On Sundays, Gandhi Bazaar in Perumbavoor, a small town in Kerala, is thick with crowd upon crowd of migrant workers from India's east. It’s a kind of meeting place for migrants employed in different parts of Kerala and they congregate here with a week’s wages bulging in their pockets. The small make-shift stalls of the bazaar spill out on to the road as the people throng to buy clothes, Bengali beedis and other stuff from way back home or simply hang out. An Oriyan bhajan in a CD shop competes with Assamese singer Akashdeep in another store, creating the exciting cacophony of a fair. Tucked away in a corner, Rihaj from Orissa runs a tailoring shop offering special designs while City Hotel serves hot bhai biriyani, samosas and Bengali sweets. As for the postal name Gandhi Bazaar–it has slowly withered away in references and has been replaced by Bhai bazaar or Bengali bazaar.
22-year-old Ajis Khan, a mechanic from Assam turns entrepreneur on Sundays. He does a brisk business by selling watermelon juice and makes around Rs 1000 just on this day. Ajis, who stays in a single room, sends home Rs 8000 to 10,000 every month. Not everyone is as lucky as Ajis, many share a room with six or seven others and use the community toilet. We meet Noor, a school dropout, who tells a sordid tale. In 2004, when Noor was hardly 14, he decided to abruptly terminate his hungry childhood and go in search of a dream. He and four other friends boarded a train to Kerala-the veritable worker’s paradise- from the remote village in West Bengal, Jalangi, bordering Bangladesh. Noor roamed around till he found a job in a paper mill. Today, Noor sends at least Rs 5000 home to his parents and his two siblings. “I love it here. Everyone in my village says Kerala is the best place in India,” says Noor in faultless Malayalam.
It seems like the entire youth in the district of Murshidabad, West Bengal, the villages of Orissa, Assam, Jharkhand had the same dream as Noor and decided to collectively move down to Kerala. They work in the plywood industry in Perumbavoor, construction industry, hotels, brick kilns in Trissur, plastic companies in Palakkad, road construction-the bhai is in every nook and corner of both urban and rural Kerala.
Kerala has become the Gulf to these poor workers from the north east. Says N. Ajith Kumar, director of Centre for Socio-economic & Environmental Studies, who did a study on them in November 2011, “Traditionally we have had large number of Tamil labour but they have declined because of jobs and better wages back home. The migration from these areas are akin to international migration because they travel more than 2000 kilometers to come here. Another interesting feature you see is rural to rural migration. They are not going to the big cities.” In the last few years there has seen a massive explosion in their numbers- researchers like Ajith Kumar say 10 lakh or more migrants are working in Kerala but there are no official statistics to prove this.
Kerala has been an exporter of man power for many years-20 lakh Malayalees work in the Gulf and other foreign countries and 10 lakh in other parts of India. In an ironical reversal of roles, today, the state is desperately seeking people in every industry. The shortage of manpower is so acute that a small industrial town like Perumbavoor is totally dependent on migrant workers. State Bank of India has a single branch in Perumbavoor and on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays there is a heavy rush to send money home. Says C.M.Vijayan, bank manager, “On these three days alone migrant workers deposit 50 lakhs.” Banking service is only one way they send money home, these workers also use postal services and the hawala route.
Sister Merin, co-ordinator of the Migrant Worker’s Movement, says that there are at least 2 lakh migrants in Perumbavoor. “It is hard to give an accurate figure. We call them the floating community. Today they work here but tomorrow they will be in Wayanad - wherever they are offered higher wages. There is no permanency in their nature. Initially they were brought down by contractors but now people just come on their own.”
The migrants are usually male and in the age group of 18 to 24 and though they are often paid less than the locals they earn double or triple of what they would earn back home. The older skilled worker like a mason or carpenter can command nearly the same wages as the locals who is paid anywhere between Rs 500 to 700 per day (much higher than the minimum wages). The construction industry is perhaps the largest employer of the migrant labour. There are approximately 350 builders in the state of which 120 are part of the Kerala Builders association. T. Padmajan, president of the Kerala Builders Association, says that at least 4 lakh migrant workers are employed in this sector. “99 per cent of the workers are from outside the state. There is a shortage of masons, carpenters, electricians, painters. Our people are either employed in the Gulf or educated and are not interested in these jobs.”
Though the migrants are found in every sector the trade unions are not resisting their entry. Says P.S. Mohanan, CITU Ernakulam district committee secretary, “It is extremely difficult to get workers here that is why the migrants have come in.”The hotel industry is facing the same crisis. Says general manager of Casino Hotel, CGH Earth, “In the last decade 10 to 12 five-star hotels have sprung up in Kochi alone. We are not getting quality man power for front office, waiters and back area service. The Malayalee looks at local employment only as training period before he sets off abroad.” Says G. Gopinath, president of AACHK, “People from Manipur and Assam seek work in hotels on their own but we insist our members only employ workers with identity cards.”
Under the Inter-state Migrant Workmen Act 1979, accommodation and medical facilities have to be provided to workers if they have been brought by a contractor. Though sometimes accommodation is provided the conditions are extremely squalid and unhygienic. Says Sister Merin, “In Kakkanad, Ernakulam we found 500 people were sharing one toilet. The workers are also often denied any medical benefits if there is an accident. Since most don’t have identity cards they avoid going to the police and cannot claim compensation. Here we step in and negotiate with the employers so they get fair compensation.” Mohanan agrees, “These workers are being paid much less and they are not getting medical benefits or accommodation. We tried to form an organization but the contractors who supply the labour removed them from the scene immediately.”
The state initiated the Kerala Migrant Workers’ Welfare Fund under which the worker can claim medical benefits if he/she is registered. Says additional Labour Commissioner V L Anil Kumar, “23,500 workers have registered so far. They need to have some sort of identity card to register. The government is also planning a common shelter for these workers to better their living conditions.” Economist Dr Martin Patrick says, “In spite of all this exploitation, Kerala’s working environment is far better than other states. While studying this group we found many migrants are from Bangladesh with a criminal background posing as Bengalis.” Police sources too agree that theft and crime have been on the rise because there is no check on the numbers coming into the state. “We now send back people who do not have identity cards.”
(A shorter version of the article first published in the Outlook magazine)