Print edition : March 22, 2013

Gandhi Park in Thiruvananthapuram is chock-a-block with migrant labourers enjoying an evening away from sweat and toil. “Parks, city centres, gardens, and open spaces, etc. are the only spaces available for them as pre-fixed meeting points to talk to their friends, relatives, etc. But even such spaces are very few and their presence often seems to irritate local people,” the study says. Photo: S. GOPAKUMAR

A street play to create awareness among migrant labourers on AIDS and the dangers of chewing tobacco, at a construction site in Kozhikode. Photo: S. RAMESH KURUP

Many small and big employers in the garmet sector opt for wayside advertisements like this in Hindi. A poster at Sreekanteswaram Temple Road in Kozhikode. Photo: S. Ramesh Kurup

Migrant labourers at a construction site in Kozhikode. There are over 25 lakh domestic migrant labourers in Kerala today--7 to 8 per cent of the State's population. Photo: S. RAMESH KURUP

A new study focusses on the explosive growth of domestic migrant labour in Kerala and says the situation is bound to throw up serious social problems and tensions of various kinds.

BY its nature, the movement of domestic migrant labour within India has been difficult for governments to keep track of even though such relocation of people seeking a better life often leads to significant economic and social changes, especially in the destination States. Though there were enough indications of a substantial increase in the numbers of migrant labourers in many parts of Kerala (“Invisible people”, Frontline, January 14, 2011) earlier, efforts to make sense of their presence had until recently yielded only partial results, with unofficial estimates of their numbers ranging from 10 lakh to 30 lakh.

A new study on “Domestic Migrant Labour (DML) in Kerala”, commissioned by the State government, has used a unique methodology of conducting surveys of migrant labourers travelling in 63 long-distance trains moving in or out of Kerala (“the only mode of travel available to them” from their home States) to arrive at what it calls a “robust estimate” of their numbers.

The study report tabled in the Assembly recently by Labour Minister Shibu Baby John states that there are over 25 lakh domestic migrant labourers in Kerala today—nearly 7 to 8 per cent of the State’s population. In addition, around 2,35,000 new migrants arrive in the State every year. Over 75 per cent of them come from five States—West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha.

A vast majority of them are men in the age group of 18 to 30 years. On an average, each of them sends home at least Rs.70,000 annually, “almost entirely through banking channels”. Together, they have sent at least over Rs.17,500 crore every year to their home States, reports the study conducted for the State Labour and Rehabilitation Department by the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation (GIFT), an autonomous body under the government.

On the whole, the study has found that domestic migrant labourers have begun entering all skills and sectors in Kerala. They have come to fill almost all occupations and sectors of the economy, importantly the construction sector, manufacturing, hotels and restaurants, trade and, lately, agriculture. Kerala’s agriculture has become dependent on migrant labour, the report claims.

The most significant finding of the study, however, is that in a State with a rapidly ageing population, the ratio of domestic migrant labour to the local male population in the working age group could now be as high as 1:2.5. It, therefore, warns of “a very explosive demographic situation” developing in Kerala “where a big majority of the host population will belong to the older age groups while the migrant population will dominate the other segment of the population that is young and working”.

In another 10 years, the majority of the population in Kerala will be above the age of 40, and “looked at from a long-term perspective, the stark contrast that is emerging in the demographic profiles of the host and migrant populations in the State” is a matter of concern, the report says.

“The population of Kerala (2011 Census) is 333.88 lakhs and the male population in the 20-64 age group is around 87 lakhs. However, only about 50 per cent of them (over 43 lakh people) are in the local workforce. In comparison, our study estimates that there are already over 25 lakh migrant labourers in Kerala and the finding has a lot of significance,” Dr D. Narayana, Director of GIFT, told Frontline.

According to the report, in terms of patterns of migration, settlement, employment and mobility, the present wave of migration to Kerala that began in the early 1990s differs from an earlier one from the neighbouring States of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. While earlier migrants were mostly seeking manual jobs and unskilled work in construction and employment in some service sectors in and around cities and towns, “the present DML stock is spread across both rural and urban areas and has percolated into all professions”.

The major draw for these migrant jobseekers are the rapid urbanisation and expansion of the urban informal sector in the State, the opening up of opportunities as a result of the international migration of local people, the reluctance of the educated unemployed youth in Kerala to do what they consider as menial jobs, the drastic fall in fertility levels that has caused a decline in the young working-age population, and the comparatively high wage structure in the State.

“They have not only outnumbered the local workers in many professions but have also totally replaced them, not just in manual jobs but in the manufacturing sector and also in certain specific services/professions like hospitality as well.” Also, in a State known for high levels of unemployment, especially of its educated youth, “there is no sign of unemployment or underemployment amongst the migrant labourers”.

Social insularity

One of the most striking characteristics of the migrant workers in Kerala is their total insularity from the local population and the fact that they move around quite a lot within the State in search of jobs. “Domestic migrant labour has a very visible and considerable presence even in the small towns of Kerala,” the report says. Therefore, “as their population grows and (as they stay on in the State), these (migrant) communities will necessarily tend to assert their rights and identity”, which in turn “could create tensions with the local populace”.

The migrant groups are “very well integrated into the host economy but not into the host culture or society. This, the report says, means that “they are often deliberately kept at bay, in order to ensure not only their social insularity but also to disempower them from asserting their rights—as citizens and labourers. This systematic exclusion works to the advantage of the host society in various ways: to keep the wage levels low, rent levels high, services cheap, and to maintain a labour force that is at their beck and call, one that can be absorbed and driven out at will.”

Migrant labourers tend to live together in crowded tenements that often lack basic facilities and give rise to complaints from the local people about lack of hygiene and pollution of water sources. Most of them left their homes in their teens and worked in several other Indian towns before coming to Kerala. The comparatively low level of wages, lack of employment opportunities, and the increasing “unviability” of the agricultural sector and its seasonal nature in those places prompted them to seek employment elsewhere, and thus they came to Kerala. Some of them have also come upon invitation by their friends or relatives in Kerala. Others have been brought in by contractors.

The report also cautions that the clustering of settlements of people from the same caste/community could pose social problems of communal dimensions. “Also, there are chances of local communal elements manipulating and working in tandem with migrant communities to foment trouble, taking advantage of the anonymous nature of the individuals. In such cases, the apprehensions about ‘anonymity’ and group habitation patterns of DML could give rise to social tensions and mistrust. But, as of now, in almost all the places, the contractors and group leaders seem to have strict control over the movement and activities of the labourers,” the report says.

Lack of leisure opportunities

One of the immediate issues such a huge population, that too predominantly male and young, raises is the “lack of opportunities for leisure” and their “emotional and sexual needs”, the study points out. “Parks, city centres, gardens, and open spaces, etc. are the only spaces available for them as pre-fixed meeting points to talk to their friends, relatives, etc. But even such spaces are very few and their presence often seems to irritate local people,” it says.

The report quotes the volunteers of Kerala State Aids Control Society as saying that “the sudden influx of migrant male population into Kerala, who earn wages and has extra money to spend, has given a boost to local sex industry. Prostitution is rampant among them, but is carried out under veils of secrecy; moreover, they also are careful not to invite the wrath of local moral policing. All this, along with the total lack of knowledge about safe sex and the use of condoms, make them a section that is very vulnerable to fatal infections and diseases. A vast majority of them have not even heard of HIV or AIDS.”

The report says that what the International Labour Organisation (ILO) states very strongly in the global context rings true in Kerala: “Numerous governments informally tolerate irregular migration while they officially reinforce controls against ‘illegal’ migrant workers. The effects are, on the one hand, a continued supply of cheap labour, while, on the other hand, ‘illegal’ migrants are unable to organise in the workplace to defend their dignity and decent work conditions.”

The study has found that there is a deep ambivalence in the way society and government look at these migrants. “On the one hand, everyone is aware that the supply and labour of DML is absolutely essential for the State’s economy; but on the other, they are not very willing to accept the DML as equals, as citizens with all the democratic rights. Many of them look at the DML as a threat to security, health and so on.”

Evidently, the report says, “Most of the stakeholders who have some economic interests relating to DML—like the contractors, builders, manufacturers, local traders, and casual employers—would like the status quo to continue: that is, a situation where the flow of DML is unhindered and free; the wage levels and working conditions dictated by the local employers and the middlemen are accepted by them without much protest (which, in any case, is much above what is existing in their home States); their demands are minimal; they go on shifting jobs, places and employers, and live in the margins of our society. This kind of semi-illegal nature of residence helps to keep DML population under constant surveillance and control, at the same time giving the host community the power to oust or redistribute them according to the push and pull of local economy.”

Warning that the situation in Kerala is bound to throw up serious social problems and tensions of various kinds, the study makes the following recommendations: introduction of a single-point, one-time voluntary registration system by the State Labour Department, which is to be implemented by the local governments; making of the benefits of all government schemes conditional on such registration; improving the housing and living conditions of and providing affordable housing to the migrants; provisioning of a social security net, including health coverage, for them; launching of an awareness programme on laws, rights and obligations for the migrants, in various languages, and for their employers in order to dispel the unfounded fears of both the migrant labourers and the local population; and the establishment of help lines staffed by people speaking different languages for the migrants from different States.

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