In Migrants’ Own Country

5.30 a.m., Jyothi junction, Perumbavur, Ernakulam district. Young men in worn-out flip-flops stand on street corners, nervously clutching plastic bags. More men join them and the mood eases up. It's not Malayalam that they speak and, in their soiled pants and shirts, they look distinctly different from the lungi-clad Keralites.

They are Kerala's migrant workers, men and women from some of the impoverished states in the north who have come here in search of work and better wages. Over the last decade, they have ended up as the nuts-and-bolts of Kerala's workforce, a state whose working population is largely outside the state and where cheap labour is hard to find. In many parts of the state, morning bazaars such as this one in Perumbavur, a satellite town of Kochi city whose wood and small-scale industries attract migrant workers, are fast becoming a regular feature where local farmers and contractors shop for cheap labour.

An hour later, at the Perumbavur marketplace, contractors arrive in mini-trucks and other vehicles. After short, chaotic negotiations over the wages—mostly carried out in broken Hindi—the workers board these vehicles and leave for nearby farms and construction sites. Some others board buses with sign boards in Hindi, apart from Malayalam—something that was unheard of till a few years ago.

Kerala, which has one of the highest literacy levels in the country, had few jobs to offer its people. So for decades, it sent its working population outside the state. While the semi-skilled populace found work mostly in the Gulf—Kerala has nearly 2.5 million migrants abroad—the skilled workers went to other cities in the country, leaving behind an ageing population. Besides, a culture of strident labour unions and high minimum wages meant labour was hard to get. Until a decade ago, the only migrant workers were those from Tamil Nadu. But now, unskilled and semi-skilled workers from Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, West Bengal and the North East are filling that key vacuum in the state's workforce.

Apart from building roads and high-rises, these workers have cushioned the labour crunch at eateries, hotels, liquor bars, hair-cutting saloons, factories, farms and many other sectors. The poorest of this lot sweat it out in granite quarries, pig sties and steel units.


Trains from states like West Bengal and Assam pull into Kerala's stations with their general compartments bursting with men, women and children, weary after travelling for over 50 hours.

But the state isn't keeping a count of the migrants. "We have no official data of the workers. A recent estimate showed that their figure could be between 4 lakh and 5 lakh. We are planning to conduct a survey and issue identity cards to the workers," says Anil Kumar, assistant labour commissioner in the state labour department.

But experts and volunteers who work among the migrants say the figure would not be less than 10 lakh since the labour department surveys only construction sites in major cities, leaving out workers in other sectors and those in remote villages across the state. An estimated one lakh migrants work in Kochi alone.

Prof S Erudaya Rajan, who has researched out-bound migration in Kerala, says the government should urgently come out with figures for migrant workers. "The human resource crisis, coupled with an ageing population in the state, means that this migration will continue at least for the next one decade,'' he says.

Murthija, 20, a native of Murshidabad in West Bengal, had come to Kochi two years ago. The class X drop-out has a family of five to support in his village. "In my village, a farm worker would only get Rs 100. Now, I work at a battery recharge firm at Kalady in Kochi and get Rs 450 a day. I save at least Rs 300 a day,'' he says, speaking through an interpreter.

In the initial phase of the migration, employers would directly recruit from the poverty belts of north India. As the demand for cheap labour grew, local contractors emerged on the scene. Later, some of the early migrants brought their friends and relatives to work in the state. Among the swarming faces of migrants are teenagers bearing the burden of an entire family, newly-weds who have left their wives behind and middle-aged men who are squirreling away money to send their children to school.

Firdose Sekh, 27, from Burdwan district in West Bengal, is in Vellimadukunnu, near Kozhikode, during the long interval between paddy seasons. "I came with others from my village. In West Bengal, a farm worker only gets Rs 120 a day. Here, I work at a construction site and get at least Rs 350 a day. But I'll go back when the paddy work resumes in Bengal,'' he says.

The money they earn has helped change lives back in their villages.

Muhammed Sathar, 21, says there are many from his West Bengal village who have worked in Kerala. "People who came back from Kerala built homes, bought land or set up shops. Besides, those of us who have worked in Kerala realise the value of education. Now, we are keen that our children go to school,'' he says.

Ombar Sekh, 35, came to Kerala seven years ago. "The money that some of the early migrants brought to my village, Nandanghata in Burdwan district, inspired others to follow them back to Kerala,'' says Sekh, who works as a construction worker.

Though most of the migrant workers see Kerala as a temporary workstation, a few have chosen to stay on.

Asseth Kumar, 36, a native of Betticala in Orissa's Kandhamal district, lost everything he had in the communal riots of 2008. The church helped him shift to Kochi with his wife and four children. Kumar works as a mason, his wife Januvamma is a casual labourer and their children study in English-medium schools. "I lost all my property and my relatives in the riots. I don't want to go back,'' says Kumar.

Many of the Bengali families in Perumbavur have begun to send their children to local schools. A government upper primary school in Kozhikode was on the verge of shutting down but today, has 32 students from classes I to VII, all children of migrant workers. The education department had launched a pre-primary Bengali-medium school in Perumbavur under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan.


With migrant workers becoming an inevitable support system, a whole new economy has sprung up in Kerala around this sector.

At Perumbavur station, reservation counters have been opened exclusively for migrant workers. "We try to book tickets in advance. But due to the heavy rush of workers, only a few can travel in reserved coaches,'' says Abdul Goni from Murshidabad.

For most of these workers, the cellphone is a constant companion, helping them stay in touch with the lives they left behind.

On the outskirts of Perumbavur are rows of squat houses—separate ones for Hindus and Muslims—where the workers live. In the evenings, after a hard day's work, they sit at their doorsteps, talking into their cellphones or watching movies loaded on to their handsets.

In towns such as Perumbavur, mobile shops load movies or movie trailers onto cellphones for a fee. "They ask for Hindi, Oriya or Bengali movies. We bring the movie CDs from Kolkata,'' says Mansur V, a CD shop owner in Kochi.

"Every Sunday, I get a new movie loaded onto my cellphone for Rs 70,'' says Mursulam, a worker in Perumbavur.

Movie halls at Perumbavur, Chalakudy (in Thrissur district) and Kanjikode (Palakkad) screen Oriya and Bengali films on alternate Sundays.

Shops in some of the 'migrant towns' sell bidis from Bengal and small-scale units make Bengali sweets. Grocery shops and restaurants run by some of the early migrants have come up in many parts of Kerala.

Like business, religion too has found an opportunity in the migrant workforce. The Catholic Church is active among the migrants. Two Catholic churches in Ernakulam district hold the Mass in Oriya on alternate Sundays, led by Malayali priests who have worked in Orissa. Various Protestant and Pentecostal groups are joining in with missionary activities. Besides, Muslim scholars from West Bengal are preaching in migrants' camps.


Though it's higher wages that attract the workers to Kerala, there are several stories of exploitation among this unorganised lot. "In mills and factories, they have to work for 12 hours. If they don't, they are not eligible for the day's pay. A major chunk of the workers are not on the pay roll of companies. So a firm employing 100 migrant workers would show only 15 so that they can avoid paying mandatory allowances to the workers,'' says Roslin John, a Catholic nun who works among migrant workers in Ernakulam district.

Sources in the Labour Department admit there are instances of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Services) Act being violated. The provisions of the Act, which protects migrant workers from exploitation, are applicable to contractors who bring five or more workers from outside the state.

In 2009, the Kerala government introduced a welfare scheme of Rs 10 crore for migrant workers. The Kerala Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board has been assigned as the nodal agency for implementing the scheme, which provides for a one-time pension to retired workers and an annual grant for children's education, among other things.

According to sources in the Board, until July 11 this year, only 2,909 workers had registered for the scheme since employers weren't interested in getting their workers registered.

In a state where trade unions call the shots, this is probably the only sector that isn't affiliated to any of the major unions. And that, experts say, could be a major cause for the workers being exploited. But that's changing too. Activists once associated with ultra-Left outfits have started a new outfit, called the Working Class Alternative, to mobilise the migrant workers.

George Bruno, its leader and a former activist of the CPI(ML), says, "Workers from Bengal have started organising themselves. Earlier this year, migrant workers boycotted work when the government and the contractors failed to support victims of an accident. A new crop of leaders will arise from among the workers."

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