It may no longer be just anecdotal that every third person in Kerala is a migrant worker from outside the State. Along with Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, Kerala is experiencing a massive influx of migrant workers into its emerging urban areas and its hinterland. High wages, and the shortage of skilled and unskilled labour due to high education levels and migration from the State to West Asian countries, make Kerala an attractive destination for workers from north, central and north-eastern India. Unofficial estimates put the number of migrant labourers in Kerala at 1.3 million, and it is estimated that the State’s migrant population will touch the 2.5 million mark in a decade. It is a veritable second wave, after the first one that made the ‘Green Revolution’ possible. The southern States must put in place effective mechanisms to ensure the welfare of migrant workers, and given the possibility of many of them settling down in their adopted homes, assist them in integration with the local communities. Kerala, for one, has set the ball rolling by beginning work on a piece of legislation specifically focused on migrant workers. Tentatively titled the Kerala Migrant Workers (Conditions of Service and Compulsory Registration) Social Security Bill, the proposed law could turn out to be yet another model from the State for the rest of the country if handled sensitively and imaginatively.
When Malayalis migrated to various parts of Asia and Africa during the days of the British Empire, they were in the forefront of struggles for workers’ rights. Today, Kerala legislators need to focus their efforts on creating not just another law, but one that would give substantive citizenship to the migrant labourers, and empower them to live with honour among their hosts. A large influx of outsiders does cause some worries to the local populace, some of which may be valid. However, if the initiative for a new law, which is to include registration, is driven purely by suspicion of outsiders, either as a threat to law and order, or even more astonishingly, as potential disease carriers, it could only contribute to reinforcing the sense of insecurity that migrants from afar often experience. At a broader level, there should be an effort to create dialogue mechanisms between host States and the home States of migrant workers. But this too may not be enough. Given the inter-State dimensions of labour migration, it might be advisable to have a revamped Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act. This law came into being in 1979, and needs to take into account the new economic realities in the country. A pan-Indian law might help protect the interests of the migrant workers better while addressing the concerns of the host societies too.