Migrant workers in Kerala come from states such as Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and Tamil Nadu Image Credit: @CMID/Savanan

At 7am the busy township of Perumbavoor in the South Indian state of Kerala is buzzing. The grinding traffic and teeming hundreds impatiently waiting for their morning commute is typical of the industrial hub famous for its plywood industries and manufacturing units.

But inch closer and the multilingual cacophony you hear from the crowd is what defines the migration crisis that’s steadily and uncomfortably gripping the state.

For more than a decade, hundreds and thousands of migrant workers have been pouring into Kerala from states such as West Bengal, Assam, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. And Perumbavoor is reported to have the highest concentration — more than 150,000 — of migrant workers in the state. The rest of the estimated three to four million are spread in other districts such as Palakkad, Kozhikode, Kottayam, Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam.

New brand of labour force

Everywhere, the Hindi speaking (or Bengali, Assamese, Odiya, Tamil or any of the Northeastern dialects for that matter) and paan-chewing “bhai” has become the new brand of Kerala’s labour force. The politically astute, ferociously negotiating and Malayalam-speaking native working class has long been replaced by non-Keralite workers in industrial strongholds, metro cities, at big and small manufacturing units, construction sites, brick kilns, five-star hotels, restaurants, shops, etc.

 

A communist state with few blue-collar workers

It may sound rather ironic that the state that had the first democratically elected communist government in India and still a powerhouse of trade union politics is left with very few native blue-collar workers — many left in search of greener pastures in the Gulf countries.

So, it’s even more ironic when you hear the statement: “If expats from Kerala call it quits one day, the Gulf countries will grind to a screeching halt.” This pompous sentiment is shared by the more than 2.5 million migrants from Kerala in the Gulf. What they perhaps don’t realise is that a similar sentiment applies to their home state as well.

Today Keralites are at the mercy of migrant workers like never before. With remittance flow from the Gulf bringing in good money, the literate Malayali has turned his back on blue-collar jobs — that gap is being filled by migrant workers from other states, for whom Kerala is their “Gulf”.

“My life has changed for better ever since I came here five years ago,” says Rashidul Haq, a 24-year-old from Guwahati, Assam, who works in a restaurant in Perumbavoor. “I have eight siblings, and my father could hardly feed the family. Here I earn close to Rs30,000 [Dh1,653] a month. I wouldn’t have made even half this sum back home.”

Satheesh Pandey from Ballia in Uttar Pradesh earns Rs9,000 a month as a steel cutter at a factory in Kanjikode, Palakkad. For him, this is “good money”. “There were no jobs in my village. But now I am earning well and going to get married soon,” he says.

 

Takeover of traditional industries

Even in the state’s traditional sectors such as fishing and cashew production, migrant workers have become indispensable.

At the famous Neendakara fishing harbour near Kollam, there are hardly any native fishermen. “For every Malayali fisherman working here, there are eight or nine migrant workers,” says Solomon, a fishing boat owner.

Were it not for migrant workers, the more than 3,000 fishing boats at the harbour would just lie idle, he says. “Even in our traditional occupation such as fishing, Malayalis are not interested. They would rather do some office job.”

Things are no different in the verdant paddy fields of Palakkad, known as the rice bowl of Kerala, where a big chunk of workers is non-native.

 

Surging numbers

According to a study by the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation in 2013, the migrant labour force in Kerala sends home Rs175 billion annually.

On the spending power of migrants, CMID (Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development), an independent non-profit think-tank devoted to migration and inclusive development, estimates that migrant workers splurge to the tune of Rs600 million every month in Perumbavoor alone.

Benoy Peter, the director of CMID, says while migration has been happening for decades, the issue has become a talking point in recent years due to the surge in numbers. “New migration routes have opened, connecting Kerala with the North and Northeastern states. Every week dozens of trains carrying new migrants come to Kerala, and the influx will continue unabated as improved networking among them attracts more to the state.”

Documenting the numbers is a challenge as many keep moving from one place to another, he says. “There is also a considerable number of undocumented workers from Bangladesh and authorities find it logistically challenging to repatriate them.”

However, the Kerala government has announced a data bank plan to register migrant workers in the state starting this financial year. Labour minister T.P. Ramakrishnan says only 53,000 workers have been registered under the Kerala Migrant Workers Welfare Scheme, 2010.

 

Not all is fine

Though migrant workers are enamoured by Kerala’s improved healthcare facilities, access to clean drinking water and sanitation, and better wages, the government’s treatment of migrant workers leaves much to be desired.

The living and working conditions of most workers are deplorable and there are stark disparities in the wages of migrant and native workers. For example, if a Keralite is paid Rs600 a day in a manufacturing unit, a Bengali or Bihari earns less than Rs450 or Rs400 for the same job. Similarly, if a migrant construction worker earns Rs550 per day, a local worker makes Rs800.

Workers interviewed by Weekend Review say they often work 12 to 14 hours a day without any overtime benefits. But the mostly illiterate and docile migrants neither question nor complain. “I was living in a shack in my village in Assam. Here my employer has at least provided me a room and pays me on time,” says Sarath Bharuva, a mason.

Many employers merrily hire migrant workers because they are an unorganised workforce without any negotiating powers. As a plywood factory owner puts it, “The day they get organised, it will be a different ball game altogether.”

A visit to some of the workers’ accommodations across the state also reveals a rather depressing state of affairs for migrants in Kerala. The crammed and unhygienic living spaces in many factory premises reek of exploitation and government apathy. There are often 10 or 12 people sharing a small, congested room and there is little by way of sanitation facilities.

Construction workers live in make-shift shacks adjacent to the worksites and are steered from one place to another by contractors who mobilise the workforce for various infrastructure development projects.

 

Housing for migrants

In what is touted as a step towards improving the lot of migrant workers, the state government has launched the Apna Ghar (Our House) project to build accommodation for labourers. And the first such site — a five-storey accommodation meant for more than 700 workers — is under construction in Palakkad.

Vishu Narendran, programme director at CMID, says as experiments in other parts of the world show, such housing projects for workers will only lead to ghettoisation and cut off migrants from the mainstream. “We are very vocal about the rights of our migrant population working in the Gulf countries and elsewhere. So the onus is on our government to take a proactive steps to protect migrants in our own state,” says Narendran.

 

Healthcare challenges

Even in the healthcare sector, in which Kerala tops the Human Development Index, migrants are lagging behind.

Healthcare workers at the government general hospital in Perumbavoor say they are struggling to provide prenatal and maternity care for women migrant workers. “We have had several cases in which heavily pregnant women with no medical record are rushed to the hospital in a critical condition,” says Maya, a senior hospital staff.

“Communicating with them is in itself is a big challenge as many speak Hindi or dialects we don’t even understand. Most women do not have anyone with them, and we suspect some are not even 18 years old,” says a junior government health inspector.

NGOs working to bring healthcare access to migrant workers through targeted interventions at labour accommodations say many workers are at high risk of sexually transmitted diseases.

Sujeesh R, who works as a counsellor at Salvation Army’s Migration Suraksha Project says more than 70 per cent of migrant workers living in the industrial belt of Palakkad and the areas around the Walayar check post at the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border have access to sex workers and are at high risk.

“Through our medical camps, we screen 200 workers every month for HIV and 500 workers for sexually transmitted diseases,” says Dominique Edwin, project manager at Salvation Army.

 

Human beings first

Lately, the Kerala police have started a drive to register migrant workers, which is drawing the ire of the Kerala Migrant Workers Union.

Speaking to Weekend Review, union president Bobby Thomas says they are opposing the move because it is more for surveillance than welfare. “There is a collective effort by the government, the police and the media to brand all migrants as criminals. But if the government continues its apathy towards these workers who are deprived of even basic constitutional rights, it will lead to social unrest.”

Some of the key demands raised by the union is the establishment of a migrant labour welfare board, migrant-friendly labour officers, compulsory health insurance and ration card for migrant workers and a licensing system for employers who hire migrants. “Kerala needs a wake-up call to realise that migrant workers are the backbone of our economy — they form nearly 80 per cent of the workforce. We have to treat them as human beings first then as migrants,” says Thomas.

 

Feels like home

As Busu Nayak heads home after finishing his day’s work at Atsul Packers in Perumbavoor, Kerala, he stops at a nearby tea shop for chitchat and a bottle of milk. Other than his rustic features, there is nothing that sets this 50-plus man apart from his friends and colleagues. “Ithu ente naadu pole aayi (This has become like my own place),” said Nayak in almost flawless Malayalam.

After moving to Kerala in 1998 from Phulbani village in Odisha, the migrant worker says he feels very much at home here.

His wife Manjulatha followed him in 2008 when communal violence flared up in Odisha. She works as a cleaner at a private hospital and earns Rs6,000 [Dh333] a month. For the last three years, their two sons Leoton, 11 and Dibyojith, 15, have also been attending school in Kerala. Their two-room dwelling on the first floor of a building with coarse cemented walls is dotted with trophies the boys have won in school sports competitions. “We have never felt like outsiders here. This place has given us a decent life and I am not even thinking of leaving,” said Nayak.

Dibyojith says he likes it in Kerala. “The school is good and I have lots of friends.” Dibyojith has also learnt to speak and write in Malayalam.

There are hundreds of families like the Nayaks who are building a new life in Kerala. The children of migrant workers who are born and brought up in Kerala are bearers of a fusion of identities. The demographic shift is most visible at the Government UP School Kandanthara in Perumbavoor, where out of the 117 students, as many as 112 are children of migrant workers. The school even has a special teacher Akthar-ul-Islam to teach students in their native language. “Migrant students started coming in huge numbers since last three or four years. It was also partly because of our literacy drive when it came to our notice that most of these kids were locked up inside their rooms when parents went to work. We convinced them to send their children to school,” said headmaster Baby George.

But initially local parents were not happy and did not want their wards to mix with the migrant kids. “That was expected. But we made a consistent effort to fight the prejudices and bring them together through joint awareness sessions,” said the headmaster.

He said most kids are picking up Malayalam quickly. “The kids have a sense of belonging here, and we cannot call them outsiders anymore,” said George.