In dragging non-resident Keralites into the migrant debate, let’s go beyond the cliché of the struggling blue-collar worker.

The NRI in Keralas migrant debate Thoughts on Gulf Keralites vs other state workers
news Home and Away Tuesday, December 20, 2016 - 16:06

By Archie S

In the past few months, non-resident Keralites (NRKs) have been dragged into the ‘other state’ worker debate in the state. The argument basically urges that ‘migrant’ workers from ‘other states’ in India, who live and work in Kerala, must be treated with tender loving care (TLC) lest we forget the hardships faced by NRKs.

However, a major problem with this argument is that care and respect cannot be quid pro quo. It must come from within.

Despite the halo of ‘sacrifice’ and toil surrounding them, NRKs have enjoyed Gulf governmental support and documentation that ‘other state’ workers can never dream of in Kerala.

As with all expatriates in Gulf countries, NRKs have access to healthcare through mandatory health cards and insurance. Nations such as the UAE have introduced wage protection schemes, and there have been concerted moves to improve living conditions in labour camps.

These changes maybe recent and may be the result of several decades of hardship already (and still) endured – but at least they are happening. While there are instances of utter penury and harassment, not every NRK today lives an “Aaadujeevitham” – that harrowing tale of an expatriate by Benyamin.

Whenever NRKs are invoked in arguments in Kerala, whether by politicians or so-called social media commentators, the cliché they invoke is of the slogging, struggling blue-collar worker. But this fails to recognise the variety of Keralites living and working in the Gulf nations, such that a one-size-fits-all description of NRKs is impossible.

Typically, NRKs fall into three segments: A large majority of blue-collar workers and mid-level office workers, a significant number of entrepreneurs, and a good number of professionals.

The entrepreneurs can be further grouped into three: one, the biggies who thrive on retail, jewellery, education and healthcare; two, a majority of small and micro-operators who run the ubiquitous groceries, cafeterias and mobile shops; and three, mid-level businesses that dabble in construction, labour supply, and IT.

Despite the advances these various groups have made, the economic and lifestyle profiles of NRKs are also changing in different directions.

An increased focus by the Gulf governments on securing jobs for their nationals is adversely affecting the opportunities of many NRKs. In Saudi Arabia, where mobile shops must mandatorily employ Saudis, a number of Keralites have lost their jobs. With the higher cost associated with employing ‘locals,’ business profitability too has been challenged.

On the professional scene, administrative and finance positions, which NRKs have traditionally enjoyed as their beat, are hard to come by, and now go to the ‘locals.’

Apart from being in shaky jobs, financially too, the NRK professionals are less ‘settled’ than their predecessors. Conspicuous consumption is higher among them, and their ability to save dwindles in the face of higher costs of living.

The blue-collar worker profile is also changing. The hard menial jobs at construction sites are increasingly taken up by expatriates from Nepal and Bangladesh, among others.

This has also bred a new sub-culture within the labour camps. Very often, a Malayali supervisor rules over an army of Nepali and Bangladeshi workers, doing exactly what Malayalis do to the ‘other state’ workers in their home-state: Treat them with contempt.

It raises the question: Are Malayalis selectively prejudiced about ‘other people?’ Do they have an air of superiority, somehow wedged into them, as being more hygienic, more educated, and more socially and politically aware? How else can Malayalis put on airs over some, while being obsequious to the rich and powerful?

If Kerala’s CM Pinarayi Vijayan is sincere about the need to treat ‘other state’ workers in Kerala with dignity, he must do what the Gulf nations do as mandatory for expatriates: To start with, issue a labour card and health card, assure them of decent accommodation (as UAE has done for its expatriates) and introduce a Wage Protection Scheme.

If we cannot treat our guests with respect, how and why should we expect the Gulf nations to treat our people with care? And how can we have two rules for the same people – more so because NRKs in the Gulf and ‘other state’ workers in Kerala – are both Indians?

However, the cash-strapped Kerala government is unlikely to take on any new overhead to improve the plight of ‘migrant workers.’ For now, mostly empty talk is what we are going to get.

And now with reports of migrant workers returning to their homes following the demonetisation crisis that has put the construction industry in a limbo, maybe Kerala has just the right opening space to put things in order before normalcy returns.

So here is a thought: Since NRKs, their families and their state have benefited from the opportunities and support of the Gulf governments, can they now step in and return the favour to the ‘other state’ workers in Kerala, who are doing what NRKs had been doing for several decades in the Arab countries?

Can NRKs, especially big businesses, create something meaningful for their fellow Indians whom we brand as ‘other state workers’? Won’t that be the biggest service they can do – not just to Kerala – but to their nation? And won’t that be real philanthropy rather than the staged shows of charity and social commitment led by puffed-up egos and the quest for 15 minutes of fame on Malayalam TV?

Archie S writes for a living and loves all things film. He lives in Dubai. 

Home and Away is a series of reader contributions on the lives and concerns of Indians living overseas. If you have a perspective on NRI life and communities you'd like to talk about, write to