Kerala National

Migrants in the land of expatriates

Anyone who travels through the hinterlands of Kerala on a Sunday and misses the way is very likely to have a frustrating time getting the right coordinates. For, the only souls on the village roads would be domestic migrant workers in their ones and twos. The conversation can begin only after he pulls out the plugs of the earphone attached to a mobile phone and spits the pan masala, khaini, zarda or gutka. Often, the traveller would leave no wiser, even after a hard time trying to converse with the workers, who understand and speak only Hindi and have little familiarity with the terrain they have made their second home. But, in the farms, construction sites and big and small manufacturing units strewn across the State, these workers, an estimated 25 lakhs of them, are increasingly proving to be a major demographic asset to Kerala, filling a critical gap in the State’s labour market.

Kerala is today host to migrant workers from almost all the States in the country and Nepal, the largest proportion of them hailing from Bengal (around 20 per cent), Bihar (18 per cent), Asom (17 per cent) and Uttar Pradesh (15 per cent). The largest concentration of migrant workers is in the construction sector, which has been witnessing a boom over the past one decade and more. As much as 60 per cent of the migrant labourers are concentrated in this sector alone, with the rest working in farms, hotels and restaurants, shops and manufacturing units. “I have been working in the ‘hotel line’ for three years now. I earn Rs. 9,000 a month. I don’t have to worry about food as I work in a hotel and I send home around Rs. 5,000 every month, after paying rent and keeping some money for myself,” says Sanjay, hailing from Jalpaiguri in Bengal and working in a Thiruvananthapuram hotel.

High wage levels

Kerala’s key attraction as a destination of domestic migrant labourers is the high wage levels in the State as compared to the States of their origin. A construction worker from Asom, employed in the construction sector, says, “I have been here only for a little over one year now. I earn around Rs. 350-400 a day as a helper. I get the noon meal too.” He is one of the net beneficiaries of the labour scene in Kerala, marked by shortage of local labour and heavy outward migration by skilled and semi-skilled labourers, mainly to the Gulf countries. According to official estimates, the expatriate Malayali population earns in excess of Rs. 75,000 crore annually. The inward remittances have been fuelling demand for local labour, currently being met by the domestic migrant workers. Roughly a quarter of the earnings are flowing into the homes of the domestic migrant workers, as revealed by a study conducted by the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation (GIFT), an autonomous research institution under the State Finance Department, for the State Labour Department in 2013. The study, which is the only one of its kind done by any institution in the State so far, had put the total sum that the domestic migrant labourers send home annually at Rs. 17,500 crore, a figure that should hold good even now despite the slowdown in the construction sector over the past one year.

But life is not easy for the migrant labourers. Most live in groups, often seven or eight persons sharing a single room, and up to 40 or 50 a building, with little by way of toilet facilities. In many construction sites, the workers live in shacks and in the rural areas, they live mostly in semi-permanent tenements and huts, with bare minimum facilities. They cook, eat and sleep in open spaces and hygiene is at a premium in most such dwelling units. In many construction sites, they work for 12 to 14 hours a day, leaving them with little time for even cooking their own food. Many of the unskilled labourers keep moving from place to place, taking up day jobs as they move. Key among the places of migrant worker concentration are Perumbavoor in Ernakulam district, Paippad on the borders of Kottayam and Pathanamthitta districts, and Cheruvannur in Kozhikode, adding a new dimension to the local life and culture.

Rise in resentment

Despite the critical role they play in Kerala’s labour scene, life is becoming increasingly difficult for the migrant workers. In what is clearly ironic about Malayalis, who are known for their migratory instincts with all its physical and emotional challenges, there is a tide of resentment building up against the migrant labourers. The migrant labourer is increasingly being viewed as the ‘other’ and, with the media ready to find a migrant labourer as the prime culprit in major and minor instances of crime, tension is building up in areas of migrant labour concentration. Not that there have not been isolated instances of migrant labourers being involved in criminal acts, but it is nowhere significant, nor does it display any pattern given the large number of migrants who live and work in Kerala. But the clamour for virtual profiling of the migrant labourers is getting increasingly louder.

An area of some genuine concern is the morbidity pattern among the migrant workers and the still to be validated fear that they could become carriers of infectious diseases. The health hazards posed by the pathetic hygienic conditions in which they live have evoked disgust and resentment among the local population. In 2013, this resentment took a violent turn at Paippad when disposal of night soil on a public road by the workers triggered a violent reaction from the local community. Inspections conducted by the health authorities in different parts of the State had revealed that condition of the sites where the migrant labourers lived was depressing. A second study conducted by GIFT, in association with the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), has called for creation of a web-enabled comprehensive data base and tweaking of the present migrant worker registration mechanism to place emphasis on welfare rather than profiling, greater coordination between the State and the local government institutions, creation of labour help desks to prevent exploitation and outreach and inspections to safeguard the health status of the migrant workers.

The migrants’ story is still one in the making in Kerala, which survives on the blood and sweat of its large expatriate population.


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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 1:37:13 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala-migrants-in-the-land-of-expatriates/article10327612.ece

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