Guest Worker or Any Other Nomenclature – Kerala shows the way

Bhaskar Majumder

A great attitudinal change I observed while perusing literature – migrant workers are respected in Kerala as guest workers. Why not? If the throat-workers or vocal cord workers may be termed guest or adjunct or visiting, then why not the migrant workers. I was pondering over this and I unearthed the new just now – end of 27th May 2020. At the end of the tunnel some light was found – Kerala.

Of course, only diplomacy by terminology or revolution in nomenclature does not emancipate workers from pre-mature mortality-morbidity. So I had to search for what it was that the migrant workers in Kerala, even when their brothers were suffocating or feeling strangulated in many other states, felt not bad about staying back and of those who had gone back many already booked tickets to come back. A point of caution at this juncture – the workers were not delivered any lecture on Marxism-Leninism at the crises even.  

One way how the workers that cross state border to work far way is their social recognition. The manual migrant workers generally are looked down upon, perhaps because of a system that evolved as anti-labour. Even if the economic recognition is there like the taxi drivers in Kolkata or Mumbai who mostly migrated from the Heartland, the socio-cultural recognition seems still missing. This is a point where some trained in basic structure (economic)-superstructure (culture) may doubt my opinion – I say opinion for it needs further testing to be seen as a testable argument.

One point is for sure clear – it is post-lockdown conditions of the manual migrant workers. Many of them were engaged short-term in construction sector on “no work-no wage’’ basis and were virtually driven out by the thekedar/employer once the “no work’’ period started post-March 25, 2020 that is after the national lockdown was announced.  Millions of the migrant workers left the destination-city for Ghar Wapsi post-40+ days of lockdown announced by the political authority; they limped, dragged their feet with meagre possessions on their back, cradling children and families. Working Bharat walked hundreds of kilometres on road braving hunger and fatigue. Many died for hunger-fatigue on road whatever be the post-mortem reports on the cause of their death. Not so in Kerala. Only 55,817 of a total engaged 4,16,000 migrant workers in Kerala left for root-home. Of those who left, 400 booked their tickets to come back to the work-zone in the state.

The hydra-face of Indian state was exposed post-misery of the migrant workers across states on the circumference. The Government at the Centre was serious as acknowledged by the Apex Court of India. Meanwhile there were some aberrations – that was the state of Kerala that dealt with these workers with humanity. Though there is always a risk at interpretation in social sciences, I got the idea that Kerala so far recorded six deaths that is very much less than the distinction attained by any other major state in India. The point is not comparison by cardinal death – the point is the rate of success that the Government at the Centre claims and projects. If so, Kerala shows the way. Its model was built on care and compassion and this included dealing with the need of workers destination-locked in Kerala.

Since the 1990s the guest workers had been migrating-in to the state of Kerala from Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Odisha, Assam and UP to get engaged in construction sector, agriculture and the hotel and tourism sectors. Positive wage-differential and assured timely payment of wages was of course attractions for these workers. This was reinforced by state-care – the changed attitude towards the migrant workers. They were no more called migrant labourers – they were guest workers. This helped on the cultural domain as opposed to many other destination states where the migrant workers start searching for little Bihar or little Odisha in the model of bhai-chara (fraternity), or a replica of their own village-culture at the destination. The state of Kerala provides health and accident insurance for registered migrant workers; Kerala has a Minimum Wages Act for the migrant workers.

The way of looking at the migrant workers since past three decades as guest workers brought about sea-changes in how they had to be taken care of during Corona-crises 2019/2020 while most of the million+ workers decided for Ghar Wapsi. It was reported that on March 24, the Government of Kerala set up 21,566 labour camps in the state where 4,16,917 workers were rehabilitated supported by free essential commodities, masks, toiletries and milk. The local self-government ran the camps and the police monitored the activities. All the camps had public utilities like electricity and water; these had recreational facilities in addition. The Labour Department of the Government of Kerala set up Help Lines in every district and deployed volunteers who could communicate in different languages. The Government of Kerala also deployed medical teams and civil police officers who could communicate in multiple languages at the camps. These measures were no new benevolence specific to post-Corona crises. The state on the extreme southern corner of India remained often unnoticed when ‘Apna Ghar’ (own home) clusters were built for them in 2017 for its nearly one million migrant force that was cheap quality home.

These measures not only saved the guest workers in crises but also did not create any negative externality for sister states and similar workers elsewhere. No guest worker from Kerala was reported dead on road or under the wheels of trains/buses while walking for home for they were not walking. High wage for guest workers did not destroy development of the state of Kerala. A total of 55,817 guest workers left for their home states, namely, UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand and Assam when the Railways started running the special Shramik trains on May 1, 2020. Many of the guest workers who were not in the special labour camps resumed work, mostly in the construction sector.

It was thus political will weighted by humanity to look at the migrant workers – it was not only a change in name to “guest’’ from migrant. Guest of course implied that the migrant workers were their own people as were the resident Malayalam-speaking people. If humanity works, other barriers like language disappear.

The above does not mean that Kerala is crises-free – no state is and Kerala also is not. The question is how those problems are predicted and how preventive measures are taken in advance keeping in mind the protection of the most vulnerable. Kerala showed during Corona crises that she was ahead of others in proactive care for people, particularly the migrant guest workers.      

Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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May 30, 2020

Prof. Bhaskar Majumder

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