Reparations Owed to Migrant Labourers

Apathy towards Migrant Labourers

While most of us are lamenting over the lockdown or wondering about what to watch next on our favourite OTT, there are a large number of migrant labourers who are worried about their survival. The migrant labourers have probably seen the worst form of apathy. Every day was shocking news for us all, migrants dying due to road accidents, dehydration, hunger and most importantly because of apathy. Those who build our blocks, those who carry the weight of the economy on themselves, those who do the tasks which we see as cannon fodder, have all been made the most vulnerable in our nation. History has shown that the poor are often left at the mercy of others, but why must the labourers be seen so lightly, why should helping them be seen as a favour to them rather than as a moral duty? It is in observance of this that the question of reparations has been raised.

Who could be made liable?

There could be a lot of players who could be held liable however the specific ones could be, primarily, the employers, the Host State, the Home State, the Central Government and the Supreme Court (SC). Migrant labourers were on the move as they had lost their means of survival in the midst of the pandemic, they were not being paid their wages despite the advisory issued by the Labour Ministry in order to alleviate the hardships of labourers and employees. Prima facie it could be said that the employers should have been mindful of the needs of their workers and employees, however, the fact must not be ignored that, the employers themselves were reeling under an economic crisis wherein health was to be given priority above wealth.

Though the labourers had initially left their home states in search of a livelihood, their hands have contributed to the wealth of certain host states. The migration of labourers was widespread from the most pandemic-affected states, so it could be assumed that not only was there fear of loss of livelihood but also of being stuck by the pandemic itself. The Madras High Court had opined that the responsibility should be affixed on the host states, noting that the migrant workers were the most neglected by the government. On the other hand, we have some home states which have conveniently denied entry to their own natives. Certain states have amended their labour laws, in UP for instance, the minimum wages requirement has also been done away with in total disregard for the health and wealth of India’s poor. Though not all the states have done away with the minimum wages requirement, the pandemic is set to decelerate the economy and inevitably push down the wage rate, thus increasing the misery of the migrant labourers.

The Centre’s responsibility comes in for not having planned for such a predictable crisis, the apathy was not even addressed adequately nor would have been seen by us had it not been for the fourth estate. When the lockdown was imposed, all means of transport also came to a halt thereby forcing the migrants to toil long walks home. Item No. 86 of the List I of the 7th Schedule shows that the Union is in charge of inter-state migration and inter-state quarantine, the Union’s monopoly over railways is also clear from the schedule. Despite this, the Union was unable to charter safe and coordinated travels.

At this stage, it is necessary to view the Directive Principle of State Policy (DPSP) which though unenforceable as per Article 37 of the Constitution, gives a sense of where the states have fallen short. The Migrant Crisis is a sign of inequality, something which Article 38 intends to alleviate. States, which have callously done away with the labour laws and especially with the minimum wages requirement, are standing in derogation of Article 43. Such derogation shows that the DPSPs are mere namesake and act as mere adornments to our constitution with no utility. Keeping this aside, the Fundamental Right to life has also been denied to our migrant brethren.

Finally, the protector of our Grundnorm, the SC, is to be held responsible for firstly, the inadequate action towards the migrant crisis in the writ petition filed by Alakh Alok Srivastva and secondly, for shrugging off government responsibility on the belief that reports were based on fake news. The SC finally undertook suo moto cognizance upon widespread criticism from various members of the legal system.

The Custom of Reparations

A government can truly be held accountable if it is made to pay for the loss suffered by people under its care. Reparations have often been paid by governments to citizens, in nations such as the U.S., Colombia, South Africa, and a few other nations. Thus Government reparations to citizens are not an unfound event. The blame game may continue but the fact remains that both the state governments and the Centre have continuously been passing the buck. Specifically, if we see Item No. 24 on the Concurrent List of the 7th Schedule, it gives us the sense that, while both the Centre and state are responsible for labour welfare, both have shrugged off from their duties.


Reparations are meant to act as deterrence and in the migrant crisis it is required rightly so, the helplessness of the poor is in total disregard of the welfare state which India claims to be. The state cannot claim to be helpless in the crisis when it is as a result of their inaction. The poor are often met with stoic governments unlike the rich and influential who can make the government puppets, dancing to their tune.

The Pandemic is not only reflective of our health sector preparedness or the human transgressions in nature which seems to be recovering due to lesser human contact but also places the poor and marginalized at the bottom of the hierarchy triangle.


Rhea E. S. Abraham

Rhea Abraham_Headshot

Rhea E. S. Abraham is a third-year student at National Law University Nagpur.

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