There are at least three carts lined up near the entrance to Gandhi Bazaar selling plates of pineapple chaat — pineapple slices sprinkled with masala — for Rs 10. The market is crowded. You pass piles of clothes for sale and shops where you can download Hindi or Bengali tracks for your mobile phone before you enter a small square, in the middle of which a few men sit behind stacks of bidi packets. It’s mostly Babu Bidi, a salesman in white kurta-pajama will inform you, in case you are unable to read the brand name printed in Bengali.
Gandhi Bazaar is not in West Bengal or Orissa, but in Perumbavoor, 30 km from Kochi and many more from the home of Babu Bidi and chaat. But on Sundays, hundreds of migrant workers from West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa and Assam, whom the locals call bhaimaar (plural of bhai in Malayalam) descend on the market, transforming it. Perumbavoor is the magnet that attracts them on their weekly day off, as its 1,000-odd timber and plywood factories, small and big, have been using migrant labour for years. But speak to the men thronging the market and you soon realise that the timber mills in Perumbavoor are not the only places employing them. Jaffer, a 20-year-old from Murshidabad, works in a hotel near Kochi. “I like it here, even the food,” he says. Others say they work as masons and in match factories, in poultry farms and in rice mills.
This state of affairs in Kerala, where a Bengali gardener or Assamese hotel hand is the norm rather than the exception, is the result of several factors. The state has had a shortage of local labour since the 1970s, when large-scale migration of Malayalis to West Asia began. The construction boom fuelled by the money these non-resident Malayalis repatriated increased the demand for labour, which at that time was met by workers from neighbouring states, mainly Tamil Nadu. The Malayalis’ reluctance to take up blue-collar jobs in their own state, which is often attributed to their high education level, adds to the shortage. (At 93.9 per cent, Kerala has the highest literacy rate in the country.) The current influx of labourers from distant states, says Ajith Kumar, director of the Centre for Socio-economic and Environ-mental Studies (CSES) in Kochi, a think tank, began with the construction boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. By then, the Tamilians had been working in Kerala long enough to strengthen their b argaining power and demand higher wages, says Kumar, so employers began to find it cheaper to hire workers from states like West Bengal and Bihar.
Minimum wages for construction, maintenance of roads and building operations. In Kerala, the prevailing wage is double the notified minimum wages in certain sectors.
|All figures in rupees. Source: Wage Cell, Ministry of Labour & Employment
For migrant workers, wages in Kerala are attractive enough to make the long journey and life in an unfamiliar state worthwhile. On average, the wages for skilled as well as unskilled workers are at least two times higher in Kerala, compared with West Bengal, Orissa and Bihar. The prevailing market rate in many sectors is double or even triple the notified minimum wage. In construction, for example, the prescribed minimum wage for a semi-skilled labourer in Kerala is Rs 310. It is Rs 145 in West Bengal and Rs 123 in Bihar. The market rate, as Kerala’s labour ministry itself acknowledges, can be twice this amount.
Sariful, one of the men selling bidis in Gandhi Bazaar, earns Rs 600 a day from his work as a mason. “In Murshidabad, I used to earn Rs 200,” he says. This is apart from the Rs 5,000 he earns from his bidi trade on Sundays.
It is not uncommon for workers to go home and return to Kerala with friends and family members in search of jobs. “What West Asia was to Malayalis, Kerala is to these people” is an oft-repeated analogy.
Employers have their own reasons for preferring a migrant worker over a local, apart from cost. “Yes, they are cheaper but, more importantly, they don’t create problems... If locals constitute 100 per cent of your workforce, they will create a hell of a lot of problems,” says Jose Chacko, managing director of Delta Plywood in Perum-bavoor, referring to the active trade union movement in Kerala, which has forced many a factory to shut down. “Migrant workers also want to work longer hours to make the most of the time they spend in Kerala, and earn overtime. And I feel the quality of their work is superior.”
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But the recent influx has also raised several issues. The most hotly debated is the state’s attempt to monitor migrants on the grounds that illegals from Bangladesh are among them. On Monday, the state home ministry sent a report to the Centre to this effect, stating that tens of thousands of Bangladeshis had come to the state, according to a report in a leading Malayalam daily. “We welcome workers from other states in the country, but the illegal infiltration of Bangla-deshis is a cause for concern,” Home Minister Thiruvanchoor Radhakrish-nan was quoted as saying. The report, by the intelligence wing, says there are 1.3 million migrant workers in the state, which will rise to 2.5 million in the next five years.
But this figure of 1.3 million can only be an estimate. Labour Minister Shibu Baby John says the government is considering legislation to make registration of migrant workers compulsory, with the onus falling on the employer.
These attempts are being questioned by the intelligentsia and acti-vists. “Kerala is not a special security zone, so why should migrant labourers register themselves,” asks Kumar. John says the registration is for the Inter-State Migrant Workers Welfare Fund set up by the previous Left Democratic Front government with a corpus of Rs 10 crore.
This fund, unique among the states, makes various provisions for migrant workers, including Rs 50,000 in the event of death in an accident and Rs 25,000 as healthcare assistance. Unfortunately, only 29,000 workers have signed up for the scheme, reveals A Alexander, joint labour commissioner.
There are various hurdles, Alexan-der says, ranging from the lack of a dedicated team to implement the policy, and linguistic barriers, to the fact that many workers do not have identity papers, without which they cannot register. Trade unions are active in spreading awareness about schemes among workers, but their absence among migrant workers — though the fact may be hailed with relief by employers — means another obstacle to the deployment of the scheme. “They are a floating population. It is very hard to keep track of them,” says Alexander.
Their working and living conditions are another cause for concern. “Often they are made to stay in the same building they are constructing, without any facilities. Those who are employed in quarries stay in thatched huts where they are forced to drink the stagnant water collected in the quarries, and defecate in the same area,” says T K Anandi, a researcher and social activist who has published studies on migrant workers. As with Malayali labour in West Asia, horror stories have emerged, of cramped, ghetto-like quarters and more. “It is deplorable that this is happening in Kerala, a state where the value of labour has been realised and where people have fought exploitation,” says Anandi. “The state has the responsibility to take steps to include them in society, because it needs them,” says CSES’s Kumar. He adds that the welfare fund’s coverage needs to improve and that a separate body should be set up to help migrant workers resolve their problems.
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The state machinery may be struggling to deal with the influx, but the local economy has been fast to catch up, linguistic barriers notwithstanding. At Rajini Cassettes & Audio, a shop near Perumbavoor’s Gandhi Bazaar selling CDs and DVD players with unfamiliar brand names like Samsonic and iBell, negotiations for a DVD player have just been completed successfully. The four customers speak in Hindi and point, the proprietor replies in Malayalam with the odd Hindi word thrown in, and prices are stated in English. The melange of tongues works: the four leave with a Cantor DVD player, after having beaten the price down by Rs 100 to Rs 2,200. “Sundays are no longer a holiday for shops in Perumbavoor,” says Siddique, the affable proprietor of Rajini Cassettes. Shop-owners cannot afford to have it any other way. The manager of the mobile phone shop next door says 80 per cent of his revenue comes from these workers. Further down the road, two cinema halls have taken to screening Oriya and Bengali films on Sundays.
Enterprising migrant workers have started ventures of their own. Rahul, a 24-year-old from Murshid-abad, has set up a computer and a couple of chairs outside a shop, and he downloads and transfer songs in any language to your mobile. He also offers mobile recharging and repair services. “I can earn Rs 15,000 to Rs 20,000 a month from this,” he says. But with more workers streaming into the state, competition has increased, he says. “Earlier there were four shops like mine, now there are 15.”
On Monday, it becomes obvious that these migrant workers do live on the margins. Not many are seen on the streets of Perumbavoor. Cars and a truck occupy the space in Gandhi Bazaar occupied by the chaat sellers of the previous day. The only gathering of migrant workers is an orderly one at the State Bank of India branch, where they have queued up to send part of the salary they received on Saturday to eager families back home. These remittances add up to Rs 1 crore a day, with the average size being Rs 10,000, says Vijayan P M, chief manager at the bank. On Mondays and Tuesdays, four of the bank’s five cash counters are dedicated to these transactions. Ironically, these transactions have not boosted the bank’s business. “The long queues turn away our high net-worth customers,” says Vijayan. “But it’s our responsibility to facilitate the workers’ transactions, too.” The bank has now hit upon a solution which it expects will keep everyone happy. “We will lease the floor above also, which will be dedicated to servicing the migrant workers’ transactions.” The separation, it seems, will continue.