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Migrant workers drive Kerala's economy

Jayaprakash K, Thiruvananthapuram, March 1, 2013, DHNS:

The fast burgeoning migrant worker population in Kerala is feared to rewrite its demography which will have serious ramifications on its social and political fronts in near future. Yet they are indispensable for the manpower-starved state. Kerala—where one fourth of its population is nearing 60 years of age and youngsters are gravitated to lucrative job markets —cannot just survive without them.
   
Warning of this, a study conducted by Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation (GIFT) points out that these young migrant workers are breathing life into the state’s gasping farm sector, propelling its burgeoning construction industry, toiling at small industrial units, hotels and similar places. In short, they do all the menial works in the state. Without them the wheel of Kerala economy would not move.

The last count shows that about 25 lakh migrant labourers are working in Kerala having a population of 3.33 crore. And their numbers are growing at an incredible pace of 10 per cent annually. 

In contrast, nearly 22.8 lakh Keralites are working abroad and nearly 10 lakh are in other states, says the study quoting a State Planning Board’s statistical reports for 2011. It shows that Kerala labour market needs at least 5 lakh workers more to maintain the balance between demand and supply.


This will further skew the native-migrant ratio in favour of the latter. Naturally, the state pays a heavy price for maintaining such a huge workforce from outside.  They drain out Rs 17,000 crore annually from the state by way of wages alone which incidentally is equivalent to the plan size of the state for the next fiscal.

Fall in future

Keralites working abroad remit Rs 45,000 crore to Rs 47,000 crore annually at present. But it may fall in the future as demographic analysts expect that the number of migrating Kerala workers may come down to around 18-22 lakh in the next ten years owing to the drop in native young population.  With a falling foreign remittance, it will be difficult for the state to maintain the migrant workers.

Though Kerala cannot live without them, their migration to here in future depends largely on the employment opportunities and wage structure in Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha and North East states from where the workers are arriving in Kerala in large numbers. And also the host society’s attitude towards them.

The report points out that migrant workers have made their presence felt in all economic activities of the state without the urban-rural divide, yet they face systemic social exclusion from the government, employers and the media.

They are often suspected as infiltrators from Bangladesh and Maoists and are referred to as workers from other States by the government and other agencies. This is being done with a purpose, suspects the study. This gives an opportunity to the host society to exploit them physically, mentally and financially.

“The exclusion works to the advantage of the host society in various ways: to keep the wage levels low, rent levels high, services cheap, and maintain a labour force that is at their beck and call, one that can be absorbed and driven out at will,” says the study.

Viewing the entire migrant workers with suspicion by the host society has badly shaken their confidence. But the fact is that nearly 90 per cent of them are genuine workers holding valid ID cards issued by competent authorities.

Unlike native workers, they work nine to ten hours almost without a break for six to seven days a week for less than Rs 500 a day, whereas Kerala labourers hardly work for six hours with liberal intervals for three-four days a week, for higher wages. In addition to this, they get the protection of various social schemes and their wives earn from MGNREG scheme.

Like their native counterparts working in the Gulf countries, they also face depressing emotional crisis. Their home states are passing through the conditions which Kerala has been experiencing since its men folk started migrating en masse to the Gulf countries in the late seventies. Nearly ten lakh Kerala men working in Gulf and their spouses face loneliness. A similar situation has sprung up in North Indian states from where workers flock to Kerala.

This may give a boost to the sex trade in Kerala. Volunteers working among migrant workers agree with this observation of the GIFT study.

Volunteers aver that as the Kerala sex workers migrate to the Gulf countries to cater the need of the men from here, the women from the northern states may come here to tap the highly ‘market.’ Language problem coupled with the state’s rigid approach to sex deter them from seeking the service of local sex workers, says a volunteer who has been studying their social behaviour. Unmindful of all these odds, the migrants are toiling in the God’s Own Country to eke out a living.

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