Bengaluru: "Card banaya hai. Ab government se support milega to milega, nahi to nahi milega [I have got the card made, now let's see if we get support from the government, or not]," Rashid*, a Bengali migrant worker in Kerala's Ernakulam district, told IndiaSpend. He self-registered this November on the Ministry of Labour & Employment's e-Shram portal--a national database of unorganised sector workers--with the help of a non-profit's labour facilitation centre. But the process was not as straightforward as he had hoped. His Aadhaar-linked mobile number, which is required for self-registration, belonged to his mother back in Kolkata, so he was unable to receive the one-time password, or OTP, that is sent to the Aadhaar-linked number during registration. "I had to spend Rs 50 at the Akshaya centre [a common services centre or CSC] to update my Aadhaar details before I could proceed with e-Shram registration a few days later," said Rashid, who had expected it to be a hassle-free process.

E-Shram, built at an estimated cost of Rs 704 crore, was launched by the Union government on August 26, 2021 to register 380 million unorganised sector workers--including migrant workers, construction workers, domestic helps, street vendors, waiters, beauticians, handicraft makers, fisherfolk, agricultural labour, etc--without charge at CSCs, labour facilitation centres and State Seva Kendras (SSKs), and through self-registration. In just under three months since its launch, over 91 million--24%--of the expected 380 million had registered by November 25. More than half work in the agriculture sector, India's largest employer.

The exercise, however, has limitations, workers, facilitators helping with registrations, academics and labour welfare organisations told us. They say that it is focused on creating a database of workers and does not offer clarity on the social security benefits, besides accident insurance, that registered workers are supposed to receive.

Further, mandatory Aadhaar-based mobile linkage is proving a hurdle for registration of many workers, and biometric authentication at CSCs is problematic, they said. Further, the portal is no longer sharing data on registered workers who are migrants.

As we near the end of another Covid-19 affected year, with India's economy continuing to reel under the effects of the pandemic and unemployment remains high, the e-Shram initiative has made a beginning towards registering and estimating the needs of unorganised sector workers and migrants on a national level, experts told IndiaSpend. But to improve the database, there should be more identification documents allowed for registration and the government should step up registration drives to pick up the pace of registrations, and industry bodies and associations must share the responsibility to register workers, they say.

India's informal workforce

As much as 93% of India's workforce is informal, the State Bank of India said this month. While the government's target is 380 million workers, Azim Premji University's State of Working India report 2021 estimated India's informal workforce to be around 415.6 million-strong in 2018-19, or about 90% of all workers.

Any informal sector worker between 16-59 years is eligible to register on the portal. With registration, workers would get a Universal Account Number (UAN) card. To register, workers must have an Aadhaar-linked mobile number and bank account. "If a worker does not have an Aadhaar-linked mobile number, he/she can visit the nearest CSC's and register through Biometric authentication," says the e-Shram website.

The exodus of migrant workers who lost work overnight after the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown was imposed abruptly on March 24, 2020, brought more scrutiny on workers' social security. About 10.6 million migrant workers returned to their villages after the lockdown was imposed, the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways estimated in September 2020. A Reserve Bank of India report in September 2020 put the number at around 40 million. Government figures, however, have been described as underestimates by a Center for Development Research, University of Bonn study in April 2021, which highlighted a key data gap. The government was caught unawares because it "did not have accurate information on the number of migrants who needed support", the study said. In June 2021, the Supreme Court in response to a writ petition on difficulties faced by migrant workers during the pandemic, ordered the Union government to accelerate creation of a national database of unorganised workers, which had been stalled for more than two years.

Technical challenges: Slow servers and Aadhaar-based linking

Registration on e-Shram can be done by the workers themselves, or through biometric authentication at a CSC or SSK, but the mandatory use of Aadhaar-linked mobile numbers, language barrier and slow servers are proving hurdles for self-registration, said facilitators. The government intends to "enable optimum realization of [workers'] employability and enable them to avail benefits of government schemes", by seeding e-Shram and Aadhaar, the Ministry of Labour & Employment said in September 2021.

Chirag Rathod, 32, a construction worker in Ahmedabad, described difficulties while self-registering on e-Shram. "I watched a few videos online. It took me nearly five days to complete my registration because the server is very slow," said Rathod. He also tried to assist seven other workers with their registrations. Three were unable to register because they did not have their Aadhaar-linked mobile numbers, he said. "I did not have issues with my Aadhaar, but others had a lot of problems because their numbers have changed," he said.

Like Rathod, Nisha Mali, a 21-year-old postgraduate student in Ahmedabad, helped workers including her father, who works as a labourer, to register on e-Shram using her mobile phone. "It took 30 minutes to complete registrations when I was able to open the link. Then, there were a few workers who were unable to register due to different phone numbers they had linked to Aadhaar," she told IndiaSpend.

Over 80% of registrations were assisted registrations made in CSCs and State Seva Kendras (less than 1%), and just 19% through self-registration by November 25. Only Assam, Delhi and Karnataka saw half or more registrations made through self-registration. In Kerala and Gujarat, where Rashid and Rathod work, self registrations were 33% and 15% of all registrations, respectively.

"Workers have to rely on CSC centres​ as due to technological and language barriers, they cannot self-register," said Shubham Kaushal, a lawyer at Aajeevika Bureau, a non-profit on labour and migration that works in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Ankit Kumar Ramani, a CSC operator in Ahmedabad, said that he started using biometrics to register workers due to difficulties in Aadhaar OTP-based registrations. "The website works better early in the morning and late at night. It is not possible to expect workers or operators to register at odd hours," he said.

Rathod, who tried for five days, managed to complete his registration after 11 p.m., when traffic on the e-Shram website was low. "I had trouble choosing from the list of occupations, and it is not in Gujarati, which I am more comfortable with," he added.

There were meetings by labour groups due to which workers got some information about the e-Shram UAN card, said Mali. But during these camps, workers often crowd around to learn more about the scheme which should ideally be communicated by the labour department, not CSC operators, added Ramani.

"Registration mandated through the Aadhaar-based mobile linkage or biometric identification at the CSCs is problematic," Ravi Srivastava, Director, Centre for Employment Studies at the non-profit Institute for Human Development told IndiaSpend. Biometrics are not stable over the lifespan of an individual, per an Economic and Political Weekly report in April 2019.

Younger migrant workers from the north and the east often do not have Aadhaar-linked mobile numbers because they tend to change SIM cards, Ayaz Anwar, programme manager at the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID) in Ernakulam, who has been helping workers like Rashid register on the portal at their facilitation centre, told IndiaSpend. Anwar's centre has registered around 150 workers, but "we have been able to register only 20 workers from this group", he said. "Nearly 70% of those who came [from this region] did not have the Aadhaar-linked mobile number. Migrants from southern states have better registration rates," added Anwar.

Often, a certain section of workers such as those who live inside factories or in squatter settlements in industrial areas are​ more vulnerable​ to being left out of this exercise,​ as they tend to be cut-off from the city and usually do not carry documents​​, said Kaushal.

There should be more identification documents for registration to avoid delays in registration which add to workers' woes, experts said. Industry bodies and associations must also be given responsibility to register, and not create pressure on workers to register by themselves, given that workers may not find time to go to a CSC to register after working hours.

By September 2021, 99.5% of adults had Aadhaar numbers, countrywide, per government data. While 85% of workers registered had bank accounts, only 19% had bank accounts linked with Aadhaar, per the e-Shram portal. Once a bank account is linked with Aadhaar, it shows up during e-Shram registration. In case it is not, accounts can be added manually, which opens up a possibility of misuse, noted Anwar.

IndiaSpend has asked senior officials from the labour ministry for comments about mandatory usage of Aadhaar for registrations on eShram and other technical challenges being faced by workers. We will update the story when we receive them.

CSCs charging workers for e-Shram registration

Rashid had delayed his e-Shram registration when his friends told him that registration for the new "labour card" was not free. He earns around Rs 800 a day working as a mason, and gets work for about three days a week, if he is lucky. "At first, I had heard that it would cost Rs 200 at a private centre and I did not have the money. I only went to register when a friend told me that it was being done for free at another place," he said. Rathod decided to self-register after realising that it would cost him around Rs 50 to register at a CSC. Over 92% of all workers registered on the portal earn less than Rs 10,000 per month, as of November 25, 2021.

Registration on e-Shram, whether through self-registration or at a CSC, is supposed to be free, the government said when launching the portal. While the government is supposed to reimburse CSCs who carry out registrations, some CSC operators told us they charge a nominal fee for e-Shram registration.

CSCs, which are privately run outlets to provide government services to citizens, have a financial model which works on commission to operators. The official CSC Facebook account said in September that each e-Shram registration is supposed to provide a commission of Rs 20 and operators are expected to provide an A4 print out of the UAN card that is generated.

Ramani, who is yet to receive payment for any e-Shram registrations, said a lack of clarity on commission fees persists. "We were told by the district manager on WhatsApp that we will get Rs 14 per registration, but we do not know if we need to give them a printout or laminate [of the UAN card]," said Ramani. Ramani, who charges Rs 10 for e-Shram registrations, said that depending on the service, some CSC operators charge upto Rs 150 or Rs 200. There is no strict regulation.

CSCs overcharge their customers for services such as issuing of certificates, banking through Aadhaar-enabled payment systems, submitting applications for PAN cards, accessing health benefits, etc, IndiaSpend reported in November 2019, based on a survey in Jharkhand by researchers.

Although workers opt to go to the CSC centre and use biometrics to register, CSCs may not be interested due to low commissions, according to Mahesh Gajera, programme manager at the Aajeevika Bureau.

Geographical and sector-wise imbalances in e-Shram registrations so far

Since the launch of e-Shram, 24% of an expected 380 million unorganised sector workers were registered by November 25, 2021, but some states have registered more workers than others. Nearly one in four registrations were reported in West Bengal (23%), followed by Uttar Pradesh (19%), Odisha (13%), and Bihar (11%). All four have reported a higher share of total registrations than their share of the total workforce aged 15-59 years, per our analysis of state-wise worker population for 2021 and the Periodic Labour Force Survey 2019-20 annual report. The rest of the states have registered less than 2% of their total workforce aged 15-59 years, on average.

The registration system does not appear to be based on inputs from states, many of which had already evolved registration systems of their own, said Srivastava. "I feel that rural areas are registering more than urban areas, especially from those parts which are the source of migration," said Gajera.

By November 25, around 53% of workers registered were from the agriculture sector, followed by workers in the manufacturing sector (13%) and construction workers (12%). Agriculture, construction and manufacturing are the three largest employers, respectively, per PLFS 2019-20. A significant proportion of household workers have been registered on e-Shram to date. However, registration of workers in all other sectors, besides health workers, lagged their sector's share of the total workforce, so far.

The pace of registrations needs to pick up, K.R. Shyam Sundar, professor at the Xavier School of Management, Jamshedpur, told IndiaSpend. "Agriculture has the most number of workers so the registration will be high for those working in agriculture. The government should step up registration drives to encourage workers to register, who may otherwise lose a day's wage when they come to register," he said.

Less than 3% of e-Shram registrations by early November were by migrant workers

Over 97% of registered workers had reported that they were not migrants, per e-Shram portal data as of November 7, with only 2.25% describing themselves as migrant workers. "The registration system was mandated by the Supreme Court judgment which was aimed at registering circulatory migrants, but the e-Shram portal captures migration data if the migrant is a semi-permanent migrant and is confined to one vocation only," said Srivastava.

In March 2020, in response to a query about whether it has data on numbers of interstate migrant workers in India, the government told Parliament that while "it is not feasible to keep record of such migration", the size of the workforce per Census 2011 was 482 million people and based on extrapolation, this figure would have exceeded 500 million in 2016. "If the share of migrants in the workforce is estimated to be even 20%, the size of the migrant workforce can be estimated to be over 100 million (10 crores) in 2016 in absolute terms," the government response added. The Supreme Court in its June 2021 judgment said migrant workers form more than a quarter of India's population. Per the last available e-Shram data on registered workers who were migrants, not even 3 million of the over 92.5 million registered were migrant workers.

Data on the proportion of registered workers who are migrants, however, are no longer visible on the e-Shram portal.

Experts ascribe technical difficulties and lack of awareness as reasons behind low registrations of migrants. During registrations, the default setting says 'No' for the question on migration status, and if the worker is a migrant, they will have to give two addresses: address of source state, where they work and current residence address, said Gajera. "This could be a reason for more non-migrant registration that is reflected on the database. It also requires pin code which workers do not remember.

Another reason could be that most workers enrolled are in agriculture and those workers in migration-prone occupations [construction, domestic workers] may have not yet been adequately captured, said Sundar. Many migrant workers are not proactively registering because it has not been incentivised or they may not have enough awareness, he added.

IndiaSpend has asked the labour ministry whether data on migrant status of workers are still being collected while registering on the e-Shram portal, and whether these data would be publicly available on the dashboard again. We will update the story when they respond.

No clarity on social security benefits that will come with registration

Experts feel that the exercise is focusing on creating a database and not focusing on worker entitlements and social security, which is the objective of the portal. "Worker registration would mean that they are registered under a specific labour act​ to provide statutory access to social security," said Kaushal.

While registration on the National Database of Unorganised Workers [NDUW/e-Shram] is voluntary on demand, "in order to avail any social security benefit under the code on social security, one is required to be registered on the NDUW portal," the Ministry of Labour and Employment told the Lok Sabha Standing Committee on Labour in August 2021.

The government has decided to provide accidental insurance cover for "two years" and thereafter, "on the basis of registration and feedbacks, if required the Central Government may decide extending the benefits and coverage", the government had said. Presently, registered workers are entitled to receive free accidental insurance under PM Suraksha Bima Yojana for one year which includes Rs 2 lakh in case of accidental death and permanent disability and Rs 1 lakh for partial disability. No other social security scheme has been specified on e-Shram.

Rathod and Rashid said that they were not sure about the benefits other than the insurance, but were hoping to receive support through the registrations if an event like another Covid-19 lockdown were to occur.

The concern is that e-Shram only provides free accidental insurance for a year and many migrant workers do not have Jan Dhan (basic savings bank deposit) accounts either, said Benoy Peter, executive director, Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID), a non-profit. "There is a possibility that if cash is transferred through various schemes, it may get debited for paying dues or bank charges."

"Data entered during e-Shram registration is not aligned to workers' eligibility to social security, which may be defined from time to time under the social security code. At the moment, the social security code [which is yet to be notified] does not provide any blueprint or time frame towards universal social security for informal sector workers," said Srivastava. A dedicated funding mechanism is only envisaged for gig and platform workers and since no funding mechanism is envisaged at present and clear-cut eligibility for schemes is not laid out, the registration of workers by itself cannot lead to basic entitlements, he added.

IndiaSpend has asked senior officials from the labour ministry what benefits and entitlements will be available to workers through registration on the e-Shram portal, and how these will be transferred. We will update the story when we receive a response.

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