Workforce Migration – Emerging Horizons

Reported by: |Updated: August 4, 2020

Workforce migration is the phenomenon, which can be traced with the age-old evolution of the human civilization. In the initial stages, it was because of the biological, physiological and safety needs of group living followed by social needs culminating into developmental economic and actualisation needs, which has very beautifully been described by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as under:

Maslow’s Need Hierarchy


With the growth and development of human societies, human beings keep on aspiring for higher order developmental needs as lower order needs get satisfied thereby unlocking the individual potential of growth and creativity. The context of thesocial and economic developmental needs kept on unfolding itself in myriad ways with two polar extremes: the affluent upper strata and bottom lowest strata of the society. The affluent upper strata of the society has been migratory for exploring the greener pastures in the field of education, employment, business and living conditions for realisation of their self-esteem and self-actualisation orientationswhereas lowest strata of the society has become migratory in nature because of their physiological and safety needs, with increasing pressure on agriculture due to explosive growthof Indian population resulting into disguised and un-employment in rural India. The lowest strata migrants are normally working as unskilled workers in industries, drivers, cobblers, barbers, blacksmith, carpenters, plumbers, mechanics, milkmen, vegetable vendors, household workers, security staff and safai workers to name a few, and a majority of them become semi-skilled in the process. This migration is normally seasonal in nature during off agriculture seasons, at least in the first generation. Second generation migration is more stable in nature though they kept connected with their roots.

With the increasing integration of global economies and growth of Indian economy, there has been geometric rise in international and internal migration in India.Various studies have estimated varying figures of migratory workers estimated to be in the range of 100 to 140 million with an average of four members in a family it comes between 40 to 50 crores of population. The Economic Survey of India 2017 estimated internal migratory workforce to the extent of 100 million while Census 2011 pegs the total number of internal migrants in the country (accounting for inter- and intra-state movement) at a staggering 139 million. Aajeevika Bureau estimated about 120 million internal inter and intra state migrations from rural to urban areas. According to the International Migrant Stock 2019, a database released by the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, India is having 17.5 Million Indian global migrants, whereas India Labour Migration Update 2018 of International Labour Organisation has estimated about 30 million Indian global migrants. Thus migratory workforce constitutes major chunk of Indian workforce both within and outside the country with varying estimations.

With the growth of the Indian economy, service sector flourished contributing to more than 50% to GDP of the country and providing employment to more than 30% workforce running into millions of unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled jobs giving rise to burgeoning middle income segment, which is basically migratory in nature. With the increasing urbanisation, industrialisation and proliferation of service sector, the requirement of migratory workforce became permanent in nature, which led to family based migration which in the initial phases was earner based individual migration. The composition and dynamics of migration is also undergoing change which was basically in the mature of rural to urban and now diversifying into areas of urban to urban based on skill proficiencies. The proliferation of service industry in industrialized states and bigger urban centres led to skill shortage in those regional pockets necessitating inter and intra state migration of skilled and professional workforce, which is the major chunk of existing and emerging middle income segment. This migration has become more pronounced due to ever widening income levels of rural and urban workforcewith better living and educational facilities at urban centres. There has been increasing realisation among the masses that education is the biggest economic leveller thereby migrating to urban centres for educational facilities. Because of this wide spread workforce migration, there have been protest by the regional political parties for protecting the economic interests of the local populace in many states particularly for low paying jobs of unskilled and semi-skilled nature.

Though there has been significant migration of Indian workforce to other countries mainly for education, employment and business but here we will concentrate on internal migratory workforce, which is the backbone of Indian domestic workforce and can be classified in three categories:

  • Affluent upper strata of the society, which has been welcomed due to their investment and spending potential though being limited in number.
  • Skilled and professional workforce, which is forming the major chunk of middle income segment has also been welcome as they are instrumental in the growth of these geographical pockets and their migration has been necessitated due to skill shortage / deficiency and they have contributed enormously for the growth of the geographic region.
  • The lowest strata migrants, being unskilled / semi-skilled are the real issue and work mainly as daily wage earners in agriculture, construction and industries and contract workers in security, hotels, housekeeping and other menial and semi-skilled works.

The migration of category I and II workforce has never been a matter of academic or political discussions, though having great economic significance because of twin reasons. One is their limited number and second is their contribution to the development of the migrated region by their capital and skill. Migration of category III workforce is the real challenge because majority of the internal migration falls in this category impacting the employment opportunities of the local population therefore gaining political attention. The COVID 19 induced nationwide lockdown imposed for tackling the issue of global corona pandemic led to reverse movement of migratory workforce towards their native villages and districts as their poor saving base could not support the resultant loss of income due to lockdown and majority of them had to maintain two establishments -at their workplace and their native villages. The arrangements made by the local administration were significantly short of the actual requirements simply because of the magnitude of the crisis and underestimation of migratory workforce by respective state governments.

Most of the state governments have under-estimated the number of returning migrants in absence of any data base therefore requiring a policy perspective for this significant segment of the population. This workforce has contributed significantly towards the growth and prosperity of the states where they were serving. Therefore, it was the prime responsibility of those state governments to provide basic necessities and assistance to these migrants, which could have avoided the miseries faced by these workers and unwanted exodus paving way for planned and smooth movement during this crisis. This unprecedented outbreak of corona virus has not only posed the challenge of dealing with returning migrant workforce but also has provided with the skill reservoir to be exploited for growth and development of the local economy and society.

Challenges of Workforce Migration

The workforce migration due to COVID 19 induced nationwide lockdown is getting rationalised with running of Shramik Special trains, limited regular trains, inter-state bus services and air services, which will further be streamlined in the phase starting from June 1, 2020 under the ‘Mission Begin Again’, andthis phase will focus on easing of restrictions and phase-wise opening of lockdown. Lockdown 1.0 to lockdown 4.0 can be divided in two phases, where lockdown 1.0 and 2.0 may be termed as phase one and were basically prohibitive, restrictive and preparatory in nature to minimise the social contacts and consequent community spread of the pandemic and developing the medical facilities and infrastructure to tackle the rising cases of corona infection with emphasis on ensuring supply of essential daily use supplies to the general public. Lockdown 3.0 and 4.0 were basically accommodative and facilitative in nature and extended various concessions in different corona infected zones with partial resumption of train and air services to facilitate movement of workforce coupled with opening of the markets and industries with safeguards. Lockdown 3.0 and 4.0 were also instrumental in extending economic revival package for different sectors of the economy as prelude to ‘Mission Begin Again’. The revival and growth of the economy has been projected through emphasis on self-reliance by being vocal for local as international trade has received serious setback in this global pandemic crisis.

The management of huge migrant workforce was the pressing need of the time due to ensuing monsoons, which would have made the life of this stranded workforce very miserable and would have put pressure on available infrastructure. The monsoon season normally witnesses different types of natural calamities of cyclones, bursting of clouds and floods coupled with loss of human lives, animals and property. Therefore it was top priority of the central and state governments to manage the movement of migrant workforce. Since this movement was fraught the risk of corona spread because of the multiple contact points of this workforce thereby requiring medical check-ups and mandatory quarantine to reduce the risk of corona spread on priority basis. With the phased movement of this migrant workforce, governments could plan for their quarantine and medical treatment. The recovery rate is continuously improving and is now close to fifty percent of the admitted patients.

The quarantine and medical arrangement were immediate priorities of the government whereas the workforce movements have raised much larger issues, which are:

  • With drying up of the stream of Direct Benefit Transfer and free ration, which was initially for 3-6 months, there will be problem of employment and income generation for the workforce as agriculture has limited employment potential on seasonal basis.
  • The Mission Begin Again started on 1st June 2020, will also face the heat of return of migrant workforce because as per the rough estimates about 40% of the urban workforce is basically migratory in nature including both inter and intra state migration. Approximately half of this workforce has already returned, therefore it will be challenge for the industries to manage their regular operations on the optimum level. Sub optimal operations may lead to economic non-viability of the operation or may see steep rise in cost of production at least in the immediate short run.

At this juncture, state governments may initiate the process of profiling migrant workforce on the basis of their skill proficiency, which can be used for promoting local production for revival of the economy with locally available infrastructure and natural resources in the form of raw material because of cross interstate migration such as migrant workforce has gone from Uttar Pradesh to Maharashtra or Delhi for working in construction industry whereas the workforce of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand was working in the construction industry of Uttar Pradesh. The same thing was happening for agriculture labour migrating to Haryana and Punjab from Uttar Pradesh and agriculture labours from Chhattisgarh and Bihar working in the farms of Uttar Pradesh. The skill profiling will provide the human resource data of the locally available workforce for revival of existing and launch of the new economic activities. The same may hold good for unskilled and semi-skilled industrial workforce in related and even in unrelated industries based on their experience and exposure.

With these large scale migrations and human sufferings, new norms of workforce migration are but bound to emerge. Having federal constitutional setup with free movement of workforce within the country as enshrined in our Constitution, this period has seen the domicile issue of the workforce being blown out of proportion almost across all states, which was highly unfortunate and created panic among the migratory workforce. Therefore it is high time for legislative measures for protection of their rights. The government of Uttar Pradesh has decided to set up the Migration Commission for employment of migrant labourers and any state requiring their services has to seek the permission from Commission. Since Constitution guarantees freedom for practicing any vocation in any part of the country, therefore such initiatives have to be legally examined though they may have legal sanction in the name of ensuring social and public order in the state as thrown open during this crisis. Uttarakhand has already instituted the office of Rural Development and Migration Commission in 2017 for dealing with the issues of migrant workforce but with no better results. Government of Maharashtra has also made registration of interstate migrant workforce compulsory. What I personally feel, the decisions of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra governments are knee jerk reactions to the prevailing situations after spread of corona pandemic and countrywide lockdown and require serious thought for the long-term policy perspective.

This workforce is the creator of national wealth and has migrated due to lack of local employment opportunities within their district or state. Any restriction on free movement of workforce may inhibit the developmental journey of the country as some pockets will always experience better growth potential than others thereby becoming the choice centres for migratory workforce. Therefore the need of the hour is to develop an integrated and balanced policy perspective for promoting the optimum economic growth of the country while protecting the interests of the migratory workforce. The heat of the migrations will be felt almost by all the states some by having surplus workforce and others by having shortage of workforce. The Ministry of Labour and Employment, Government of India may initiate a national level policy debate with active participation of the state governments for formulation of the national policy for migrant workforce across the country. Alternatively, Government of India may also issue policy guidelines in the matterto the state governments for formulation of state specific policies within the contours of the national policy.

Opportunities from Workforce Migration

The migration of the workforce has always aimed at achieving the objectives of higher order needs as defined by Maslow’s Need Hierarchy. The current workforce migration due to corona pandemic induced lockdown has seen the reversal of Maslow’s Need Hierarchy from esteem and social needs to safety and physiological needs due to emerging short term uncertainties. This migratory workforce has not only brought the challenges in terms of employability with itself but also the plethora of opportunities in the form of entrepreneurship, experience and skill reservoirs, which are instrumental for the development of any economy. No doubt it has thrown open good number of challenges of immediate concern in the present scenario, which included management of logistics, medical and quarantine facilities, availability of food grains and immediate financial support. With the amount of entrepreneurship, experience and skill reservoir at their disposal, this workforce is such an asset, if managed and exploited commercially, can lead to development of decentralised localised manufacturing clusters across the country even in the most backward underdeveloped regions of the country provided proper marketing and infrastructural support is made available by the governments as enabling and facilitating mechanism. Therefore, the need of the hour is the integrated policy in close coordination with union and state governments for development of production hubs across the country for exploiting the potential of this migratory workforce by adopting a mix of strategies.

I- Import Substitution: During this global crisis of corona pandemic resulting into lockdowns and international supply constraints and disruptions, the low hanging fruits are in the form of import substitution for the existing demand, which was being met by imports. To begin with, import substitution must focus on high volume low value consumption-oriented products which are more in nature of labour-intensive production processes rather technology-oriented production process. The technology-oriented production processes are capital intensive in nature with higher gestation period and low employment potential. The government is continuously aiming at skill development for decentralised growth by creating local employment opportunities in underdeveloped regions of the country for which Government of India has launched massive projects of infrastructural and developmental nature for the Aspirational Districts of the country, since early 2018 in a systemically defined manner, which can be utilised for developing production clusters for import substitution across the country. These districts are 115 in number where government has launched the programs of infrastructure and skill development for harnessing the available natural and human resource potential for economic, infrastructural and social development of the underdeveloped regions of the country. This will be in line with recently declared self-reliance and vocal for local policy of the union government. Once we launch these programs on large scale to capitalise on the economies of scale and scope, this will go a long way in rationalising the cost structure to face the market competition within a short span of time.

II-Export Promotion: Export promotion is the area which has been discussed at length by different stakeholders for quite a long time as a significant contributor to the economic growth of the country. Government has extended various types of facilities for facilitating export production and promotion. With the changing international trade scenario, this is high time for India to concentrate on agriculture and micro enterprise based export by developing the cluster based pockets of excellence in decentralised manner for growth of the economy. With the growth of start ups in these segments during the last couple of years, the sector has demonstrated tremendous potential for growth. The government has to provide infrastructural support for development of these clusters of export excellence for agriculture and micro enterprises, which are the highest employment providers in the country with lowest per capita investment. The migratory workforce, with their experience, entrepreneurship and skills can play the catalytic role in this direction. The ongoing US and other countries trade tension with China can be the game changer for Indian entrepreneursif they proactively capitalise on the emerging global trade opportunities. For export promotion the focus should be high volume low value for agriculture, micro and small enterprises including artefacts and handicrafts by utilising the local migratory manpower and natural resources.

III- Infrastructure Development: This is the time of slackened demand due to lockdowns and reduced incomes of unorganised workforce, therefore requiring investment in the sectors having maximum backward and forward linkages. Considering the prevailing economic uncertainties, there is tendency of postponing the expenses thereby contributing additionally to the contacting demand. Infrastructural investments are best suited for such economic scenario because these infrastructural investments create employment, income and demand in the short run and lead to capacity creation and expansion for the long term development by unlocking the future growth potential of the economy. This is the time when most of the state governments are launching welfare and employment generating schemes across the country for returning migrated and local workforce, which can be diverted towards infrastructural development in the rural areas, which will be highlybeneficial for immediate employment generation and accelerated future growth. This will serve the twin purposes of employment generation in the local areas across the country thereby leading to demand creation and will also develop the capacity and capability of thefuture economic growth by providing the much needed infrastructural support.

IV-Decentralised Development: To address the employment problem on sustainable basis requires decentralised development across all geographical regions of the country. No doubt all regions can’t have similar type of economic or industrial activities thereby requiring regional growth strategy commensurate with the availability of financial, human, physical and natural resources. The inhibiting factors in decentralised growth are infrastructural bottlenecks, financial resources and skilled labour force. The nationwide lockdown followed by massive return movement of migrant workforce has significantly eased the issue of experienced and skilled labour force. For financial resources, government is providing various liberalisedcollateral free credit delivery and employment generation schemes at subsidised rates for various sectors of the economy. The aspirational districts, which are spread across the country, were identified for focussed development through various developmental and infrastructural interventions. These districts can be given focussed attention to be the engine of decentralised economic growth. The lopsided pocket developments normally add to regional economic disparities therefore balanced growth requires decentralised development for optimising the utilisation of natural and human resources for addressing the employment of workforce.


The post corona world is going to witness the new normal for the individuals, societies and the governments in managing their social and economic requirements and challenges, which will also create the wide ranging and far reaching ripple effect changes in relation to migratory workforce. The Indian Constitution guarantees the freedom to individuals for practicing any vocation in any part of the country. Furthermore, labour legislation is in the concurrent list where central and state governments have competence to enact legislations on the issues with specific matters reserved for the central government. This corona crisis and consequent movement of migratory workforce due to lockdown led to some knee jerk decisions by various state government such as setting up of migration commission, compulsory registration of migrant workers, permission from migrating state and changes in working hours which might prove to be the detrimental in the smooth and free movement of labour adversely impacting the employment opportunities and economic growth. The governments are advocating pro labour legislations during the period of this crisis whereas trade and industry bodies are advocating for relaxation and even suspension of labour laws for 2-3 years. Therefore a judicious approach has to be followed for this important segment of workforce. Some of the suggestive measures are:

  • National level umbrella policy for unskilled and semi-skilled migratory workforce to be formulated by the Central Government.
  • State specific policies to be formulated by respective state governments.
  • Aadhar enabled compulsory registration of all unskilled and semi-skilled workforce for statistical and monitoring purposes.
  • All registered unskilled and semi-skilled workforce including MGNREGA beneficiaries to be compulsorily covered under social security schemes.

These are some of the suggestive measures for improving the working conditions of the unskilled and semi-skilled workforce of the country, which is active contributor to national wealth creation.

(The views in the article are personal views of the writer.)

S. B. Singh
Aryavart Bank, Lucknow