Migrant labourers in Kerala continue to be ostracised, govt schemes futile

To most Kerala locals, migrant labourers are just 'Bhai', 'Annan' or ‘Bengali’, irrespective of their name and where they come from. This is not only insensitive but symptomatic of xenophobia.
Migrant labourers Kerala
Migrant labourers Kerala
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"We depend on Malayali labourers to clean our compound but we may not get them for months. Yes, migrant labourers are very much available, but we are not confident about hiring them. We fear they will rob or attack us," says an octogenarian couple living in a housing colony near Thirumala in the Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala. Another family from Sreekariyam in Thiruvananthapuram say they are planning to sell their property and house because hundreds of migrant labourers live in the locality. "We cannot leave our daughters alone at home," says Vijayan, a member of the family.

During a murder investigation in which a migrant worker from Assam was arrested, a police officer from Ernakulam district had once told this reporter, "When a crime is reported in a neighbourhood, residents would first talk about the migrant labourers residing in the area. Even the police tend to stigmatise them. Migrant labourers are easily connected to a crime or illegal activities," he had said.

Time and again, migrant workers, who leave their home states to earn better wages in Kerala, are subjected to such prejudices and ostracisation, so much so that some have almost become detached from such attitudes. "Some hesitate to sit near us on the bus. We neither get hired by families nor by commercial establishments. People look at us with suspicion. But, I am not bothered about people’s attitude towards us; it does not affect our work,” says Mahesh, from Gaya in Bihar. He has been working at a chicken shop in Kerala for the last four years and says that he is well aware that people's attitude towards him will never change.

Danesh, a migrant worker from West Bengal’s Siliguri who has been a construction worker in Kerala for the last three years, too, shares some bitter instances. "Once, an auto driver did not return the change of Rs 50. When I asked him for the change, he yelled at me in Malayalam. In another instance, I was once asked to get up from the seat on the train, and passengers asked me to stand near the wash area," he recalls.

According to the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID), Kerala has around 3.5 million migrant workers. As this independent non-profit organisation in Kerala notes, “Kerala heavily depends on migrant workers from other states and migration is fundamental to the economic and social fabric of the state.” CMID works for the social inclusion, development and welfare of migrant workers and is based in Ernakulam’s Perumbavoor, which is the epicentre of migrant workers in the state.

Though the Kerala government has attempted to ensure their inclusivity, the people of Kerala have been hesitant to include them as part of their community. A host of incidents and criminal cases involving migrant workers, including the sensational Jisha murder case in Perumbavoor, and a series of regulations introduced by the police, have contributed to such prejudices and stereotyping. In fact, renowned late poet Sugathakumari had once called them "uneducated criminals, who can cause a cultural disaster in Kerala."

To them, they remain as 'bhai' or 'annan' (brother), without even being called by their own names. People continue to identify all of them as “Bengalis”, irrespective of their home state. Besides, they work in unorganised sectors, not affiliated with any trade unions, making them vulnerable to exploitation.

‘Guest workers’ — Mere tokenism?

As part of the inclusive policy, the Kerala government in Kerala started referring to migrant workers in the state as Athithi Thozhilali (guest worker) in documents, including government orders. However, experts and activists working for the welfare of migrant workers in Kerala argue that the term is inappropriate.

"By referring to migrant workers as a ‘guest worker’ in documents, including government orders, the state is, in a way, officially promoting othering. It is trying to remind everyone that the workers — who are also Indian citizens with the fundamental right to work, reside and travel anywhere in the country — ‘do not belong to Kerala’ and are expected to return upon the completion of work,” reads an article titled ‘Inclusion of Interstate Migrant Workers in Kerala and Lessons for India’, written by Benoy Peter, Shachi Sanghvi and Vishnu Narendran of CMID.

“Although the state glorifies this as treating the workers as state’s ‘guests’, this tokenism essentially permeates xenophobia, presenting the workers as ‘less privileged ones’ compared to Malayalis," it further notes.

Xenophobia is present all over the world but a place like Kerala, which has developed majorly because of migration, cannot practice this, Benoy Peter, co-founder and Executive Director of CMID tells TNM. "We expect good treatment when we move to another country or state, and that is the way we need to behave with the migrant labourers here. Instead, we call them ‘guest workers’ and remind them that they should go back after their work," he says.

To improve the living condition of the migrant workers, local residents should be given awareness to accept the migrant labourers. "An employer deceives the worker by not paying enough or per the industry standards; the vegetable vendors ask him to move aside for local residents, and auto drivers snatch money from him. So,  intervention is required among the people here," he adds.

He says that perceptions that these labourers are criminals have no base and truth. Some also harbour misplaced notions that these workers take away job opportunities from the locals and earn more. "They remit almost Rs 100 billion a year. They take only the money they earn by working hard. They send most of their earnings to their families back in their respective home states," says Benoy, adding that there are only a few individuals and organisations that work among the migrant workers.

Government intervenes through schemes

During the COVID-19 lockdown, the Kerala government's intervention to help the migrant workers in the state was fairly inclusive and appreciable. They set up community kitchens and special camps for them to stay until they could return home. Prior to the lockdown, the state government introduced a raft of schemes for their welfare. But, how far have these interventions helped them?

Since 1961, labourers from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu came to Kerala in search of work. Later, in the 1990s, when the iron industry flourished in Palakkad's Kanjikode, labourers from Bihar migrated to Kerala. In the last two decades, Kerala saw a huge influx of labourers from Assam, West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in addition to Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Incidentally, in 2010, Kerala became the first state to introduce a social security scheme for migrant workers. Under the Kerala Migrant Workers Welfare Scheme, a registered migrant will get accident coverage or medical care for up to Rs 25,000. In case of death, the family will receive Rs 1 lakh as well as funds to embalm and transport the body. Education allowance for the workers’ children and termination benefits of  Rs 25,000 after five years of work are the other benefits.

Other government departments, too, intervened to ensure the migrant workers and their families received certain benefits and welfare schemes. For example, since 2017, the State Literacy Mission has been implementing a programme to teach the workers Hindi and Malayalam, while Kudumbashree Mission has initiated efforts to bring female migrant workers also into their groups.

Under the Labour Department’s Interstate Migrant Workers Welfare Scheme (ISMWWS) in 2010, a separate fund was created under the Kerala Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board (KBOCWWB) for the workers’ welfare. Apart from a registration fee of Rs 30 (or an amount they could afford), the state government will also contribute a sum towards this.

Some of the other schemes they can avail of include the Apna Ghar housing scheme for affordable rentals and the Aawaz health insurance scheme for free treatment worth Rs 15,000 from all government hospitals and certain empanelled private hospitals in Kerala, among others.

But, were these schemes effective?

In the study mentioned above, the CMID found that the schemes implemented by the Department of Labour have not been effective. Many schemes introduced for migrant workers either did not reach them or they were not aware of it. "A study in Ernakulam district during December 2019–January 2020 revealed that none of the 419 workers who were interviewed had heard about the ISMWW scheme," says CMID in the article.

It points out that since the majority of workers who come to Kerala are not recruited by a contractor from their home states, the Interstate Migrant Workmen (Regulation ofEmployment and Conditions of Services) (ISMW) Act, 1979, does not apply to them. ISMW was introduced to regulate the employment of inter-state migrant workers and to provide for their conditions of service and related matters. However, according to CMID, among the 2.5 million interstate labour force working in Kerala, only 2,741 workers registered under this Act during 2016-2017.

Even most workers who are recruited in their home states and brought by the contractors to Kerala are not registered, says CMID. The registrations increased from 6,833 during 2012–2013 to 11,011 during 2014–2015 and subsequently declined to almost half in 2016–2017.

Most workers were allegedly not aware of the Aawaz health insurance scheme too. "None of the migrants who had been hospitalised during 2019–2020 reported having benefited from Aawaz. They managed it (the expense) from their own pocket or with the support of their employer," the article says.

Benoy Peter says that due to human resource constraints in the Labour Department, the information and awareness provided to these domestic migrants is very low. The CMID also alleges that while the state government intends to gather the details of these workers through Aawaz, the scheme appears to be an effort to collect their biometric data for surveillance rather than the real intent of providing health and accidental insurance. “ISMWWS already provides these services along with a host of other benefits for the workers and their family members. Besides, obtaining their biometric details also gives the impression that they are criminals and their details should be collected,” adds Benoy.

The Apna Ghar Housing scheme, too, does not address the real needs of migrant families. It might be beneficial only for unmarried male workers. According to Benoy, there is only one such functioning housing facility in Kerala under this scheme. The facility provides 620 beds. But, the dormitory-like facility will not be appropriate for the workers who come as families.

According to Benoy, the government can provide domestic workers with proper houses rather than dormitories and labour camps, which would lead to more inclusivity.

Despite a host of shortcomings, Benoy says Kerala has been far better for migrant labourers. "Compared to other states, in Kerala, they face less discrimination and get good wages," he says.

A daily wage migrant worker in Kerala gets Rs 600 to Rs 800 per day. A Malayali worker would get Rs 1,000 per day for the same work. "For us, it's a good wage. We don't get that amount in another state,” Mahesh, a labourer from Bihar, tells TNM. “In our place, for the daily wage work, we may earn Rs 200 or Rs 300. So we cannot bother about why we are paid less than the locals," he says.

"The migrant labourers are a part of Kerala now, like how Keralites are a part of Gulf countries,” points out John Abraham, a human rights activist from Kerala who is based in Mumbai.

“I don't think that there is a single person in the state who doesn't use their (migrant workers) service. From construction works to daily wage house works, people take their service. Yet, we are being thankless and treat them as separate. We treat them like criminals, carriers of diseases and so on. That is against human rights and a clear form of racism,” he says, adding there should be complaint redressal units especially to protect the rights of migrant workers in Kerala.

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