G. Prabhakaran & K. Santhosh
Implementation of the Inter-State Migrant Labour Act, 1979 is at best tardy Over the last few decades, Kerala has witnessed an inward migration of skilled and semi-skilled workers from States as far as Bihar, West Bengal and Orissa to perform either specialised jobs such as jewellery-making or jobs that have no takers in the State. This phenomenon of job migration is bringing with it a host of problems as well.
G. Prabhakaran &
When two road construction workers from Bihar, brought to Kerala by labour suppliers to a major builder group, died in Thiruvananthapuram a year ago, it brought into focus, perhaps for the first time in recent years, the plight of migrant workers in Kerala and the myriad problems that the phenomenon of `job migration' has thrown up in the State. The tragic death of the two workers or the high profile coverage it got in the media has done little to improve the lot of the migrant labourers, if the experiences of workers from different districts are anything to go by.
Although the State Government has begun to clamp down on the exploitative practices of employers and labour contractors, the problem appears to be gaining intractable dimensions with each passing day. Under-reporting of workers is rampant and there are unconfirmed, but largely credible, reports about workers being exploited by employers who sometimes even go to the extent of virtually imprisoning the migrant labourers at their workplaces.
The eight-hour work schedule has little relevance for the migrant labourers in many a case 12-hour work cycle is the norm. Recently, a migrant worker employed by a steel rolling mill in Palakkad died and the Labour Department had to intervene to ensure that he is paid compensation under the Workmen's Compensation Act. But such instances are few. In most cases, there is very little that the authorities can do as the migrant labourers are kept and made to do grinding labour beyond the pale of law.
No data on them
The migrant labourers, employed in large numbers in Palakkad district, are the most marginalised and exploited sections of the workforce. Government agencies have no data of their presence in various sectors of industry, agriculture and plantations. Implementation of the Inter-State Migrant Labour (Control of Labour and Service Conditions) Act, 1979 is at best tardy. In steel smelting and re-rolling units, mainly concentrated in the Kanjikode industrial belt of the district, a large number of workers from Orissa, Bihar are Uttar Pradesh are engaged in hard labour in poor working conditions without any minimum wage or security. District-level officials of the Labour Department admit that so far they could identify only 1,463 workers in the steel units though approximately 5,000 of them work in the nearly 40 steel re-rolling units in Kanjikode alone.
In neighbouring Thrissur, nearly half of the 40,000-odd artisans engaged in making gold ornaments are from outside the State, most of them from West Bengal and Bihar and some from Mumbai. Artisans based in Thrissur craft nearly half of the 1,000 kg of jewellery sold in the State every day and jewellers have brought down workers from West Bengal and Bihar on account of an increasing demand for non-Kerala patterns and motifs. "There is a huge demand in West Asian countries for ornaments made in Thrissur," says Rafi Antony, a jeweller. Adds Kuriappan K. Erinjery, State treasurer of the Jewellery Manufacturers' Association: "To compete with branded jewellery, we are forced to produce similar patterns."
There are more than 500 contract workers from West Bengal in some units. These units are mostly located in and around Cherpu, Ollur, Kunnamkulam and Irinjalakuda. Working conditions in these units and wages are just about unknown to the outside world. Low pay, long hours and substandard accommodation are being alleged. There are reports of exploitative employers and sub-contractors making illegal wage deductions.
Lack of awareness
Highly skilled migrant workers reportedly earn between Rs.2,000 and Rs.8,000. The less skilled earn little. According to the District Labour Office, these workers have not been registered under the Inter-State Migrant Workers Act, though the Act is applicable to "every establishment in which five or more inter-State migrant workmen are employed".
Lack of awareness about labour rules and regulation and fear of employers prevent migrant workers from providing true information about their living and working conditions. Though they have not been registered under the ISM Act, migrant workers in the Thrissur jewellery units are covered by labour laws stipulated by the Factories Act, 1948. Factory inspectors, however, say that finding a real picture of the working conditions of these units is difficult. "Information provided by employers and workers is mostly incorrect. The workers are not allowed to mingle with the public. Security at the units will put that at prisons to shame," a Labour Department official said. Some jewellers are too cautious after gold was reported missing from their units. In one such recent case, the Thrissur police went all the way to Bengal to arrest the accused.
The condition of the migrant workers employed by steel rolling mills in Palakkad is worse. Minimum wages have not been enforced in the steel industry in the State. Nor are they provided the necessary security or even dress and other equipment to protect from the 3,000 degrees C temperature of the steel smelting furnaces. Deaths do not get reported and the next of kin of victims seldom get compensation. In the event of accidents, the workers are sent back home with a paltry sum for their treatment.
In other sectors
Migrant workers are also employed in tile and brick manufacturing units as well. Most of these workers are from Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh. Their employers do not consider them as their workers as they are brought by labour contractors. Apart from the industrial sector, there are large numbers of migratory workers employed in agriculture, construction and the plantation sectors. Most of them are seasonal workers, but some of them stay back here. There are migrant labour settlements in areas such as Kallekkad, Kalmandapam, Sundaram Colony near Palakkad town. Some of them have ration cards and have also got enrolled in the voters' list as well.
Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam and Kozhikode too have a heavy presence of migrant labourers. In the cities, their presence is most noticeable in the construction sector and in jobs such as ironing of clothes, sale of carpets and other goods and several vocations considered menial by the average Malayali. Prakash Oliver, Additional Labour Commissioner and Nodal Officer for migrant workers' welfare, said raids are being conducted frequently in industrial units and labour camps to detect exploitative practices and ensure the welfare of the migrant workers.
A series of seminars are being organised in Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Alappuzha, Palakkad and Kasaragod districts to sensitise the migrant workers about their rights, he said.
But the problem appears much too big for the Labour Department alone to handle. There will have to be a joint effort by the Departments of Labour, Industries, Factories and Boilers, Revenue and Police to get all the migrant workers registered and ensure that they get the benefits they are eligible for under the Inter-State Migrant Labour Act.
(With inputs from C. Gouridasan Nair)