A losing situation
Bengali migrant workers in Kerala now face the unprecedented dilemma of staying for possible jobs or going home for safety, write Monalisha Chakraborty & Subrata Mukherjee
According to a 2013 study by the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, there were about 2.5 million migrant workers in Kerala, with four states — West Bengal, Assam, Bihar and Orissa together accounting for 62 per cent of the total migrants. With 20 per cent share, West Bengal topped the list of all Indian states. Deficient supply of local labour for unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, substantially higher wage rates compared to other Indian states and relatively stable labour market have made Kerala an attractive destination for migrant workers from all other states, especially from northern, eastern and north-eastern states. Until the 1990s, migrant workers from neighbouring states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu used to meet Kerala's deficient supply of local labour. From the 1990s migrant workers mostly from West Bengal, Odisha, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar started filling the void in the labour market of Kerala.
Almost a year-and-a-half ago, we conducted extensive interviews of several Bengali migrant workers in select pockets of Thiruvananthapuram and Thrissur. Though a majority of the workers we interviewed were engaged in the construction sector as masons and helpers, we came across a few numbers of carpenters, painters, pipeline workers, marble workers, centring workers and others working in restaurants and shops. The helpers are mostly unskilled workers and like any other unskilled workers, they can be hired for any suitable work not requiring specific skills. Most of these workers are in their thirties. About one-fourth of them are illiterate and the majority of the remaining workers are school dropouts. We came across workers who had been working in Kerala for the last fifteen years or so as well as workers who came to the state just a few months ago. After leaving their native villages in Bengal many of these workers worked in towns closer to their villages, Kolkata or in other states before they finally landed in Kerala. However, the number of workers who have directly come to Kerala from their villages is not less. For 87 per cent of the workers, it was their fellow villagers or friends (who had already migrated to Kerala) told them about the job opportunities in and help them in getting a job. Although most of the migrant workers found their job through friends or fellow villagers, the majority of them are now employed under contractors.
The average monthly earning of a migrant worker is about Rs 15,000 and at least one-third of it is spent on accommodation, food and other items. Even though the cost of living in Kerala is higher, an average worker can send at least one lakh rupees back home annually and the skilled workers can send even more. Almost 90 per cent of the workers we interviewed were married but the nature of their living arrangement was not suitable for bringing their family to Kerala. Even if there was a scope, they would not have brought their families to Kerala, they said.
Now living in a place thousands of kilometers away from their native villages, they do not have many avenues for entertainment. They spend most of their leisure time by chit chatting in their circles, watching videos and listening to music on their mobile phones, cooking etc. Almost half of the workers are reported to be addicted to smoking, chewing tobacco or drinking. Many of the workers showed us their health insurance cards which were provided to them by the Government of Kerala. In 2017, the labour and skill department of the Government of Kerala started a health insurance scheme, known as AWAZ, for the migrant workers in Kerala which promises free treatment worth Rs 15,000 per year and insurance coverage of Rs 2,00,000 for accidental death.
Like other migrant workers in the country, these workers were left stranded when the countrywide lockdown started on March 25. However, unlike the migrant workers elsewhere, they did not show much desperation to return to their native villages in Bengal. As Kerala was very efficiently able to contain the spread of COVID-19 in its initial phase, the State Government started allowing some business and other economic activities to re-open in May. Some of these migrant workers started getting work in the middle of May but unlike the normal time, worksites were allowed to function only with limited labourers. As a result, not all the workers were getting a job every day. By June, many of the workers that we had spoken with in May, either returned to their villages by special migrants' train Shramik Express or were waiting for the next available train. Nonetheless, returning home has not provided most of them any relief from distress and anxiety. Asim, a migrant from Purba Medinipur district, returned to his village in June. He is now worried about how to run the family with five members and how he will repay the loan that he had taken from the Bandhan Bank. Another returned migrant, Akash from Jalpaiguri district, is now wondering, "Shall I get 100 days of work in this rainy season? Work was available in Kerala when I returned at the beginning of June. I want to be back in Kerala soon." he said. Jamirul from Akash's village told us 'People having land will not experience much difficulty. But we do not have any land."
To our surprise, some of the migrant workers still prefer to stay back in Kerala. Jatin, from Purba Medinipur district who is working as a helper in Thiruvananthapuram, does not want to return to his village now. He asked us 'What shall I do after returning home? Who will provide me with work there?"
When we talked to them in August, the situation had significantly changed in Kerala. By the end of June, Kerala started witnessing a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, resulting in many localised lockdowns, identification of hotspots and demarcation of containment zones. The situation also changed for these migrant workers. Some of them are now too scared to go for work even if it is available. Jiban, a migrant from Purba Medinipur district, told us, "Two people in my workplace were tested positive for Coronavirus and the place was sealed. I am not going to work for the last three days. My company is talking about sending me to some other workplace but I am scared to go anywhere."
Unemployment, low wage rate, the uncertainty of work and poverty had once forced these people to leave their homes and made them travel thousands of kilometres in search of livelihood in Kerala. The current pandemic has put them in an unprecedented dilemma. Those who have returned to their villages are now worried about incomes and survival and expressing a strong desire to return to Kerala. Those who are staying back in Kerala are desperate to be united with their families in the village but the fear of losing income is holding them back.
*Names of all migrant workers are changed to preserve their privacy.
Monalisha Chakraborty is a research scholar and Subrata Mukherjee is an associate professor at the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata. Views expressed are personal