• Shreyanshi Jain

Plight of migrant workers and their rights : An Overview

Updated: Jan 11

This Article is written by Shreyanshi Jain

The world wide spread of COVID 19 from China was unforeseeable, so as the crisis of migrant workers in India. After the first 21 days lock down which was imposed on 24 March 2020, the fourth lock down has started. Everyone is affected by the lock down but the migrant workers have suffered the most.

In India, lakhs of workers move to different states to earn money, where they do semiskilled or unskilled jobs at low wages. Due to the complete lockdown, these people lost their source of income and livelihood. When all the transportation facilities were immediately halted by the government, these migrant workers were forced to walk kilometres to return back to their homes.

Hundreds of these unfortunate migrant workers lost their life on their way, some due to accidents and others due to dehydration and starvation. The way in which 16 migrant workers lost their lives on the railway track depict the plight of these workers.


There are various provisions in the Constitution which relates to the rights of the migrant workers. Some of them are discussed below

Article 21- protection of life and personal liberty

Article 21 of the Constitution says that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. Here ‘right to life’ does not means ‘mere animal existence’ as held by the court in the case of Kharak Singh Vs state of Uttar Pradesh. The Supreme Court have further explained the meaning of life and personal liberty in various cases .

In Maneka Gandhi Vs union of India, the Supreme Court held that right to life includes right to live with human dignity. Moreover, the Supreme Court in Olga Tellis Vs Bombay municipal Corporation popularly known as ‘pavement dwellers case’, a five judge bench of the court implied that ‘right to livelihood’ is born out of the ‘right to life’ as no person can live without the means of living i.e. livelihood .

Further article 39 of directive principles of state policy says that the state shall direct its policy towards securing – that the citizens, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of livelihood.

The international labour organisation (ILO) which is a United Nations agency is aimed at advancing social and economic justice through setting international labour standards. Its mandate is to ensure accessible, productive and sustainable work worldwide in conditions of freedom, equity, security and dignity.

Apart from these, there are various labour laws in India. Some of which are however suspended by many states during lockdown.


On 31 March 2020, the Supreme Court heard a petition filed by lawyer A.A.Shrivastava seeking directions to provide food and shelter to migrant workers wherein the Solicitor General Tushar Mehta says that ‘over 22,80,000 people are provided food. These are needy people, migrant workers and daily wages. They have been kept in shelter.’ He also contended that no one is now on road. Supreme Court also accepted this contention. However the court asked the central government to ensure that basic facilities like food, water and medicines are provided to migrant workers who are now kept at shelter homes. But lakhs of workers can be still seen walking barefooted on highways.

On 16th May, the Supreme Court rejected a PIL to direct the district magistrates to identify and provide free relief and transport to the migrant workers stating that it was the responsibility of the state governments.


The orders from the Madras High Court acknowledged the seriousness of the crisis and showed empathy for their plight. On 12th May, the Karnataka High Court directed the government to decide on paying cost of workers going back to the villages and towns.

Gujarat High Court also took up the workers’ cause suo motu and sought the response of the government. The Uttarakhand High Court upon the hearing said that if the migrant workers are not provided with food and livelihood now, it may violate their fundamental rights.

On One hand, where the Supreme Court has denied its responsibility over the issue, High Courts are continuously showing empathy for the migrant workers.


Workers are walking day and night. Those people are illiterate and cannot understand the seriousness of the virus which increases their problem. When the government has started a mission named ‘Vande Matram’ for the Indians who are stuck in abroad due to lockdown, the government neglected the workers who contribute roughly around 10% to the Indian GDP. Although some High Courts and NGOs have showed empathy and gave their helping hand for these workers, when will the Supreme Court intervene ??

End Notes

  1. Kharak Singh vs The State Of U. P. & Others 1963 AIR 1295

  2. Maneka Gandhi vs Union Of India 1978 AIR 597

  3. Olga Tellis & Ors vs Bombay Municipal Corporation 1986 AIR 180

  4. Alakh Alok Srivastava vs Union of India.

#fundamentalrights #labourlaws #lockdown #migrantworkers

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