Keralites call them ‘bhais’ (brothers), regardless of their State of origin, faith or caste. Their names do not matter, except when they apply for a mobile phone connection.

They mostly arrive by the Guwahati Express, the Howrah Express or the Shalimar Express and work a wide spectrum of jobs across the State. They are unassertive, reluctant to mix with locals and live in overcrowded houses and labour camps. Mobile phones that play film songs and ‘paan’ are their main weaknesses.

“The migrants work hard and we pay them decent wages; the rest, well, is up to them.” This is the average Keralite’s attitude to the numerous workers from Assam, Orissa, West Bengal, Nagaland, Manipur and other north-eastern States. Perhaps, for the migrant workers, there is a sense of safety and comfort in this inspired indifference.

When north-eastern people, fearing for their lives, fled from other southern States this week, those in Kerala stayed calm. Social workers and trade union activists working among the migrants say they have not noticed any unusual movement of labourers in the past few days. The railways and long-distance tour operators reported no uptrend in demand, except from a few Muslim workers of West Bengal and Bengali-speaking Muslims of Assam returning home for the Eid festival.

Father Martin Puthussery of Migrant Workers Movement thinks the migrants in Kerala, being mostly unskilled and illiterate, are not exposed to rumour-spreading social media. “Those who fled Bangalore and other cities were mainly educated people, professionals and students who have access to Facebook and Twitter and to SMS in English.”

Fr. Puthussery recalled that during the Kerala-Tamil Nadu standoff over the Mullaperiyar dam last year, a few migrant workers in the Kochi region had left, fearing they would be washed off in case the dam burst. But, all of them returned in three months.

Kerala’s tradition of tolerance and harmonious existence of Hindus, Muslims and Christians give a sense of security to people from other States. No Sikh was attacked in Kerala in the aftermath of the Indira Gandhi assassination; no Hindu or Muslim was killed after the Babri Masjid demolition. Muslims fleeing Gujarat after the anti-Muslim pogrom and Christians leaving Kandhamal in Orissa in the wake of the anti-Christian violence found refuge in Kerala.

Martin Patrick, a former Economics professor, who recently concluded a two-year study of the unorganised labour sector, estimates that there are “five to six lakh” north-eastern migrants working in Kerala, a majority of them unskilled and uneducated. They prefer Kerala because of high wages (around Rs. 400 a day), better employer-employee relations, peaceful social life and better living conditions.

Dr. Patrick says that compared with other southern States, Kerala has a ‘migrant-labour-friendly’ environment. “In towns such as Perumbavur, with many such workers, there are restaurants and movie theatres catering to them and shops that sell CDS of Odia and Bengali movies.” And, in some central Kerala churches, Sunday prayer is offered in Odia and Bengali.

Kerala’s progress

in social development has raised the comfort level for workers from other States