Replacement migration

Published : Sep 21, 2012 00:00 IST

A migrant worker from West Bengal selling West Bengal-made beedis at a Sunday market in Perumbavoor, 35 km from Kochi.-THULASI KAKKAT

A migrant worker from West Bengal selling West Bengal-made beedis at a Sunday market in Perumbavoor, 35 km from Kochi.-THULASI KAKKAT

Kerala more than welcomes migrants.

IT is hardly a surprise that the recent digital-media-driven migrant exodus from some south Indian cities failed to set off a similar reaction among the migrant groups living in Kerala. Except for a few possible attempts at mischief-making in some northern districts, and unconfirmed reports about the motives behind them, all that Kerala witnessed in August was the huge rush at railway and bus stations of people going home for the Id-Onam holidays.

Relations between the local people and the increasing numbers of itinerant labourers coming from other parts of India have been remarkably cordial throughout, except, perhaps, for a handful of incidents spread over several years.

Successive governments in the State have been extremely sensitive to their welfare; they have set aside budgetary provisions for their needs, established a migrant labour welfare fund and made plans for building permanent camps for them in the three big cities and for providing pension to them, among other things.

In mid-August, as other States saw them fleeing in large numbers, Kerala quickly doused any attempt to trigger panic among the labourers in the State by announcing a Cabinet decision to thank them instead, through a unique gesture: providing them goodwill kits containing vegetables and provisions as a gift to celebrate Onam with the local people.

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy said the government had meant it to be an expression of love and good sentiments of Malayalis towards the migrant workers and as an assurance that they were part of the population of the State.

In a sense, there could be no other State in India that could empathise more with such an influx of job-hungry people than Kerala, even though it is a region with the highest unemployment rate (especially of educated youth) in India.

Kerala has witnessed mass migration of its unemployed labour force from the early1970s, especially to the Gulf countries, spurred by loss of jobs in agriculture, lack of other productive ventures, spread of education, and, importantly, a demographic transition marked by low fertility and low mortality which, among other things, initially led to an increase in the proportion of the working-age population.

The number of Kerala emigrants living abroad today is nearly 2.28 million; another 1.15 million people have returned after working abroad. There are, in addition, 3.43 million non-resident Keralites (NRKs) and another 9.31 lakh Kerala migrants living in other States in India (from 2011 figures of the State Planning Board).

Initially, the majority of emigrants from Kerala were mostly skilled or semi-skilled workers and other non-agricultural labourers with low educational attainments, and their exit helped ease the unemployment problem to some extent. However, their remittances were used mostly to spur a construction boom, and not productive ventures. Concurrently, there was a decline in area under agriculture and in farm production and productivity, and loss of jobs in agriculture.

However, the building spree by itself generated a lot of employment opportunities for skilled and semi-skilled workers, even as the demand for them increased in the booming centres of the Gulf countries.

The result: more workers migrated to countries where the wages were high; there arose a problem of scarcity of skilled labourers within Kerala; and it all led to wage rates within Kerala going up dramatically.

Alongside, as the remittances from abroad were also used effectively by millions of relatively poor working-class and middle-class families for the education of their children right from the early 1980s, it led to a socio-economic transformation within Kerala. It also saw youth from many upwardly mobile families refusing to engage themselves in low-paid and unskilled jobs and instead wanting only more gainful employment opportunities, of which there was a shortage.

Meanwhile, because of the scarcity of labour, the wage rates in construction and other manual jobs remained high in Kerala vis-a-vis many other States a factor that made Kerala an attractive destination for migrants. A lot of such migrants came from the neighbouring southern States initially, in the 1980s. However, the profile of the migrant workers, the jobs they are engaged in, and the scale of their inflow have changed dramatically in the past few years.

The early migrants were primarily from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. But workers from West Bengal, Odisha, Bihar, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand now come to Kerala. They include construction workers, casual labourers, road workers, semi-skilled carpenters, masons, plumbers, electricians, and, of late, farm workers, domestic helps and hotel employees. There are also workers in the jewellery sector, cashew processing, plywood units, quarries, petrol stations, slaughter houses and brick kilns.

Unlike their counterparts in Kerala, they are willing to do any work, their labour is cheap, they work long hours and they seem to be a decent lot this is the general refrain favouring the increasing, silent inflow of migrant labourers into the State. Several studies have predicted that this trend of replacement migration is set to increase in the coming years. (For a more detailed review of the situation of migrant labourers in Kerala, see reports: Invisible people and Sunday clients, Frontline, January 14, 2011.)

A recent study by the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram, concludes: Emigration of workers from Kerala, demographic contraction of the supply of young workers brought about by the rapid demographic transition in the State, the higher wages charged by Keralas workers, the ability of Kerala workers to sustain themselves with remittances from relatives even without work for long periods, the reluctance on the part of Kerala workers to do hard physical work all these have engendered the era of replacement migration in Kerala.

But things are changing, importantly, with regard to two critical factors that had encouraged the large-scale emigration of people to other countries: one, the changing population structure as a result of demographic transformation; and, two, the changing wage rates of unskilled workers within the State, which at one point simultaneously encouraged emigration from and replacement migration into Kerala.

Research on Keralas demographic future conducted by the CDS in the past two decades have predicted, among other things, significant changes in the age structure, including a decrease in proportion of the labour force in about two decades from 2001, decline in young working age population, a doubling of older working age population in two decades ending in 2021, and more unemployment among the older age groups than among the youth in the foreseeable future. (See Shades of grey, Frontline, August 24, 2012.)

The studies also indicate that the disparity between the wage rates in Kerala and in the Gulf countries is narrowing and that there is a discernible decline in the number of emigrants from Kerala. One study conducted in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), among 1,000 unskilled workers, found the average monthly wage among them to be Rs.11,869, whereas the daily wage for a Keralite worker within the State is already as high as Rs.450. (Migrant labourers are willing to work for lower wages, about Rs.320 to Rs.350 a day, which are substantially higher than the wages in their own States.)

Robin, a 35-year-old taxi driver from Kochi, who chose to come back home in April after spending nearly six years driving taxis for a government agency in Qatar, told Frontline: The rules are tough; there is so much unfreedom there and often people look down upon drivers like me. But thankfully, you can make a decent living now in Kerala, and can be sure of making at least Rs.500 a day, sometimes more.

How will such trends affect the increasing flow of migrant labourers into the State? What would be their result? The government is yet to have even a fairly accurate estimate of the number of migrant workers entering or living in Kerala. Unofficial estimates vary from 10 lakh to 30 lakh, with government officials often claiming it to be around 10 lakh.

At times, as in many other States, there are reports of inhuman exploitation of these labourers and problems caused by lack of awareness about their rights and privileges. Language and lack of documents proving identity are serious problems affecting their ability to make use of many of the laws and labour welfare initiatives of the State and Central governments.

Though Kerala became, in May 2011, the first State to institute a comprehensive welfare scheme for migrant labourers, efforts to enrol members have so far not been very successful. Only a few come forward to register on their own. Many do not have even a single document to prove their identity, which often leads to suspicions about their place of origin, and possible extremist links, especially when they get involved in police cases.

Of late, wherever migrants bring their families too along with them, Kerala is witnessing the reintroduction of child labour this in a State where the scourge had been virtually wiped out.

No doubt, the State has now become a thriving job market for workers hailing from other regions in the country. Officials say government agencies are already finding it hard to keep track of such a silent, and unfamiliar, flow of people into Kerala.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment