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NHRC issues new advisories for bonded and migrant labourers amid Covid-19

The commission has laid down specific suggestions for prevention, identification, rescue and rehabilitation of bonded workers

Sabrangindia 02 Jun 2021

Image Courtesy:business-standard.com

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has issued more advisories to various ministries and States on the adverse impact faced by labourers and migrant informal sector workers titled Advisory to identify, release and rehabilitate bonded labourers during Covid-19. This has been prepared in consultation with civil society organisations and other stakeholders covering the aspects of prevention, identification, rescue, as well as rehabilitation of the bonded labourers.

Last year, under the Supreme Court’s directions, the National Human Rights Commission had issued “Comprehensive Guidelines for All States/ UTs for Identification, Release and Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers during Covid-19 Situation.” But with the new challenges of the second wave, the NHRC has an additional set of guidelines in place to cover the aspects of prevention, identification, rescue, as well as rehabilitation of the bonded labourers, ensuring that prompt actions are taken by the government authorities to protect the most vulnerable section.

Prevention  

The human-rights body has suggested that Panchayats may be asked to maintain a record of information about persons residing in the village and those who migrated to towns/cities for work. The record will also maintain details of the labourers, middlemen, location of the workplace, etc. The District administration is supposed to coordinate with the railway authorities in the district to monitor if labourers are being trafficked and investigate it immediately, especially if it involves children.

The advisory also reads, “State Government should consider creating dedicated funds for providing free ration and healthcare to the vulnerable and daily wagers who lost jobs due to Covid-19 pandemic. The state should direct the district administrations to identify households in extreme vulnerable conditions and provide essential social security cover. This will prevent trafficking for bonded labour.”

NHRC has given more responsibility to the District administration that can consider coordinating with local NGOs working on labour issues to provide information on illegal migration.

Identification

Panchayats have been advised to immediately monitor and inform the District Magistrate (DM) if they have identified or received any complaints from family members on child/bonded labour conditions in the workplace of the labourer. Further, the District Magistrate should constitute/ activate the Vigilance Committee as per the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 to carry out a survey of offences committed.

The DM should also constitute teams with relevant department officials to inspect industries/ brick kiln/other workplaces twice a month and identify if labourers are working under bonded labour conditions, as per NHRC.

Rescue

The DM and Sub-Divisional Magistrates (SDM) have been advised to complete the investigation within 24 hours upon receiving a complaint of the bonded labour system. Due to the current pandemic, the DM/SDM need to ensure that the rescue team is trained on Covid-19 precautions and a thermal screening of the team should be made mandatory before conducting a rescue /spot inquiry.

During the process of rescue, the rescue team should ensure that the face masks and sanitisers are provided to the labourers and physical distance is adequately maintained among the labourers. After the rescue process is completed, NHRC has advised that the DM or SDM should ensure and arrange for basic health screening and Covid tests of rescued bonded labourers.

“If any rescued labourer is suspected of Covid-19, arrangements should be made to immediately escort the labourer to the nearest health facility to access free testing and treatment. Released Bonded Labourers should be vaccinated and if possible, vaccination should cover all age groups”, reads the advisory dated May 31.

Efforts should be made by the officials to recover the unpaid wages of the labourers on the spot as delay in payment of wages can make them vulnerable to re-bondage. The labourers also need to be provided with Release Certificates on priority and within 24 hours of the rescue. Transport facilities have to be arranged if the workers are willing to go back to their homes, suggested NHRC.

Rehabilitation

As prescribed in the Central Sector Scheme 2016, immediate cash assistance upto Rs. 20,000 should be provided by the District Administration to the rescued person out of the District Bonded Labour Rehabilitation Fund at the disposal of the District Magistrate. The District Administration has also been advised to ensure that additional cash and non-cash benefits other than the provisions in the CSS-2016 scheme be made available for the rescued labourers as part of social security cover to avoid the possibilities of re-bondage.

The Administration has been asked to undertake all measures to provide a safe and healthy environment for children of rescued bonded labourers/child labourers in coordination with relevant Government departments. Health screening, psycho social counselling and education shall be an integral component of this rehabilitation package.

In cases where the rescued bonded labourers are not willing to go back to their native place, proper protocols should be followed in places of their work and they must be ensured access to basic benefits, according to NHRC.

Legal Aid

For offences under laws other than Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, where statements under Section 161 CrPC are required to be recorded, the DM/SDM have been instructed to ensure that the same is done at the earliest, prior to repatriation and with appropriate Covid guidelines.

Given the risks involved in travel during the ongoing pandemic, the DM/SDM along with the police authorities have been asked to make efforts to ensure that the testimony of the released bonded labour is recorded by the concerned court through video conferencing.

In a scenario wherein a person released from bondage has been repatriated, but if later physically summoned by the Magistrate for evidence in trial, he/she should be provided with adequate safety and the proper health care norms should be followed during and post-trial.

Additional recommendations for the Centre and States/UTs

  1. The Principal Secretary, Labour Department, could appoint a State Nodal Officer not below the rank of Under Secretary to coordinate with the Ministry of Labour and Employment for status on submitted proposals and reimbursement of cash assistance under various components of the Central Sector Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers, 2016.
  2. The district administration should ensure that the district bonded labour rehabilitation fund with a permanent corpus mentioned in the Scheme is available for immediate cash and travel assistance to released bonded labourers, post rescue.
  3. The State Labour Department shall create a helpline number connected with the labour officials in the district, to provide immediate help to labourers in distress at workplaces.
  4. The State Government should arrange virtual trainings for the State/ District officials working on bonded labour issues. The training should be conducted at least twice in a calendar year on the following: Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, Central Sector Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers, 2016 and Standard Operating Procedures to identify, rescue, release and rehabilitate bonded labourers.  
  5. The State Government should maintain a database of bonded labour rescues and rehabilitation. It should also mention the number of surveys/inspections conducted by the authorities to identify bonded labour.
  6. The Union Labour Ministry and State Labour Departments should update their websites regularly and ensure that data is properly managed with updated information.
  7. Efforts should be made by the District Administration to work closely with the Education Department to encourage enrolment of children into schools, to minimize the number of children falling out of education system and into child labour.

The NHRC advisory dated March 31, 2021 may be read here: 

Related:

NHRC’s advisories on Covid-19
Covid-19: Which states fared worst and why?
Right to Health: The forgotten Constitutional mandate

NHRC issues new advisories for bonded and migrant labourers amid Covid-19

The commission has laid down specific suggestions for prevention, identification, rescue and rehabilitation of bonded workers

Image Courtesy:business-standard.com

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has issued more advisories to various ministries and States on the adverse impact faced by labourers and migrant informal sector workers titled Advisory to identify, release and rehabilitate bonded labourers during Covid-19. This has been prepared in consultation with civil society organisations and other stakeholders covering the aspects of prevention, identification, rescue, as well as rehabilitation of the bonded labourers.

Last year, under the Supreme Court’s directions, the National Human Rights Commission had issued “Comprehensive Guidelines for All States/ UTs for Identification, Release and Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers during Covid-19 Situation.” But with the new challenges of the second wave, the NHRC has an additional set of guidelines in place to cover the aspects of prevention, identification, rescue, as well as rehabilitation of the bonded labourers, ensuring that prompt actions are taken by the government authorities to protect the most vulnerable section.

Prevention  

The human-rights body has suggested that Panchayats may be asked to maintain a record of information about persons residing in the village and those who migrated to towns/cities for work. The record will also maintain details of the labourers, middlemen, location of the workplace, etc. The District administration is supposed to coordinate with the railway authorities in the district to monitor if labourers are being trafficked and investigate it immediately, especially if it involves children.

The advisory also reads, “State Government should consider creating dedicated funds for providing free ration and healthcare to the vulnerable and daily wagers who lost jobs due to Covid-19 pandemic. The state should direct the district administrations to identify households in extreme vulnerable conditions and provide essential social security cover. This will prevent trafficking for bonded labour.”

NHRC has given more responsibility to the District administration that can consider coordinating with local NGOs working on labour issues to provide information on illegal migration.

Identification

Panchayats have been advised to immediately monitor and inform the District Magistrate (DM) if they have identified or received any complaints from family members on child/bonded labour conditions in the workplace of the labourer. Further, the District Magistrate should constitute/ activate the Vigilance Committee as per the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976 to carry out a survey of offences committed.

The DM should also constitute teams with relevant department officials to inspect industries/ brick kiln/other workplaces twice a month and identify if labourers are working under bonded labour conditions, as per NHRC.

Rescue

The DM and Sub-Divisional Magistrates (SDM) have been advised to complete the investigation within 24 hours upon receiving a complaint of the bonded labour system. Due to the current pandemic, the DM/SDM need to ensure that the rescue team is trained on Covid-19 precautions and a thermal screening of the team should be made mandatory before conducting a rescue /spot inquiry.

During the process of rescue, the rescue team should ensure that the face masks and sanitisers are provided to the labourers and physical distance is adequately maintained among the labourers. After the rescue process is completed, NHRC has advised that the DM or SDM should ensure and arrange for basic health screening and Covid tests of rescued bonded labourers.

“If any rescued labourer is suspected of Covid-19, arrangements should be made to immediately escort the labourer to the nearest health facility to access free testing and treatment. Released Bonded Labourers should be vaccinated and if possible, vaccination should cover all age groups”, reads the advisory dated May 31.

Efforts should be made by the officials to recover the unpaid wages of the labourers on the spot as delay in payment of wages can make them vulnerable to re-bondage. The labourers also need to be provided with Release Certificates on priority and within 24 hours of the rescue. Transport facilities have to be arranged if the workers are willing to go back to their homes, suggested NHRC.

Rehabilitation

As prescribed in the Central Sector Scheme 2016, immediate cash assistance upto Rs. 20,000 should be provided by the District Administration to the rescued person out of the District Bonded Labour Rehabilitation Fund at the disposal of the District Magistrate. The District Administration has also been advised to ensure that additional cash and non-cash benefits other than the provisions in the CSS-2016 scheme be made available for the rescued labourers as part of social security cover to avoid the possibilities of re-bondage.

The Administration has been asked to undertake all measures to provide a safe and healthy environment for children of rescued bonded labourers/child labourers in coordination with relevant Government departments. Health screening, psycho social counselling and education shall be an integral component of this rehabilitation package.

In cases where the rescued bonded labourers are not willing to go back to their native place, proper protocols should be followed in places of their work and they must be ensured access to basic benefits, according to NHRC.

Legal Aid

For offences under laws other than Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, where statements under Section 161 CrPC are required to be recorded, the DM/SDM have been instructed to ensure that the same is done at the earliest, prior to repatriation and with appropriate Covid guidelines.

Given the risks involved in travel during the ongoing pandemic, the DM/SDM along with the police authorities have been asked to make efforts to ensure that the testimony of the released bonded labour is recorded by the concerned court through video conferencing.

In a scenario wherein a person released from bondage has been repatriated, but if later physically summoned by the Magistrate for evidence in trial, he/she should be provided with adequate safety and the proper health care norms should be followed during and post-trial.

Additional recommendations for the Centre and States/UTs

  1. The Principal Secretary, Labour Department, could appoint a State Nodal Officer not below the rank of Under Secretary to coordinate with the Ministry of Labour and Employment for status on submitted proposals and reimbursement of cash assistance under various components of the Central Sector Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers, 2016.
  2. The district administration should ensure that the district bonded labour rehabilitation fund with a permanent corpus mentioned in the Scheme is available for immediate cash and travel assistance to released bonded labourers, post rescue.
  3. The State Labour Department shall create a helpline number connected with the labour officials in the district, to provide immediate help to labourers in distress at workplaces.
  4. The State Government should arrange virtual trainings for the State/ District officials working on bonded labour issues. The training should be conducted at least twice in a calendar year on the following: Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act, 1976, Central Sector Scheme for Rehabilitation of Bonded Labourers, 2016 and Standard Operating Procedures to identify, rescue, release and rehabilitate bonded labourers.  
  5. The State Government should maintain a database of bonded labour rescues and rehabilitation. It should also mention the number of surveys/inspections conducted by the authorities to identify bonded labour.
  6. The Union Labour Ministry and State Labour Departments should update their websites regularly and ensure that data is properly managed with updated information.
  7. Efforts should be made by the District Administration to work closely with the Education Department to encourage enrolment of children into schools, to minimize the number of children falling out of education system and into child labour.

The NHRC advisory dated March 31, 2021 may be read here: 

Related:

NHRC’s advisories on Covid-19
Covid-19: Which states fared worst and why?
Right to Health: The forgotten Constitutional mandate

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