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Red carpet for ‘guest workers’

Kerala’s humane treatment of migrant labourers went a long way in assuaging their feeling of insecurity

A few days into the lockdown, the Kerala government decided to call migrant workers Adithi Thozhilalikal, or guest workers, captivating the public imagination. The local media immediately followed up and popularised its usage.

The Sanskrit-origin Adithi (with its cultural and spiritual connotations), at once, gave a subtle message to bureaucrats, health workers, local self-governments and the public. Most important, the expressive term conveyed an intimate impression to those workers that they are not alone in the time of hardship. Community kitchens exclusively catering to guest workers were set up by volunteer organisations and contributions poured in. Packets of cooked food in addition to grocery kits were distributed. The police and health workers visited migrant camps and ensured their welfare. And soon, "caring for the Adithi" acquired the dimension of a little movement, despite the lockdown.

The other day, I was on my early-morning walking trail again, after a couple of months. I saw groups of masked workers from other States heading for their work sites, as economic activates resumed and some semblance of normalcy returned. By an estimate, Kerala has some 25 lakh guest workers and in spite of the availability of Shramik special trains, it seems that a large number of them preferred to stay put.

Getting back to the comfort, support, and safety of home and loved ones in the time of distress is a natural human tendency; and who knows the struggles and trauma of an emigrant better than Keralites who form a sizeable chunk of the Indian diaspora.

Unfortunately, the outsider vs insider question also raises its ugly head, in the middle of uncertainties, especially when resources are limited and no society is immune to such weaknesses. Who should get the first help and who should be shown the priority is indeed a tricky question to answer in such circumstances. Values get diluted and humaneness tends to disappear in crunch situations when it is almost impossible to attend all in the queue, equally. Soon after the new phrase guest worker was created, hate messages started flying on social media indicting the authorities for showing extra care to the migrants at the cost and neglect of the local people. Vicious ‘trolls’ suggested most of these workers are illegal Bangladeshis who have no home to go back. WhatsApp groups shared unverified pictures of migrants throwing food away even as the local people went hungry.

Then it was an occasion for traditional media to stand firm and successfully counter this onslaught on social media. The AIR local station regularly broadcast voice clips of Malayali expatriates, sent from Japan to Germany, expressing their gratitude for being looked after well.

The salute to the ‘guest worker’ certainly played a vital role in reassuring the workers and now as we limp back to the usual state of things, Kerala obviously doesn’t undergo a labour shortage.

History sadly used impolite or even derogatory terms such as slaves, bonded labourers, and low castes to represent manual workers. Our monuments and wonders from the Taj Mahal to the Pyramids tell the tale of blood and sweat of hard labour. It’s doubtful if technology can ever completely substitute human labour. It is no secret that the Chinese sweat-shops built the country’s economy and helped it to become the manufacturing hub of the world. So it is time we recognise and respect the importance and triumph of labour.

harichitrakootam@yahoo.com

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 7:05:40 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/red-carpet-for-guest-workers/article31766236.ece

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