Higher wages make Kerala the new ‘Gulf’ for migrant labourers

By Jeevan Mathew Kurian, IANS,

Kozhikode : Kerala, with its higher wages and ample opportunities is emerging as the new “Gulf” for unskilled and semi-skilled labour from other states, even as far away as Orissa and West Bengal.

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The high wages, Rs.250-300 a day, for unskilled labour in the construction sector seems to be the main attraction for migrant labourers, say officials and manpower recruitment agencies.

An estimate of the number of migrants in the state is not there. The last study on ‘Migration in India’ by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) in 2001, estimated the number at one million.

“The NSSO report is now eight years old. The number of migrant labourers at present should be much more than that,” says N. Ajith Kumar, director of the Kochi-based Centre for Socio-Economic and Environmental Studies (CSES).

While there are around two million Keralites working in the Gulf and many in various parts of India and abroad, the state faces labour shortage in its booming construction sector and the traditional agriculture sector, say officials.

“It is this high wage rate that is attracting labourers here. Kerala is a ‘Gulf’ for them. In their native place many earn as little as Rs.50 as daily wages while it is Rs.250 or more here,” V.L. Anil Kumar, additional labour commissioner, told IANS.

Migrant labourers from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have been in the state for a long time. In recent years the state has been witnessing an increased influx of workers from Orissa and West Bengal.

“Many of these workers are brought in by labour contractors for certain projects. Even though the contractors take a share off the daily wages, labourers still find it attractive to work here,” say labour department officials.

Also many migrants from Tamil Nadu are going back because of schemes like the ‘One rupee a kg rice’ there, the officials said.

On Kerala attracting migrant labourers when the unemployment rate remains high, recruiters say the migrant labourers cost less than the locals.

“The migrant workers are ready to work for longer hours; are sincere and are less demanding,” says Joseph Thomas, a building contractor in Kozhikode.

“Only 50 percent of my workers are Keralites. While the natives leave worksites at around 4.30 p.m., the migrant workers stay back for almost one hour more. Their output is more, even if the quality of work is not up to the mark,” Thomas says, adding most of the migrant workers are unskilled or semi-skilled and are paid Rs.50 less compared to native workers.

Selvaraj from Thiruchirappally district in Tamil Nadu is one such migrant worker. His neighbours who migrated to Kerala told him of job opportunities and the better wages.

Selvaraj has been working in Kozhikode for the last 12 years now but has no intention to settle down in Kerala and will return to his village after a few years.

“I came when I was 18. Now I have taken a house on rent and brought my family also over here,” Selvaraj said.

Selvaraj earns Rs.300 a day as a construction worker. “My village is 60 km from Thiruchirappally city where the only livelihood available is seasonal agriculture labour and the wages are only Rs.150 for six hours.”

Kalu Charan Sahoo is a labourer from Orissa and he came here along with his friends four years ago looking for jobs.

“We have only limited job opportunities back home. We do all kinds of work; be it construction or agricultural work here,” said Sahoo. In Kerala he earns between Rs.200 and Rs.250 as daily wages, while it is around Rs.100 in his village.

Sahoo said they are around 100 people staying near each other in three-four rented buildings in one neighbourhood in Kozhikode. “We organise get-togethers every Saturday evening and conduct puja and sing songs.”

According to the labour department, the average wage fixed for construction workers in Kerala is Rs 232.63. “There are different norms for different items of work in the construction sector,” Anil Kumar said.

The officials say it is extremely difficult to maintain a close surveillance on the employment of migrant labourers. “The labour contractors are required to take a licence to deploy migrant labour. They also have to make a refundable deposit of Rs.1,000 – Rs.2,000 per labourer with the department. This would help us keep track of labour migration. But when migrant labourers come on their own, it is near impossible to know how many are employed here,” said an official.