ <http://www.oit.org/global/topics/labour-migration/policy-areas/social-protection/lang–en/index.htm> para 3

[6] Surya Sarathi Ray, ‘Covid effect: Social security cover for migrant workers on cards’ Financial express (India, 31 May 2020) 4 <https://www.financialexpress.com/economy/covid-effect-social-security-cover-for-migrant-workers-on-cards/1976320/>

[7] ILO Recommendations, 86 & 151

[8] 19 OSCE countries have ratified at least one out of the ILO and UN conventions.

[9] Delhi High Court, ‘International Legal Framework for the Protection of Migrant Workers’ page 25, para 5


[10] Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, ‘Census of India: Migration’ <https://censusindia.gov.in/Census_And_You/migrations.aspx> para 3

[11] Supriyo De, ‘Internal Migration in India grows, but inter-state movements remain low’ (18 Dec 2019) 2 <https://blogs.worldbank.org/peoplemove/internal-migration-india-grows-inter-state-movements-remain-low>

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