Since the onset of COVID-19, news media across the country and in South Asia, in particular, have been focusing on a population of workers who are at the fringes of the economic spectrum. Migrant workers, both internal and international, have been at the receiving end of perhaps one of the direst situations that we, as a world, have faced since the global economic crisis in 2008-09.
In India, millions of internal migrant workers have walked back to their villages from big cities and metros. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers have returned to India and other countries of origin in South Asia from countries of destination in the Middle East and elsewhere.
While we are reporting and writing about their journeys back home, let us not forget how their migration story began. It began in small communities and villages where the lack of decent work and livelihood opportunities forced men and women to seek better prospects in that nearby town, the big city in the adjacent state, the buzzling metro that took at least a day and night to get to, or the megalopolis far away across the ocean and in a foreign land.
Public and private employment agencies have an important role in the recruiting workers to ensure the fulfillment of labour market needs in places of destinations. However, many migrant workers, especially the low-skilled, fall prey to informal and unscrupulous intermediaries who trap workers in a vicious cocktail of debt and vulnerability with the promise of jobs if they agree to migrate.
Such migrant workers – both international and internal – end up having been deceived about their working conditions. International migrant workers may have their contracts substituted while internal migrant workers may not even have contracts in the first place. International migrant workers may have their passports retained, while internal migration is usually characterized by a lack of basic documentation. Without the right documentation, both international and internal migrant workers end up in the informal economy with the added pressure of irregularity on international migrant workers. Both sets of migrant workers are also subject to unsafe living conditions, illegal deductions in their wages, and threats if they wish to leave their employers. In effect, all the aforementioned issues lead to situations of trafficking and forced labour.
These problems also apply in the case of those migrant workers who are subcontracted through such intermediaries, as is commonly the case in global supply chains. While the employers and migrant workers alike may benefit from temporary and flexible work arrangements in supply chains, it can also lead to serious gaps, as mentioned above, in the protection of the labour rights of migrant workers, particularly of women migrant workers.
It is therefore important to strengthen the existing national labour laws particularly those relating to the recruitment of migrant workers in supply chains. The ILO’s General Principles and Operational Guidelines for Fair Recruitment states that governments should work closely with employers’ and workers’ organizations to establish policies, through social dialogue, that guide all enterprises to respect labour rights and recruitment laws in all their operations including in supply chains.
The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM), adopted at the United Nations’ General Assembly in December 2018, also reiterates the ILO General Principles in the context of facilitating fair recruitment to ensure decent work for all migrant workers and enhancing transparency in the supply chains. While the idea of safe, orderly and regular migration in the GCM, rooted in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), was specifically in the context of international migration, objectives like the one on facilitating fair recruitment hold great relevance for internal migration as well.
As workers now return to their places and countries of origin, strategies are being devised and action plans laid out for their reintegration in the local job markets. However, reintegration will truly be effective only when those returnee migrant workers are paid the compensation including their wages and benefits that are due to them. If they are returning to situations of debt bondage and are forced to pay off unfair recruitment fees, their reintegration will continue to be a challenge.
All migrant workers, be they international or internal, share a common aspiration and hope for a better life. It is therefore important that we go back to the beginning of their migration story to understand how they got here.
 ILO Fair Recruitment Initiative, 2017; http://www.ilo.ch/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_norm/—declaration/documents/publication/wcms_320405.pdf
 International Labour Conference, 105th Session, 2016, Report IV, Decent work in global supply chains; p.18, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_norm/—relconf/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_468097.pdf
 ILO General Principles and Operational Guidelines for Fair Recruitment and Definition of Recruitment Fees and Related Costs, Principle 3 (3.1), 2019, p.15, https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—ed_protect/—protrav/—migrant/documents/publication/wcms_536755.pdf
 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, December 2018, Para 22.e., page 12; https://undocs.org/A/CONF.231/3
 Urgent Justice Mechanism Needed for Repatriated Migrant Workers, 1 June 2020; http://mfasia.org/press-release-a-large-civil-society-and-globaltrade-unions-coalition-launch-a-call-for-an-urgent-justice-mechanism-for-repatriated-migrant-workers/