Release of Bonded Labour: Legal Angle

Reading time: 8-10 minutes.

Recently, on June 04,2020 our Hon’ble supreme court has issued a notice to the state of Uttar Pradesh and state of Bihar with respect to Public Interest litigation filed under Article 32 of Constitution, with an urge to issue writ of mandamus or any other writ of similar nature to order immediate release and rehabilitation of 187 victims of bonded labour who are working in brick kilns in Sambhal district, UP and Rohtas in Bihar. In this particular case, on 11th May NHRC took the cognizance and District magistrate of these two states were given orders to deploy teams to conduct spot enquiry and to file a report on action taken, within 15 days. But even after this no action was taken.

The roots for bonded labour have been cultivated in Indian society from a very long time. Bonded labour or debt bondage is a relation between employee and employers wherein both are related by way of some unpaid debt. The entire framework which is artefact of old- fashioned ladder in the society is entirely based on exploitation of the one’s at the bottom of this ladder who are poor and deprived people.

This entire practice of labour law is disallowed by our national charter i.e. Indian Constitution via Article 23. But to utmost disappointment this constitutional injunction which was issued as early as in January 26,1950 turns out to be highly ineffective and no major steps have been taken for proper implementation of Article 23. Fortunately, one sincere step towards this was taken by parliament by enacting the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976. This act was enacted with an aim to eradicate bonded labour and to put a full stop on economic and physical misuse of the people. Unfortunately, even after the legislation got implemented, the study and researches done by union and state governments, shows that there are still large number of active bonded labourers.

Legal safeguards against Bonded Labour.

The legislation enacted in 1976, provided for various statutory safeguards against the cruel act of bonded labour. Some of them are enumerated beneath;

  1. The primary relief which is provided under section 4 of the Act says, that the labourers are liberated from any sort of obligation to provide bonded labour.
  2. Any custom/ agreement by which bonded labour existed stands void and inoperative by virtue of section 5 of this Act.
  3. No suit could then be instituted before any civil court for the recovery of bonded debt after commencement of the said Act.
  4. The commencement of the said act rendered every decree or order, instituted for recovery of bonded debt which was passed before commencement of the act and was not fully satisfied, to have been fully satisfied.
  5. Property rendered by bonded labour for repayment of debt, under section 7 of the act stands freed.
  6. As per the provision of this act any person detained in civil prison with respect to any bonded debt shall be liberated.
  7. Section 8 of the Act provides that any labour who has been freed by the above stated measure, should not be evicted from the home instead.

Apart from this, Hon’ble Supreme court has various times interpreted various constitutional provisions to provide safety to weaker strata of the society. There are many Judicial pronouncements which signifies this like, Peoples’ Union for Democratic Rights V. Union of India (1983 1 SCC 525) in this the court gave wider interpretation to “other similar forms of bonded labour” to meet its objectives.

Procedure for release of bonded labour:

The Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 basically provides two broad contours for the release of bonded labour, these are:

  1. Identification of bonded labour by authorised agencies.

The initial stage for the implementation of the provisions of this act requires identification of those labourers who are victims of bondage. The Act, shoulder’s this responsibility on District magistrates and his subordinate officials as he may specify. This step of identification has been taken up seriously and various studies shows that by way of inquiry various bonded labourers have been identified in several parts of the country.

  • Maintenance of list.

Under this stage, immediately after identification proper lists needs to be prepared of released bonded labourers. The Act also provides for a legal registrar for this purpose.

  • Liberation of bonded labour.

Preparation of lists signifies successful completion of identification stage. Immediately after identification labourers are liberated. Mainly tehsildars and various other Revenue official’s both at district and sub – divisions levels are responsible for the release process. After the making of list, these are sent to proper authorities who are responsible for final liberations. Inquiries are made and after making proper verifications, the release is affected.

  • Rehabilitation of bonded labourers.

This is the most difficult stage, as in this stage not only the labour needs to be physically prepared but also mentally. This stage requires definite change in the attitude of labour’s life. At this stage he needs to accept alternate source of living and must be mentally prepared to start his life from a whole new point.

Critical analysis:

Various surveys’ and studies indicate that the entire process of liberating the bonded labour is highly complicated and authoritative. The results of the entire process at the end of the day doesn’t put the poor and illiterate in a good state as it becomes difficult for them to stand in front of the rigid procedure of law.

It is seen that the above-mentioned process is not simultaneous. i.e. identification and release of labourers are not consequential and there is a gap ranging from 2 to 4 months. Sometimes this gap can also get expanded to years when trials are part of the process.

When court cases are involved the release may get extended for up to 3 years. To counter this problem, introduction of summary trial is the best possible way out.

Conclusion:

The enactment of Bonded labour Act in 1976 was definitely a commendable step taken by Indian parliament to counter the maniac of bonded labour. In depth analysis of the situation shows that by way of this Act high percentage of labourers have been freed from the control of bondage.

Irrespective of this, Bondage labour has become an integral part of the society in India. On broader aspect studies indicate that India definitely is the poor performer when it comes to the proper implementation of anti- slavery laws. Regardless of all the statutory safeguards, still there are thousands of labours who are still at the mercy of their owner because of the dominance of socio- economic conditions of the country.

Studies conducted by Gandhi peace foundation, Indian labour institute etc shows that there are lots of shortcomings when it comes to identification and rehabilitation of bonded labour. In such circumstances it is suggested that help of nationalised bank should be taken to give such labourers short term loans for consumption and for conducting family functions so that they do not stay dependent for such petty issues on their landlords. Ample efforts should also be put to cut- short the procedure to ensure that relief is immediately granted to the labourers.

Author: Paridhi Swami from UPES, Dehradun.

Editor: Silky Mittal, Junior Editor, Lexlife India.

NHRC on migrant issue

Reading time: 8-10 minutes.

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has filed an application to the Supreme Court that seeks to intervene in Suo Motu cognizance based on six different reports, in the matter of the plight of the migrant workers who have been stranded in various parts of the country amidst the Covid-19 lockdown. The NHRC’s function is to intervene in any proceeding that involves any allegation of violation of human rights pending before a curt. Through its application, the NHRC re-examines the existing laws governing human rights protection of migrants and suggest short as well as long term measures for effective implementation under these rights.

Short-term measures:

  • Collection of data of migrant workers at the point of departure from one state and on the arrival in the destination state, in order to estimate the in-flow of migrant workers.
  • The Union and State Governments must ensure a strict implementation of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979, that provide a journey allowance to the workers.
  • Menstrual hygiene products should be provided to migrant women and adolescent girls across the country.
  • Proper functioning of shelter homes with medical facilities and nutritious food especially for pregnant or lactating mothers, children and the elderly.
  • Each state is directed and identified by the industry the migrant labourers work in, it will aid in the creation of schemes for migrant workers as well as create a nationwide database.
  • Medical facilities and check-ups for migrants before and after the journey, as well as availability of food and medical care during the journey. For migrants who are travelling via bicycles or walking, food and water amenities must be available en route.
  • Originating states should take steps to identify the destitute among the travelling migrants and ensure that they are paid a compensation so that they do not have to resort to begging after their journey.
  • A fund must be created for the payment of ex-gratia relief, that will provide compensation to every migrant returning home.

Long term measures:

  • A special provision must be added to the Inter State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1979 that deals with emergency situations such as the Covid-19 pandemic or other natural disasters.
  • Appointment of a claim commissioner to keep check on the recovery of labourers who abandoned their jobs despite notification for continuity of wages by the Central Government.
  • An allocation of funds must be given to states to create employment opportunities in gram panchayats.
  • A national portal for the registration of migrants to maintain a database.
  • Compensation to the families of those migrants who died travelling migrating to their respective states.
  • A universal ration card must be granted to all migrants.
  • Implementation of the provisions of the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, 2008 that extends maximum benefits to migrant labourers.
  • Creation of a nodal agency under the Ministry of Labour that seeks to resolve inter-state migration disputes.

Background of the issue

Migrants labourers are seldom provided with adequate monetary payment for the hardwork they endure. The pandemic induced lockdown has worsened the plight of the migrants. The Indian Express reported that about 20 workers who were walking from Jalna to Bhusawal stopped for a rest and fell asleep on the railway tracks when, a goods train ran over them.

HW News reported that a pregnant woman, who was walking on foot from Maharashtra to Madhya Pradesh, had to deliver her baby on road. The clothes and essentials were provided by a family from Dhule, Maharashtra. She resumed walking merely two hours later.

The Indian Express and the Millennium Post published a picture of a little boy who had fallen asleep on a suitcase being pulled by his mother, a migrant worker, who had started her journey from Punjab to reach home in Jhansi. The apathy of the states can be seen in their negligence to ensure measures for the safety of migrant workers.

Significance of recent developments

The increase in awareness of the plight of the migrant workers has brought about significant improvements. The Youth for Social Development, an NGO, provided women and adolescent migrant workers who were walking on the NH16 with menstrual hygiene products along with food and other relief material.

The State of Odisha has set up a toll-free Shramik (labour force) Sahayata Helpline, Migrant Labour Desk, as well as seasonal hostels for the children of migrant workers. The State has also taken measures to strengthen Anti-Human Trafficking Units.

It is a matter of concern that as many of 40% of Shramik trains are late, with an average delay of 8 hours. The Vande Bharat Mission is dedicated to help migrants reach their source destination.

The Government has announced its initiative to launch affordable rental housing for migrant workers and the urban poor by converting government- funded housing in cities into Affordable Rental Housing Complexes (ARHC). This would be carried through PPP mode.

Further, in the matter of National Campaign for Central Legislation on Construction Labour v Union of India & Others, 2018, it was reported that the Ministry of Labour and Employment has proposed the issuance of a Universal Access Number for construction workers. The registration process will be simple to ensure that it is well within the understanding capability of the average migrant worker.

Critical analysis

The instance of the death of migrant workers who were run over by a train, has taken as a tragic accident. Whereas, the truth of the matter is that the provisions regarding accommodation, as provided under the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation and Employment and Conditions of Service) Act, 1996 have been severe ignored, and this has resorted to a helpless situation for the tired migrant who has to resort to the railway tracks for shelter.

This instance also brings into notice that the migrant workers had additional expenses: they travel a long distance in order to get to the place of work and then need to travel back home. The amount of payment they receive from long hours of work is usually minimum wage that they need to support their families with. This wage is not enough for a travel fare and therefore, they resort to walking from one state to another. Most of the workers are not educated enough to realise that they are victims to numerous human rights violations. It is upon the government they have entrusted their trust upon. Any form of negligence from the government authorities is simply unacceptable.

Conclusion

Every human has the right to basic amenities: food, clothing and shelter. Migrant labourers should not be charged for train or bus expenses. Their railway fare should be shared by the states. No labourer should be concerned about food and water, that must be provided to them free of cost. In the times of crisis, it is difficult to hope for a utopian society, however, we must look after those who cannot: in India, thousands of hardworking workers are deprived of their basic amenities. If the country truly aims for an industrial boom, it must also take measures to keep its workers healthy and safe.

Author: Anjali Roy from Alliance University, Bengaluru.

Editor: Silky Mittal, Junior Editor, Lexlife India.