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Ratna Bharali Talukdar
Date of Publish: 2016-04-29



NM - a resident of a village in central Assam’s Morigoan district, now works in a packaged drinking water bottling unit located in Perumbavur in Aluva district of Kerela. Father of an eight-year old boy, his parents are marginal farmers who occasionally have to work as agricultural labourer. He migrated to Secunderabad in Andhra Pradesh in 2009, when his small textile shop failed to give him any return and agriculture became non-remunerative. He shifted to Chennai a year later where he stayed and worked for two years and finally reached Kerala in 2013.

NM stays in a cottage of 200 square feet along with 11 other migrant workers like him, all hailing from Assam. They have a small hall, a kitchen and an attached bathroom. Each of the inmates pays Rs. 400 per head as monthly rent. They cook in the small kitchen using Kerosene stove and each of the them takes turn to prepare food.  Consumption of alcohol and playing cards is not permitted.

After long hours of hard work each day, NM can send Rs. 5000/ per month to his family.

The case study of NM, a migrant worker from Assam working in Kerala figures in a study titled “Domestic Migrant Labour (DML) in Kerala”, conducted by Labour and Rehabilitation Department of Government of Kerala. NM is one of lakhs of migrant workers who migrated from Assam to Kerela in search of greener pastures.  The 60-page report has been compiled by D Narayana and C.S. Venkiteswaran of Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, an autonomous institution of Government of Kerala, jointly with M.P. Joseph, adviser to the Minister of Labour and Rehabilitation on Labour reforms.

In absence of locally available data and any comprehensive study in Assam about the condition of migrant labours moving out of the state in search of better life, the report highlighting findings of the study conducted by government of Kerala in 2013 is seen as important source to assess wide ranging issues of the migrant labourers in Kerala including their socio-economic conditions, social security, life and work environment as a migrant labourer, housing and accommodation, employment pattern, wages, demographic and gender dimensions of the host state, issues of locals and migrants and emerging challenges, among others. Migrant labourers of Assam account for 17.8 per cent of around 2.35 lakh DML received by Kerala each year.

Apart from migrant labourers from Assam, the study has also covered issues of migrant labourers from West Bengal(20%), Uttar Predesh (14.83%), Bihar (18.10%), and Orissa(6.67%) .  Kerala receives migrant labourers from almost all the states of India and also from Nepal. The objective of the study was to estimate stock of DMLs in the state, their annual flow, map the distribution and skill of DMLs, channels of migration, assess age-sex composition, nature of employment, and accommodation, assess wages and benefits and finally to understand social and cultural issues faced by these huge number of DMLs.

A review of age-groups of these DMLs reveals that most of them migrate in early stage of life.  Over 50 per cent of them belong to the age group of 18-23, while over 34 per cent belong to age-group of 24-29.  This suggests that over 84 per cent of the DMLs are below the age of 29.  Only 10.24 per cent belong to the age group of 30-36, and a meagre 2.36 per cent of them are above 36.  A tiny 1.57 per cent are under 18.  Most of these DMLs reveal that they do not have plan to settle in Kerala.

The study reveals that 40.16 per cent of migrant workers of Assam are Hindu, 45.67 per cent are Muslims and 12.60 per cent are Christians.

“In the case of Assamese workers, the first batches came to Kerala in the late 80’s and early 90’s in the aftermath of a legal ban on wood felling and the consequent closure of wood/plywood industries in their state. It was also a time when wood industrial units were being set up in Perumbavur; they came in groups to work here, and were much preferred due to their experience and expertise in it. Later, when the construction boom started in the mid-90’s many of them moved to construction,”- the report says.

Of this huge workforce of migrant labourers from Assam, 65.35 percent work with contractors, while 28.35 per cent work with casual employer. They work in different occupation such as carpenter, electrician, tailor, sales person, masonry and flooring, agriculture, hotel and restaurants etc.

Over 85 per cent of them get employment six or seven days a week, and nearly 11 percent get employment 5 days a week which indicate that those who get work less than five days a week account for only about four per cent.

Wages of the migrant workers ranges between Rs 200-500 per day, depending on their skills, which they can earn after working for 12-14 hours at a stretch. Only 9.80 per cent earn daily wage of Rs.500 and above, 23.13 per cent earn between Rs. 400-499, 31.51 per cent earn between Rs.300-399, and rest of the DMLs earn below Rs.300 a day.

Most of these migrant labourers carry identity cards with them like voters’ ID card, driving license, PAN cards etc. to avoid any controversy of their citizenship.  They mostly live in unhygienic conditions in congested rooms.  A huge 42 per cent have reported to the study team that they stay in single-room accommodation shared by more than eight persons, while 13 per cent had reported that they stay in single-room accommodation shared by six persons. Only five per cent of these migrant labourers have the capacity to reside either in a single room, or share the room with another migrant labour. Most of the migrant labourers congregate among their own linguistic groups, have access to a common toilet and a common cooking, the report adds.

The living conditions of DMLs vary in different sectors of work. In manufacturing sector, for instance, temporary sheds are provided to accommodate 30-40 labourers in a row of 6-7 rooms. They have common kitchen, toilet, bathing facility. A few of them also possess small television sets or radios.

In the wood industry, the DMLs earn between Rs.200-300 a day.  They work for 10 hours a day. However, there are differences in accommodation and food in different units. The study team found that in one of the wood industry units, examined by it, the weekly menu for the labourers included mutton for three days, chicken for two days and egg for one day.  The hard labour required to put into wood industry has made their employer ensure good food. However, living condition of the unskilled labourers is the worst.  These unskilled labourers mostly live in dwellings with tin or plastic sheds, without kitchen, bathroom or toilets.

“There are instances of open defecation too……The local public has very low opinion about them and saw them as a threat to public hygiene, security and law and order”, the report adds.

However, DMLs who receive better wages working as masons, supervisors, petty traders, hawkers etc. live in a proper flat, with one room and a common veranda, a small kitchen and a toilet. These flats have electricity and water connections, and are occupied on an average by 5-6 persons. The average rent of such buildings ranges between Rs. 4000 to 5000.

The wage thus differs from sector to sector, profession to profession and depending on level of skill, market demand and supply of labour. The number of DML is so huge that they have been referred as “reserve army of labour for various productive sectors”, with very low level of awareness on issues of minimum wages and legal provisions.

“Many respondents reported that they come to Kerala due to lack of employment opportunities in their home state. Agriculture has become uneconomical, and there are no openings in industrial or services sector. And, when one compares the wage levels, the wages in Kerala is more than double they get in their homeland. All this makes Kerala a very lucrative destination,” it says.

DMLs are visible in both rural and urban pockets of Kerela and in almost all professions including hotels and restaurants, brick kilns, jewellery work, bakeries, head-load work, hospitality and in manufacturing industries of all kinds.

“One can see crowds of DML ranging from hundreds to thousands in the suburbs of Thrissur, Kannur, Ernakulam and Thiruvananthapuram cities. They have not only outnumbered the local workers in many professions but they have also totally replaced them” the report says.

Working for 12-14 hours a day, these DMLs hardly have leisure time for relaxation or entertainment. They return to their accommodation sites late in the evening. It is only Sundays that they have time to do weekly chores like marketing, recharging of their mobile phones, visit friends and relatives in parks, streets, open centres, gardens, etc.  Such spaces are very few, and presence of DMLs often “irritate local people.” There have been instances in Trivandrum when they were driven away from parks by local police, adds the report. “Not only that their participation in local festivals and celebrations are minimal, some of their celebrations like Holi and Deepavali are seen as too noisy and riotous by local population. All this further insulates them from any kind of social life.”

Their movements are closely monitored by group leaders and local community. They have the right to oust them without any excuse if they happen to find something wrong. They are under constant surveillance of the house-owner, who provide accommodation for them, it says. DMLs are also often seen as a health threat, as carriers of diseases that were eradicated from Kerala.

Even after living a hazardous life in vulnerability at work site, these DMLs send the money they save to their families in home state. Over 24 per cent of them send between Rs.1000- 5000 a month, 38.50 per cent sent between Rs.5000- 10,000 and 19.73 per cent can send between Rs.10,000- 20,000.  Only about 4.76 per cent can send above Rs.20,000/ a month to their homes.

The annual remittance by the DML is estimated between Rs.16,076.16  Crore and 10,768. 93 Crores, depending upon the stock of DML taken. It would be definitely over 14,000 Crore a year, the report says.

Despite opening up of such huge employment opportunities to DMLs of outside states, the study team has expressed deep concern over a possible change in demography of local population in Kerala with a steady increase in DML population.

“The demographic profile of Kerala, due to various interventions like family planning programme, and factors like out migration to Gulf and other countries, is increasingly weighed towards the older age categories, and in another ten years, majority of the population will be 40 plus. So, in the near future, a very explosive demographic situation will arise 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,” report sounds an alarm bell.

To address such issues in advance, the report strongly recommends for introduction of policies and regulations ensuring protection of both DML as well as the local population.

Ratna Bharali Talukdar

Photo - Dasarath Deka


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