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Migrants being screened as they arrive at Aluva station, Kerala. Image Credit: ANI

Thiruvananthapuram: One video that trended on social media in Kerala recently was that of hundreds of workers from other states getting off a train at the Aluva railway station in the outskirts of the state’s commercial capital, Kochi.

Keralites are only too aware of the presence of tens of thousands of workers from outside the state over the past two decades. The video only refreshed and reinforced the seemingly unending trend in the state of workers from northern states, particularly the eastern and north-eastern states, forming the bulk of Kerala’s blue collar workforce.

Migrants’ own country

What began as a trickle about two decades ago, has ballooned into an unstoppable flow of workers into the state, presently estimated to be around 3 million plus. In other words, the number of workers from outside is inching towards a tenth of Kerala’s population of roughly 35 million.


migrants from various parts of India currently work in Kerala.

The reason for such large inflows of workers into the state is seen as a result of high cost of manual labour in Kerala. Daily wages in Kerala are far higher than those in northern states, which makes Kerala a magnet for tens of thousands of workers.

For comparison, this month the Odisha government hiked daily wages of unskilled workers from Rs 315 to Rs 326, semi-skilled workers from Rs 335 to Rs 366, skilled from Rs 405 to Rs 416 and highly skilled workers from Rs 465 to Rs 476. In stark contrast, in Kerala even unskilled workers get paid upwards of Rs 500 per day, going up to Rs 1,000 and more for certain skilled jobs.

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Migrant workers in Kerala come from states such as Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Outnumbered at home

A study sponsored by the Kerala State Planning Board and released last year put the number of migrants from other states at 3.14 million in 2017-18, and estimated that the workforce from outside and their families would likely cross 4.5 million in 2025 and inch towards 6 million by 2030, going by the current rate of immigration.

For a state like Kerala whose population is seen to be plateauing, that would mean the workforce from outside will be nearly a fifth of the population, and migrants would outnumber the younger population of the state.

Rs 500

is the minimum amount an unskilled worker earns per day in Kerala.

The likelihood of Kerala’s local population increasing is highly unlikely given the state’s falling fertility levels. The total fertility rate per woman in Kerala was 4.1 children in 1971, which has currently fallen to below 2 children, or below replacement level.

Outmigration issue

Within India, Kerala is also unique for the large number of outmigrants from the state. Roughly 3 million Keralites are estimated to be working in the Gulf countries, another 2 million in the rest of the world and about 5 million in other states of India, adding up to about 10 million Keralites working and living outside the state.

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Migrants arrive at Thiruvananthapuram railway station to board the train to their respective states. Image Credit: ANI

Such a large vacuum created by significant numbers of educated young men and women exiting the state for studies or work would naturally lead to demographic issues that Kerala is currently facing.

The shortage of hands has led to a steep rise in labour costs in Kerala, where local workers who mostly have higher educational qualifications than is required for the jobs they handle demand high wages. The past two decades have thus seen an immigration of workers from other states, mostly from Bengal, Assam, Odisha and Jharkhand. Their numbers have swelled so much in some pockets like Perumbavur that there are bus boards in Hindi, and shopkeepers across the state have begun speaking to their customers from outside the state in broken Hindi.

High-wage logic

Unlike popular perception of high wages being the norm across workplaces in Kerala, the fact is that remuneration for executive jobs in the state are comparable to those in other states. In many cases, given that Kerala has only a few large corporates, private sector jobs in Kerala earn modest remunerations.

It is therefore in the lower rungs of labour that there exists a worker shortage and a high wage prevalence.

“Keralites have to only work for four and a half days in some countries to make more money than they earn working a full week here. And it even gives them some savings”, Asheen Panakkat, managing director of Nanma Properties, a real estate firm of Kochi-based Meeran group told Gulf News, about why Keralites prefer to work abroad, thereby making labour in the state dear.

Ashok Mani, CEO of Intergrow Brands which owns brands like Kitchen Treasures and Sprig, says much of the reason for high wages in the non-executive worker category in Kerala has to do with the strict adherence to the labour laws.

“Labour laws are strictly implemented in the state and there is high awareness among labour about their rights”, Mani told Gulf News.

Not ready for peanuts

With their traditional exposure to jobs abroad and their awareness about opportunities in other countries gleaned from NRI family members, Keralites prefer to work abroad for big money, leaving blue collar jobs to workers from other states. The latter are happy, earning anything between Rs 450 – Rs 900 a day, compared to the daily wage of about Rs 300 in many eastern Indian states.

So the inbound traffic of workers into Kerala from other states continues unabated, who take up jobs from road work to welding to painting and working on the farms.

A recent troll sums up the situation in Kerala: The Keralite says there’s no work at home; the migrant worker says there’s so much work that he can’t go home.