Independent Research and Policy Advocacy

Self-employed Migrant Workers in the Unorganised Sector

Save Post

By India Migration Now*

India Migration Now is a Mumbai-based migration data, research and consultancy agency which utilises its niche expertise in migration research and policy along with its extensive network of government, private sector, non-profit, grassroots, academic and media partners to develop insights and solutions for low-income migrant households in India. In this post, the team examine some of the issues relating to self-employed workers as a subset of migrant workers.

Self-employed workers form more than half of the country’s workforce, making them an indispensable category for the question of welfare and labour rights.  The  Periodic Labour Force Survey 2018-19 estimates 52.2% of the rural workforce and approximately 32.4% of the urban workforce comprises self-employed workers.  The bulk of these self-employed persons, who work in own-account enterprises or as helpers in family enterprises, are workers in the informal sector. This category of employment is thus marked by precariousness and vulnerability. As Dr. Bhattacharjee has discussed here, they are also excluded from the ambit of many labour laws.

These vulnerabilities have become starker with the COVID-19 pandemic, where many workers lost their livelihoods with no social protection. According to the Azim Premji University’s Rapid Assessment Survey, 86% of self-employed workers lost their jobs due to the lockdown. More importantly, the pandemic has highlighted the immigrant nature of most of the self-employed in cities, as millions started returning back to their villages after a complete collapse of their livelihoods. Thus, there is an immediate need to focus our attention on this crucial sub-section of the work-force.

This article aims to deconstruct the category of self-employed workers in the unorganized sector, differentiate them from other casual works in the unorganized sectors and highlight the migrant character of such workers, through the field experiences of India Migration Now.

Who Are Self-employed Workers? How Are They Different from Casual Labourers?

It is important to highlight that self-employment itself is not a homogenous category. It includes workers across various occupations such as rickshaw pulling, street vending, waste picking, beedi rolling, crafts work, carpentry, plumbing, domestic work, etc., as well as small-scale labour intermediaries like petty contractors, jobbers/sardar (who hire workers on behalf of petty contractors), and people with small enterprises who employ fewer than 10 workers, according to the 2007 report by National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector.

So how are the self-employed different from other wage-based casual workers in the unorganized sector? Casual workers in many sectors have minimal legislative protection through Acts such as the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1996 and Inter-State Migrant Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979. While legislations such as Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008 (UWSSA) have extended to the self-employed, the efforts remain redundant because they have failed to create any legally-binding entitlement of social protection for these workers. Self-employed workers have the double burden of informality and legislative indifference that they face.

Self-Employed Migrants

Nearly half the rural-urban migrants are in the bottom six consumption deciles and work mainly as casual wage employed or as self-employed in the unorganised sector (Srivastava, 2011). The 64th Round of the National Sample Survey found that self-employment remains a prominent post-migration occupational strategy. This noted that the share of the rural self-employed males in total short-term male migration was significant- nearly 32 per cent, even as the share of rural self-employed females was 24 per cent in the total short-term female migration.

Migrants already face numerous hurdles at destination states with respect to integration. One of these is that they lack civic identity at the destination. Civic identity refers to the recognition of an individual in the social and political sphere of a particular place such that they can participate in public life and political decision-making. India has a federal structure, under which each state recognises its residents as natives, who can avail specific government schemes as residents of the state. There are different markers of civic identity across states, like Ration Card, Voter ID Card, PAN Card, which rest on the criteria of domicile. The fact that a migrant can only have a ration card at source, and not at the destination, where they are employed for most part of the year severely affects their chances of being food secure at destination (Dreze and Khera, 2013). Similarly, domicile requirements which restrict availing a Voter ID at destination alienates the migrant from political processes of the destination state.  All the factors collectively expose migrants to systemic labour market discrimination (Srivastava, 2020). Migrants are often unable to produce identification documents with addresses in the destination states to make use of social protection schemes. Self-employed migrant workers therefore often have the inability to shape and participate in the social, economic and political processes that affect their lives in destination states. In addition to this, self-employed migrant workers have poor access to housing and basic amenities, poorer entitlements, poor working conditions and labour market discrimination, among other vulnerabilities (Deshingkar, Akter, 2009).

We note that migrant self-employed workers face an additional layer of marginality.  This triple marginality manifests as follows- they are identified as outsiders, are subject to informal working arrangements and lack any legislative protection.

Our research shows that the lack of housing is a major hurdle for self-employed migrant workers. IMN’s Interstate Migrant Policy Index 2019 (IMPEX 2019), an analysis of state-level policies for the integration of interstate migrants, finds that government schemes for temporary and permanent housing excludes interstate migrants. In 2019, India Migration Now (IMN), looked at migration data from Census 2011 for six largest urban centres in the country, namely Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bengaluru, and Delhi, which collectively hold 62.6 million migrant population. We found that almost 50% of urban migrants in the given cities were pushed to the urban fringes, with limited civic infrastructure and municipal facilities because of the high costs of living in the urban core. Being located at the peripheries of the city meant that migrants had to incur greater travel and transportation costs in order to access the urban core.

The predicament falls more heavily on home-based self-employed migrant workers who are not only dependent on adequate housing (which is a productive asset for them), but also on other housing-related facilities like electricity and water. Additionally, home-based migrant workers are unable to take on larger orders for piece work because of a lack of space.. This in turn means reduced productive capacity. Improper housing can also result in damages of raw materials or finished products of the workers.

Distance from the urban core can also act as a hindrance to the businesses because of increase in transportation costs. Owing to their occupation and workplace, home-based workers are already physically isolated from the market, which leads to lesser market information and lesser bargaining power in the market. Distance from the urban core compounds to the asymmetry.

Self-employment Not a Static Category

Self-employment is not a static classification. Workers often oscillate between self-employment and casual wage employment, which depends on numerous factors like availability of financial resources, market instability, among others. In a survey conducted by IMN with 28 labour intermediaries in the month of June 2020, we found that the oscillation between the categories of self-employed and casual workers has also become a survival strategy post pandemic. The labour intermediaries, most of whom were migrants employed 5-10 workers under them and usually sought work from residential builders. Three labour intermediaries who were a part of the survey reported to have switched back to casual work at local nakas to gather financial resources, with the hope that it would help them restart their contracting businesses.

The labour intermediaries worked as small-scale micro-contractors who negotiate with employers on behalf of the workers at labour nakas in Delhi. These micro-contractors have fewer than 5-6 workers working under them. These workers usually worked on small residential construction, where the micro-contractor sometimes also assumed the role of a skilled craftsman. The micro-contractor would provide the workers with equipment, which required him to have capital. As the lockdown started and then persisted, micro-contractors wanted to switch to the work of skilled craftsmen for a few months, till they had enough resources to invest in equipment for workers to work under them. Thus, it is pertinent to acknowledge and appreciate the tentative nature of their occupations so as to frame policy accordingly. The question of self-employed migrant labourers assumes enormous relevance, especially after the pandemic.

Way Forward

Migrant workers are an important sub-set of workers, with different needs from non-migrant workers. There is an urgent need to account for these needs in labour legislation and other policies. One possible step is the recent recommendation by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Labour that the definition of migrant worker in the proposed Occupational Health, Safety and Working Conditions Bill, 2019 should be expanded to include self-employed workers. It is crucial that similar changes be made to other labour codes, including the Code on Social Security, as well. 

*The blog is written by India Migration Now team with inputs from Manish Maskara (@maskaramanish25). India Migration Now is a Mumbai-based migration, data, research and advocacy organisation. Follow their work on twitter @nowmigration

This is part of a series of guest posts on social security for self-employed workers in the informal economy organised by the Social Protection Initiative at Dvara Research. All views are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Dvara Research.


Authors :

Tags :

Share via :

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts :