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Migrant Workers in Kerala: The Stigma

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Migrant workers in Kerala face difficult times in the wake of the arrest of one of them in a sensational murder case

Mohammad Johirul Islam sounds apologetic. He hails from Nagaon in Assam, but now lives as a worker in Perumbavoor, Kerala. Nagaon is where Amirul Islam, accused of the horrific murder of Jisha which shocked Kerala, is from. Johirul Islam migrated to Kerala a few months ago and is trying hard to convince us that he has nothing to do with Amirul Islam. “My village is quite far, though the district is the same,” says Johirul. He keeps emphasising that what he knows of the crime is only through hearsay. “Yes, I have heard that somebody was murdered. Yes, the police came here. No, they did not do any harm. They asked some questions, that’s all.” Johirul is careful not to say a word against Kerala. He is also reluctant to talk about the change in the attitude of native Malayalees towards migrant workers after the murder. He says he has no complaints.

Johirul is a mason, occasionally taking up electrical repairs and earning Rs 600 to 1,000 a day, all counted. He lives in a tiny apartment partitioned into three rooms that is home for 14 migrant workers, sometimes more. There are 25 such flats in a three-storied building in which 500 to 600 people live together. Most migrant workers we meet in the ghettos of Perumbavoor are reluctant to speak. Many of them came to know of Jisha’s murder only after the police raided their tiny shacks and interrogated them. They do not even want to talk about their poor living standards. ‘Everything is fine, we have no complaints,’ is their common refrain. But there is a note of apology beneath it, a survival instinct in the face of the palpable anger towards them. “The already existing xenophobia has increased,” says Bobby Thomas, secretary of Migrant Workers Union. He observes that since the murder, all migrant workers are looked upon with suspicion in Perumbavoor.

Kerala cannot do without migrant workers. Over the past 10 years, they have become the backbone of the state’s labour market. A study conducted by Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation (GIFT) in 2013 found that the total population of migrant workers in Kerala had crossed 2.5 million, which is 7 per cent of the state’s overall population. The largest proportion of migrants, 20 per cent, are from West Bengal; those from Bihar are next with 18 per cent; and then from Assam, at 17 per cent. There are workers from Uttar Pradesh, Odisha and Tamil Nadu as well. Kerala, ironically, has become India’s Gulf for workers from these states because they get more than double the wages here. “We get Rs 250 to 300 a day in our state,” says Mohammad Thasnim from Assam who works at a plywood factory in Perumbavoor. He does all kinds of woodwork related jobs and earns at least Rs 500 daily along with a free lunch.

Kerala offers higher wages to migrant workers because its own Malayalee labour force has largely migrated to the Gulf countries, leaving a gap between supply and demand. There is a gradual decline in the flow of workers from Tamil Nadu, however, which CS Venkiteswaran, associate professor at GIFT, attributes to better social security measures being adopted by the state. Of late, tension between natives and migrant workers has been escalating. On 4 May, soon after Jisha’s murder, Kailash Jyothi Behra, a 30-year-old migrant worker from Assam, was lynched by a mob in Kottayam on the very day of his arrival because they suspected him of being a thief. After thrashing him, they tied him down under the scorching sun for an hour. Behra succumbed to his injuries while 50 people stood watch. “This is only a symptom of the abhorrence and intolerance that Malayalee society displays towards migrant workers. Now public demands for registering them with the police are on the rise,” says Bobby, noting that this amounts to criminalising migrants. “Why police? The government has other mechanisms to keep a record of migrants coming to Kerala. Even local self governments can play a role.” The Migrant Workers Union has been asking for comprehensive health insurance for workers. “Such welfare programmes will also help us address problems of anonymity,” says Venkiteswaran. “Migrants too have a right to enjoy the fruits of social development achieved by Kerala. Police monitoring is unconstitutional.”

Kerala has become India’s Gulf for workers from other states because they get more than double the wages here

Perumbavoor, where Jisha was murdered, is seen as the migrant capital of Kerala for its large number of workers from other states. This is on account of the area’s concentration of wood and furniture workshops. “Perumbavoor has around 150,000 migrants,” says Saju Paul, a former CPM MLA who represented the constituency for over 15 years. His loss in the recent election was pinned partly on a statement made by Jisha’s mother, blaming him for their plight. “Around 650,000 criminal cases have been registered in Kerala in the past year. Migrant workers do not contribute even 1 per cent to [the tally]. It is a baseless phobia,” he says. “At the same time, we cannot ignore the increasing tensions between the natives and migrants over differences in culture and lifestyle.” Hygiene, he adds, is an issue that divides them. Jobby Verghese, who was born and brought up in Kuruppampady, Perumbavoor, says that he can see the decline in public health and cleanliness in his area. “The contractors who bring migrants from other states should be responsible. They do not provide proper toilet facilities and accommodation to their workers,” he says.

Suharabeevi, who runs a grocery shop in a locality of Perumbavoor with a dense migrant population, says she has no complaints against them, except over hygiene. “Most of my customers are migrant workers. I have not faced any threats, but they are very poor in hygiene,” she says, pointing to the stains of paan spittle they leave on walls.

TB Mini, an advocate and trade union activist, concedes that there are problems of cleanliness and illegal activity in the state, but adds that it is the government and not migrant workers who are responsible for it. “Many epidemics which had been eradicated in Kerala are coming back,” she says. “There is no system functioning for monitoring the health of migrant workers. There is scarcity of clean water. They do not have adequate toilet facilities. Ten to 20 people live in small huts. They are anonymous and there are no records. There is no system to provide vaccinations or other forms of necessary medical care to them.” Established trade unions have nothing significant to contribute. “It is not easy to organise them,” says KV Manoj, state committee member of Building Construction Workers Union, afflitated to the CPM. “They work for a contractor and most of them stay at the construction site only in the accommodation provided. We cannot go to such places and work among them.” But Manoj has no cogent reason for not being able to visit these sites. “Organisational activities are not carried out at work sites generally. It is difficult. We don’t get [to speak to] these people outside the sites.” Manoj’s trade union has 23,000 members in Ernakulum district, but less than 1,000 are migrants. In the state’s northern districts, he says, the union has more migrant members. Mini charges that established unions like Centre of Indian Trade Unions, Indian National Trade Union Congress and All India Trade Union Congress are more attached to employers and contractors than workers. “That is apparently the reason for the absence of such trade unions in this sector,” she says. Within the complex social dynamics of Kerala, however, many migrant stories are reassuring. Some have achieved local acclaim as well. Sanjith Mandal from West Bengal, who works in a hotel at Kozhikode, is known as an artist and recently held an exhibition of 25 paintings he made on his days of hunger and destitution. It was very well received by both artists and the general public. “My friends made me conduct this exhibition,” says Mandal, who has experienced the usual hardships of living in a tiny shack without basic amenities. But he loves Kerala for welcoming him to the world of art. “I never expected such a reception,” he says.

Jithendra Kumar, vice-president of the Migrant Workers Union, hopes that conditions for migrants will improve even if the hard ground realities make it seem unlikely. “[Local Malayalees] look at us with suspicion. There are good and bad people in every community, and the same is the case with migrant workers,” he says.

Kumar, who migrated from UP to Kerala 12 years ago to work as a labourer on interior design projects, had not planned on taking up trade union activism. “He walked into our office at TD Road, Kochi,” recounts Bobby Thomas of the first time he met Kumar, “He was holding a bag which contained gold ornaments worth Rs 10 lakh. He had seen the bag fall off a vehicle while he was walking along a road. He was advised by local people to approach the office for migrant workers for advice on what to do. We handed the bag over to the police, and they found the owner. We, the natives, should open our eyes wide enough to see people like Jithendra Kumar. How many of us would have that kind of compassion, honesty and civic sense?”