The Supreme Court, in the suo motu PIL titled Problems and Miseries of Migrant Workers, recently passed an order concerning food security and social protection for migrant and unorganised workers. It emphasised the importance of registration of workers as a prerequisite to access social protection and urged the Central government to complete its work on the National Database of Unorganised Workers (NDUW). A litigation filed in 2012 to enable access to social security for domestic workers had first led to the court ordering the creation of such a database in 2018. Though the Central government committed to rolling out the infrastructure for registration to State governments by 2018, it has since sought an extension of time twice before the court. Registration of unorganised workers remains meagre to this date. Although it now appears that the database may be launched in a few months, the delays have already deepened the crisis.
As the economy cripples, this order is certainly welcome and is a timely intervention from the Supreme Court. Registration of workers into a state system is a matter of critical importance and has been a long-standing demand from worker organiaations. It contributes in great measure towards asserting their identities as workers, building visibility as a workforce and demanding entitlements from the state and the industry. However, rendering income support for such a vulnerable population contingent on registration into a database, in the current moment, would greatly hinder their access to social protection, especially at a time when they are reeling under the impact of successive crises.
Past experiences of extending social protection to unorganised workers based on registration show that the process is riddled with exclusion errors. For instance, millions of unorganised workers are covered by Central and state government-funded social protection schemes viz. pension, maternity benefits, health insurance, skilling and monetary support for children’s education. However, since the coverage is not universal, but targeted and registration-based, we have seen that migrant workers, a highly vulnerable sub-group, remain excluded from social protection in the destination states, as many schemes demand documents establishing residence proof as a qualifying criterion for registration. The source states often lack the financial capacity to extend social protection, besides, India currently lacks a mechanism for portability of social protection. This puts migrant households at an even greater risk of income and food insecurity, especially when employment opportunities have dwindled due to ‘soft lockdowns’ and market disruptions.
In recent years, a clear push towards digitisation of registration is apparent, which further impedes the accessibility of unorganised workers. States like Karnataka have adopted an entirely digital system for the registration of workers in the Building and Other Construction Workers Act. The recently legislated Social Security Code emphasises the electronic registration of unorganised workers. Workers can self-register themselves (as opposed to being reliant on their employers or contractors) and there is also a parallel channel for registration by the state government. But these stipulated channels appear almost exclusively digital. The Occupational Safety Code, which seeks the creation of a national database of migrant workers, also echoes a similar provision enabling self-registration.
The NDUW is expected to bring together the digital infrastructure for registration of unorganised workers, migrant workers and building and other construction workers (BOCW), though it is unclear whether or how existing registrations of BOCW and unorganised workers may migrate from the existing to the new system. In fact, very little information is available in the public domain about the contours of the NDUW, especially about the manner of its implementation and the law under which it will enable registrations. This has been further complicated due to the delay in the notification of the Labour Codes, leading to a situation of policy paralysis. It would be pertinent to note here that an earlier attempt at registering unorganised workers through a UWIN Card was abruptly abandoned after initial hiccups.
India suffers from a deep digital divide and the current public and social restrictions make registration even more difficult. Waiting for registration to disburse social welfare is bound to deny relief to lakhs of eligible and vulnerable people, especially rural workers and women-led households. The effects of unequal digital access are perhaps evident from the inequity in access to vaccination, which is dependent on online registration. Fewer women have been able to access vaccination when compared to men and a similar class divide appears evident.
The use of proxies might improve access. For instance, if registrations under other Schemes for BPL or vulnerable workers are treated as registration of unorganised workers, at least for the next 6 months, then immediate relief can be extended to them. Providing offline pathways through accessible means is vital to ensure the registration of the most vulnerable workers. The Supreme Court, recognising this inequity, directed the Delhi government to involve Resident Welfare Associations and paralegal volunteers in the registration of domestic workers in 2017— a formula that must be adopted across different sectors and at scale. As and when the registration process is initiated, clear identification of the line department in charge and setting up operational machinery would be very critical to ensure that enrollments take place at scale on the ground.
Fundamental tenets of inclusive policy-making will have to be invoked to ensure that migrants and workers in the unorganised sector are able to access social protection benefits that have been granted to them by the Supreme Court. Universalisation of social benefits, activated through pathways that are unconditional and non-discriminatory, will be crucial to guarantee the workers, who power the engines of our economy, are able to emerge on the other side of this crisis with their dignity intact.
(The writers are part of Aajeevika Bureau, a public service initiative to provide security and dignity to communities dependent on migration across Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra)