Kerala, a migrant’s mirage or haven?
Over the years, migrant labourers have become an integral part of industrial areana of Kerala; especially the construction sector. Majority of them have come to the state hoping to make a better living and escape their poor circumstances back home.
Recently, two migrants from Andhra Pradesh, Narasimham and Bhaskar Rao, who would have otherwise led obscure lives in the state, made it to the media headlines. They would not have bargained for the attention because the two are dead, after being suffocated to their life’s ends in a manhole near Palayam in Kozhikode. The deaths would have passed off with a nominal mention in the media, had not a Keralite died trying to save them. The social and political controversy that the incident raked up also put these two in the limelight.
Kerala, quite unexpectedly, is now in a dilemma after having a chance to stop, look and ponder at the plight of the scores of faceless migrants who land up in the state in search of better opportunities, and dealing with a few deviant ones who have even committed murders in the state.
The local population is concerned over the inflow of migrant labourers into the state for the latter’s involvement in incidents of crime. The state, which welcomed the migrants from Bengal and the northeastern states with open arms, has eventually adopted a cautious approach.
Despite the lingering apprehension, the employers in Kerala depend on them owing to dearth of local employees. The call for measures to ensure security is growing louder with politicians joining the debate.
City of three 'C's and the migrant sea
Migrant labourers pour into Thalassery from different parts including West Bengal, Tripura, Assam and Maharashtra. Walk through the streets and you could find migrant labourers in every nook and corner of the city. It is the lure of pay that brings workers to Kerala in hoards. The flow of migrants has become so organised that many are brought to Kerala by labour contractors, a system that reeks of exploitation. A boy from Kolkotta has been working as a ‘shawarma’ maker for over five years because he gets more pay than what he can expect in his home state. In the construction sector, labourers are paid at least Rs400 a day, which is accepted with glee by them. At the same time, a local worker charges Rs 800-900. The shacks of the migrants are nothing to write home about, while our workers are often supported by the government’s housing and rehabilitation programmes.
Assamese feel insecure at home
While majority of the migrant workers have the same old story of better wages in Kerala, Assamese have another, perhaps more important reason; insecurity at home.
According to these workers, their biggest chance for employment is at tea estates in Assam. However, in the estates, their rights are curbed and they often have to work as slaves.
In Kerala, they experience a sea change in working conditions and employer attitude.
Many people working in a famous Matchbox Company at Thalassery are from Assam. Babu from Jashpur in Assam reached Kerala almost eight years back. As an unskilled labourer, he was completely ignorant about working in a matchbox-making firm. He soon picked up the trade and became an expert worker. He has helped many of his natives to get jobs in the same industry and the number of Assamese has increased.
Babu says, “We have no such big companies in Assam. Job-hunting is a difficult task in our native place. Our parents are concerned about Maoists who are trying hard to spread their operations in the state by recruiting local youth. They have already started penetrating interior areas of the state. Parents are really concerned because Maoist leaders are forcing them to hand over their children with promises of food and better life. This is highly disturbing and very small children are being recruited by Maoists in rural areas and the government is not doing anything for us. My father was a cancer patient and died. Mother also has health issues. I need to take care of my family. My wife and child are staying here in Kerala. Here we get better wages and accommodation.”
Wasim Gogoi, another worker from Assam, says, “I am getting Rs 6000 as monthly salary here in matchbox industry. In my native place, we don't have electricity, no job security and the benefits we are getting here.”
Migrant workers in the hotel industry
Migrant workers are slowly replacing Kerala cooks and have become adept at making the local fare. While the quality of the food they make is suspect, they seem to have created a niche for themselves in the food industry.
According to hotel owners, Keralites are not interested in such jobs. Employees from Wayanad and Kasargod stay hardly for six to eight months and then leave for the Gulf countries in search of better jobs.
Even though Kerala is increasingly dependent on migrant labourers, the facilities offered to them are often bad, bringing in an element of exploitation. While employers reiterate that migrant labourers are provided reasonable pay and decent accommodation, reality could be far from what is claimed. In many places, construction workers sleep in shacks at worksites. Toilet facilities are minimal and they are not provided enough food and clean drinking water. Since they do not demand better living facilities, employers take that as an opportunity to exploit them and extract more work with lesser expenditure.
An employer said, “All my workers earn around Rs 6,000 per month. They used to get not more than Rs 100 per day in their state. Beside payment, we have provided them food and lodging facilities. I also heard that employers are giving cheaper wages to migrants compared to locals. But I have been giving uniform pay to my workers. They are willing to work harder and devote longer hours. They have no trade unions too.”
It becomes evident that the migrant community is unfortunately very vulnerable to exploitation because of their plight, lack of awareness and their willingness to compromise for a comparatively better life. They face the possibility of being sidelined by a group of employers who see them as mere slaves who would not stand up for their rights.
While the state was, and is, a haven for migrants, Keralites seem to have become hostile to migrants and attitudes have changed, which could precipitate hostility and crime between migrants and the locals- a situation that could go out of hand if effective controls are not taken now. This is perhaps what has led to the call for more secure measures such as identity cards, social profiling and even the creation of an id database for migrants.
The case of a few bad apples
Kozhikode District police chief P A Valsan IPS says “Currently we can't implement strict laws on migrant worker's identity cards. It is not at all practical to collect the details and particulars of each worker as they are scattered everywhere. How can we prepare a separate record of every migrant labourer in state? Maoist presence and organisational activities in Assam are already confirmed. We also agree that those people not leading a secured life in their native. Meanwhile, crime rates involving migrant workers are increasing in Kerala. But we can't do anything on this crisis. Government should take proper measures to control inflow of migrant workers. Otherwise, Aadhar cards should be made mandatory for each and every worker. Until then we can't restrict them from coming to Kerala for better living conditions.”
Kerala cannot do without migrants and in almost all parts of the state, they dominate the work force. While most of them get better living conditions, are they any better here than in their homeland? Conversely, are we under a threat from them? While Kerala has became a thriving job market for workers hailing from Assam, West Bengal and other states, the fact also hold true that the story of migrants follows a script replete with opportunities, exploitation, sacrifices, gains and hope; a perfect plot that has much in similarity to the stories of states and cities that have already built their edifices on the lives, contributions and atrocities of migrant labourers. Kerala perhaps is treading the same path to so-called progress at the cost of thousands of lives and their emotions on both sides of the cultural divide. As a state with better-than-average human values and humane sensibilities, can we afford it?