Bargaining over corpses: Funeral agencies in Kerala profit from dead migrant workers

Families of many migrant workers are not able to afford the exorbitant fees quoted by funeral service agencies to transport the bodies back, which goes up to Rs 1 lakh.
Migrant labourers
Migrant labourers
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Subhash Kumar Singh, 25, lay in a mortuary in Palakkad, Kerala, for three days after his death on December 13. The agency assigned to transport his body back home bargained over the charges of sending his body from the Cochin International Airport to his home state of Bihar, even as his bereaved family waited in their village.

Subhash came from an economically disadvantaged background and had to start working at a young age. In Kerala, he was employed at a plywood company. After he passed away, Byju T Elias, his employer, made arrangements to transport his body to Patna. But when the body was brought to the airport after post-mortem, embalming, and with all required certificates, a private funeral service agency which was to transport Subhash asked Byju to pay Rs 37,000 upfront. Byju couldn’t raise the amount immediately and offered to complete the payment the next day.

“When one of the men I had employed died some time back, I had called a person named Dennis from Ernakulam. I only paid a small amount to get some paperwork done. Dennis got the rest of the money from the Labour Department. So I paid for the post-mortem and paperwork when Subhash died too. But this time, they were bargaining for more money while the dead body was lying right in front of us,” Byju K Alias said.

The agency was adamant about the full amount and left the body in the airport. Byju managed to shift Subhash’s body to a nearby hospital freezer. Fortunately, some activists working for the welfare of the migrant workers in the state got involved and intimated the Labour Department about Subhash’s case. Following this, on December 16, the body was taken to Patna by the same agency for a lower cost. Their charges were borne by the Labour Department, which also has a Kerala Migrant Workers Welfare Scheme under which the government can allocate up to a certain amount for embalming and transporting migrant workers’ bodies back home.

There are many such cases in Kerala, a state where 7% of the population comprises migrant workers. A report by Kerala Planning Commission last year noted that there were over 25 lakh migrant workers from other Indian states, Bangladesh, and Nepal in Kerala as of 2013. Most of them were between 18 and 30 years old. According to State Planning Board (Evaluation Division) report released in 2021, Kerala has close to 31 lakh people who migrate internally.

George Mathew, Convenor of the Progressive Workers Organisation, a collective of workers and activists, states that over 300 migrants die in the state in a year. And while the state has the Kerala Migrant Workers Welfare Scheme which entitle their families to monetary help from the government for sending the deceased workers’ bodies back home, there are no funeral service agencies appointed by the government for doing this embalming and transportation work, which prevents accountability. Additionally, while the government has allocated a budget for each case it takes up, there is no price cap on how much agencies can charge. Further, the Labour Department doesn’t keep stringent records of migrant workers’ deaths, because there is no mandate on employers or hospitals to report them as such.

This also allows funeral agencies to intimidate those trying to assist migrant workers, activists say. For instance, recently, George was allegedly assaulted by persons working for a funeral agency for getting involved in the case of a migrant worker - Alok Kumar - who hailed from Odisha and passed away in Kandhamal, Kerala on December 4, 2021. He says he was also threatened to stay away from involving himself in workers’ welfare.

The indignity of migrant workers’ deaths in Kerala

While Kerala was the first state to institute a welfare scheme for migrant workers in 2010, for almost a decade, the provisions remained largely on paper, activists say. In 2019, there was a government order which stated that the Labour Department will allocate Rs 50,000 per case for sending migrant workers’ bodies back home. However, some private funeral agencies continue to prey on economically vulnerable and grieving families, asking for exorbitant fees up to Rs 1 lakh to transport the bodies home. When families, employers or friends of the deceased workers are unable to afford the price, the bodies are often abandoned in mortuaries, or the families have to make peace with not being able to perform the last rites of their loved one.

In one such instance, a funeral service agency asked for Rs 1 lakh to transport to Jharkhand the body of Raj Kumar, who collapsed at a worksite in Thiruvananthapuram in 2019. “His mother wanted to see him one last time. But she did not even have Rs 1,000. We were not able to raise even that much amount,” says Krishna Kumar, Raj’s friend. “The contractor who did not want any trouble was in a hurry to cremate his body,” he added. Raj Kumar’s friends then cremated him at a public crematorium.

A police official also told TNM that in some cases, the workers’ bodies are cremated without anyone making the effort to contact their next of kin or families in hometowns.

The 2018 government order came after the public attention a migrant worker’s death got the previous year. In September 2017, a woman named Jebanti came to Kerala from Odisha with her two-and-a-half-year-old son in search of her husband Sanjay Pradhan, who had come to Thrissur in search of a job. She found that her husband had died a few days before she reached Ernakulam. Jebanti was married to Sanjay when she was 15 and she lost her husband even before she turned 18. She reached Aluva on September 2 midnight, in an unreserved train compartment with her baby and younger brother, as she had not heard from her husband for 3 days. After Jebanti’s plight got public attention, the Kerala government helped her in taking her husband’s body back.

After Sanjay Pradhan’s death, the district administration and Chief Minister’s Office stopped intervening in similar cases and the charge was given to the Labour Department. In 2018, the government order was passed under the existing Kerala Migrant Workers Welfare Scheme. However, the problem persisted. The same private agencies would apparently approach the Labour Department to transport the bodies, and charge for procedures that could have been done for free at government facilities.

Agencies allegedly overcharge Labour Dept too

“We have been following up for many years on these private funeral agencies and found that they take bodies from the hospitals in Ernakulam and Thrissur to a private establishment which does embalming in Nattakam of Kottayam district. However, embalming is done for free at Kalamassery and Thrissur Medical Colleges by doctors of the Anatomy Department. Then why are bodies being taken to a facility more than 100 km away? There should be a proper enquiry into this,” George alleged. “We are not alleging that the Labour Department does this intentionally but there is a lack of transparency,” he added.

Benoy Peter, co-founder and Executive Director of Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID), a charity organisation that works for the welfare of the migrant workers, said that for a process that would cost nothing, these agencies are charging the Labour Department by unnecessarily taking bodies to a private establishment.

A senior doctor at Kalamassery Medical College confirmed to TNM that they do embalming free of cost. “However, in the cases of migrant workers’ deaths, we have noticed a hurry by the employers to hastily finish the procedures. Maybe they fear legal complications and want to send the body back home immediately,” he said.

George also alleged that while the whole process of transporting the bodies back home costs around Rs 20,000, agencies often charge double or triple the amount, unless the Labour Department intervenes. “The cargo charges at the airport are Rs 6,000-8000, the coffin would cost around Rs 3,000-4,000, and there will be an ambulance rental cost. In total, these agencies will not have to spend more than Rs 20,000 to send a body anywhere across India,” he said.

“The loophole here is that there is no order from the government saying it is compulsory to inform the District Labour Officer or the Department if a migrant worker dies. Only then the hospitals where these people are treated or the body kept will intimate the authorities. Until an order to this effect is not there, agencies will exploit the situation,” George said.

How agencies exploit migrant workers

Until 2019, activists and migrant welfare organisations like Progressive Workers Organisation were holding protests, filing petitions for migrant deaths they came to know of and seeking the government’s help. “We protest, meet the collector, file a petition with the Chief Minister and finally CM’s office will initiate in funding from CSR funds of some public-private partnership companies,” said George.

This mainly happened when a person died in Ernakulam, Thrissur or other central districts of Kerala, where these activists were focusing, which had a comparatively higher population of migrant workers. A large proportion of workers were in Ernakulam district, where they were employed at plywood factories in Perumbavoor. According to activists, more than 1.5 lakh migrant workers work in Perumbavoor alone.

In some cases, the state government bore the expenses for the bodies to be sent back home. But in a majority of other cases, the agencies allegedly directly contact the deceased worker’s colleagues who were making arrangements and send them scrambling to arrange for unaffordable fees - which continues to this day. Sometimes, these agencies allegedly start bargaining and pressuring workers at the hospital itself. For instance, the friends and family of 27-year-old Chandan, who died in Kozhikode district of Kerala in January 2021, could only be sent back to his home state in Bihar after paying a whopping Rs 60,000. “They said he died of cardiac arrest, and one of his roommates, who is from Jharkhand, called me from his phone. We wanted to see him one last time, our mother was unconscious for many days after she came to know of his death,” shares Raj, Chandan’s brother. “We borrowed money from some friends here but that was not enough. His friends collected some money over there, and their employer also gave some amount. It took Rs 60,000 for the body to reach home. We are still struggling to repay the debt.”

Benoy added that these agencies allegedly misguide employers to get more money too. “They threaten the employers saying if the Labour Department comes to know about the death, they might have to pay a fine for lack of safety,” he said.

In Subhash’s case, the agency involved allegedly claimed that the Labour Department’s scheme was no longer active. “When I asked about the Labour Department’s incentive, he claimed that the policy is no longer functional. He insisted that I pay him Rs 37,000 immediately,” Byju added.

What can be done?

Migrant welfare organisations demand immediate intervention from the government for all these issues.

“The government should order all hospitals, medical officers to report migrant deaths to the Labour Department. Records should be maintained and data collected. The documents required for transporting the body as air cargo should be entrusted with the District Medical Officer, so that the workers’ colleagues don’t have to run pillar to post,” George said.

In Ernakulam, where there are a large number of migrant workers and from where many deceased bodies are transported to their home states, Benoy and George propose to entrust Dhanvantari Service Society, a cooperative venture by people belonging to Scheduled Tribes and Scheduled Castes started by former Chief Minister K Karunakaran a few decades ago, for after-death procedures and transporting the dead bodies of migrant workers to their home state. The Society helps people in need avail subsidised medical services. Its chairperson is the District Collector, and Secretary is Ernakulam Government Hospital Superintendent. They have ambulances and also manage freezer services.

Social workers also seek for migrant workers to be educated and made aware of the Labour Department’s scheme to allot Rs 50,000 for transporting bodies back home.

“There should also be a system to coordinate with the Labour Departments of other states so that relatives of the deceased do not have to spend a lot of money to take the body from the airport to the rural hometown. As most of them are from extremely poor families, they face financial difficulties,” George said.

A senior officer with the Ernakulam Labour Department told TNM that they have given a petition to the Labour Commissioner after many complaints.

“We don’t have a proper panel of agencies to assign these services [of sending migrants’ bodies back home]. Usually, there should be bidding to grant tenders to agencies to carry out a government task. Here in Ernakulam, we have two agencies, whom we call when there is a death and the body needs to be transported. We are not able to follow up on what happens next as we don’t have that authority. We provide up to Rs 50,000 after checking what the expenses will be,” he said.

Edited by Geetika Mantri

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