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Migrant labourers: Guests or victims?

Daily challenges include disguised unemployment, lack of safety measures, exploitation by unscrupulous employers

Mubashir VP 27 Apr 2022

Migrant labourers

Kerala is fast becoming the favoured destination for inter-state migrant labourers in India. Unofficial figures peg the total number of migrants at 40 lakhs, around 12 percentage of state’s total population. Are they provided with adequate legal protection and fair chance in employment? Fondly dubbed as ‘guest labourers’ by the state government, what are the real job conditions of these migrants?

Recently various accidents at job sites that claimed the lives of migrant workers have caused political stir in Kerala. In the March, collapse of an under-construction building caused the death of four migrant workers from West Bengal. Preliminary investigations showed the lax implementation of safety rules and lacunas in the documentation.

This was not an isolated incident. Such mishaps in construction sites have been reported from across the country. The insatiable greed of real estates to exploit the financial difficulties of migrants compelling them to either suffer disguised unemployment or work without proper safety means, triggerring such incidents.

The influx of migrants is surging in Kerala. State is fast becoming preferred destination of migrants from various parts of the country to eke out decent living. The pull factors are comparatively higher wage rate and social and political conditions.

Local contractors prefer migrant laborers due to low wage and lack of strict compliance with employment rules. Laborers are accommodated in inhuman conditions and are dissuaded from demanding better living conditions. In various sectors like construction, quarrying and agriculture, laborers are being exploited flouting all norms.

Figures of interstate laborers in the state

When Kerala started prospering thanks to foreign remittance and huge profits from cash crop centered agriculture, migrants from Tamil Nadu were the first to reach the state. They were succeeded by people from West Bengal, UP, Bihar, Orissa and North East. According to government estimates, people from Jharkhand and the North East now constitute major part of migrants. According to a study conducted by Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, every year 2.5 percentage increase is recorded in migrants’ arrival to Kerala. It is estimated that around 40 lakhs of migrant laborers are working in Kerala; around 12 percentage of total state’s population.

Six crore people are living in India as inter-state migrants, according to finance ministry reports. People from less industrialised states like UP, Bihar and states in the North East are leading the figures. Severe unemployment serves as a push factor to migrate from these states.

Unsafe job sites

Construction is the second largest employer in Indian after agriculture. It contributes around nine percentage to GDP. But this sector is fraught with dangers. Studies point out high mortality rates and morbidity rates in construction because of risks associated with it.

80 percentage of construction activities are done in totally unsafe conditions. Most of the deaths are because of falling from heights while working or collapse of under construction buildings. Abysmal rate of accident reporting compounds the issue.

According to experts, no studies are done in Kerala on hoe to mitigate dangers at construction sites. Without adequate protection of law, state is squandering the opportunity to protect the vulnerable migrants. This dereliction of duty absolves the government from compensating the bereaved family. Proper safety measures should be provided at sites according to the vulnerability prospects. Inspections at regular intervals will compel the employers to provide adequate safety gears for the employees.

Illegal ‘trafficking’ of laborers

Many employers are bringing workers with scant regard for rules. Migrant people being unlettered and economically weak, are not aware of their rights. Adivasis from marginalised regions are exploited and any demand for better amenities are ignored.

‘Unofficial’ agents are recruiting migrant workers from various parts of India. Once they reach the site, they are coerced to engage in dangerous jobs and are allowed to switch employers. According to activists, this is a kind of bonded labour legally prohibited under Article 24.

Lax implementation of laws

Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979 was the first law enacted by central government to protect interstate migrants. The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code 2020 were brought in to simplify labour rules. Although presidential assent is given to the bill, central government is still to stipulate the time frame for the rules to kick in.

1979 law gives additional protection to migrant laborers. Wage parity is an important suggestion. Rules also suggest paid leave and medical care. But these are flouted with impunity. Laborers have to bear travel expenses and are unlikely to get back the job once they take leave.

State government has brought in compulsory registration of all migrants with details of employers. Documents are to be verified at various levels and security check-ups are mandatory for house jobs. But these norms are not followed, allowing criminal elements to find refuge in the state.

Allegations of soaring crime rates

The uncontrolled influx of migrants has allegedly posed serious law and order issue in the state. Gang wars, substance abuse, theft, and gendered violence are on the rise. Sometimes they are being victimized by local community. Absence of scientific studies and lax approach of police to tackle issue sometimes leads to eruption of discontent among the local people.

Last Christmas, gang war among the migrant laborers caused widespread vandalism of public property at Ernakulam District. The employers are often accommodating the laborers at filthy locations in the margins of cities. This gives them suitable den for anti-societal activities.

Gruesome death of law student after rape in 2016 by a migrant laborer from Assam exposed the chinks in the armour of the law-and-order machinery. He was later sentenced to death penalty by a Sessions court.

In 2016, as many as 636 cases were registered against migrant laborers. In the subsequent years it rose to 744, then 805 and later 978. During pandemic, when majority of laborers deserted the state, the cases were down to 484.

The crimes are increasing and the police are reluctant to act tough. Employers are interested in profits and dismiss all legal responsibilities. Migrant workers are blamed for peddling drugs across the state. Along with this, lack of documentation prevents police from tracking down the miscreants and acting tough.

State must ensure wellbeing

Kerala Government welcomes migrant laborers to the state. It has implemented many projects to enhance their wellbeing through legal protection and safety instructions at hazardous work places. During the pandemic, Kerala was praised for protecting the migrant laborers by including them in free ration schemes.

It should take strict action to ensure complete documentation of migrants. They should be included in free ration schemes. Adequate living conditions should be ensured at accommodation states. Regular inspection by labor and health officials will improve their working conditions. Above all, state and police should approach humane and sympathetic approach towards these laborers.

* Mubashir is a journalism student at Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi currently on internship with SabrangIndia

Related:

Proposed K-Rail project to wreck Kerala’s fragile ecology
Emergence of ‘Super States’ in India

* Mubashir is a journalism student at Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi currently on internship with SabrangIndia

Migrant labourers: Guests or victims?

Daily challenges include disguised unemployment, lack of safety measures, exploitation by unscrupulous employers

Migrant labourers

Kerala is fast becoming the favoured destination for inter-state migrant labourers in India. Unofficial figures peg the total number of migrants at 40 lakhs, around 12 percentage of state’s total population. Are they provided with adequate legal protection and fair chance in employment? Fondly dubbed as ‘guest labourers’ by the state government, what are the real job conditions of these migrants?

Recently various accidents at job sites that claimed the lives of migrant workers have caused political stir in Kerala. In the March, collapse of an under-construction building caused the death of four migrant workers from West Bengal. Preliminary investigations showed the lax implementation of safety rules and lacunas in the documentation.

This was not an isolated incident. Such mishaps in construction sites have been reported from across the country. The insatiable greed of real estates to exploit the financial difficulties of migrants compelling them to either suffer disguised unemployment or work without proper safety means, triggerring such incidents.

The influx of migrants is surging in Kerala. State is fast becoming preferred destination of migrants from various parts of the country to eke out decent living. The pull factors are comparatively higher wage rate and social and political conditions.

Local contractors prefer migrant laborers due to low wage and lack of strict compliance with employment rules. Laborers are accommodated in inhuman conditions and are dissuaded from demanding better living conditions. In various sectors like construction, quarrying and agriculture, laborers are being exploited flouting all norms.

Figures of interstate laborers in the state

When Kerala started prospering thanks to foreign remittance and huge profits from cash crop centered agriculture, migrants from Tamil Nadu were the first to reach the state. They were succeeded by people from West Bengal, UP, Bihar, Orissa and North East. According to government estimates, people from Jharkhand and the North East now constitute major part of migrants. According to a study conducted by Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, every year 2.5 percentage increase is recorded in migrants’ arrival to Kerala. It is estimated that around 40 lakhs of migrant laborers are working in Kerala; around 12 percentage of total state’s population.

Six crore people are living in India as inter-state migrants, according to finance ministry reports. People from less industrialised states like UP, Bihar and states in the North East are leading the figures. Severe unemployment serves as a push factor to migrate from these states.

Unsafe job sites

Construction is the second largest employer in Indian after agriculture. It contributes around nine percentage to GDP. But this sector is fraught with dangers. Studies point out high mortality rates and morbidity rates in construction because of risks associated with it.

80 percentage of construction activities are done in totally unsafe conditions. Most of the deaths are because of falling from heights while working or collapse of under construction buildings. Abysmal rate of accident reporting compounds the issue.

According to experts, no studies are done in Kerala on hoe to mitigate dangers at construction sites. Without adequate protection of law, state is squandering the opportunity to protect the vulnerable migrants. This dereliction of duty absolves the government from compensating the bereaved family. Proper safety measures should be provided at sites according to the vulnerability prospects. Inspections at regular intervals will compel the employers to provide adequate safety gears for the employees.

Illegal ‘trafficking’ of laborers

Many employers are bringing workers with scant regard for rules. Migrant people being unlettered and economically weak, are not aware of their rights. Adivasis from marginalised regions are exploited and any demand for better amenities are ignored.

‘Unofficial’ agents are recruiting migrant workers from various parts of India. Once they reach the site, they are coerced to engage in dangerous jobs and are allowed to switch employers. According to activists, this is a kind of bonded labour legally prohibited under Article 24.

Lax implementation of laws

Inter-state Migrant Workmen (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act 1979 was the first law enacted by central government to protect interstate migrants. The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code 2020 were brought in to simplify labour rules. Although presidential assent is given to the bill, central government is still to stipulate the time frame for the rules to kick in.

1979 law gives additional protection to migrant laborers. Wage parity is an important suggestion. Rules also suggest paid leave and medical care. But these are flouted with impunity. Laborers have to bear travel expenses and are unlikely to get back the job once they take leave.

State government has brought in compulsory registration of all migrants with details of employers. Documents are to be verified at various levels and security check-ups are mandatory for house jobs. But these norms are not followed, allowing criminal elements to find refuge in the state.

Allegations of soaring crime rates

The uncontrolled influx of migrants has allegedly posed serious law and order issue in the state. Gang wars, substance abuse, theft, and gendered violence are on the rise. Sometimes they are being victimized by local community. Absence of scientific studies and lax approach of police to tackle issue sometimes leads to eruption of discontent among the local people.

Last Christmas, gang war among the migrant laborers caused widespread vandalism of public property at Ernakulam District. The employers are often accommodating the laborers at filthy locations in the margins of cities. This gives them suitable den for anti-societal activities.

Gruesome death of law student after rape in 2016 by a migrant laborer from Assam exposed the chinks in the armour of the law-and-order machinery. He was later sentenced to death penalty by a Sessions court.

In 2016, as many as 636 cases were registered against migrant laborers. In the subsequent years it rose to 744, then 805 and later 978. During pandemic, when majority of laborers deserted the state, the cases were down to 484.

The crimes are increasing and the police are reluctant to act tough. Employers are interested in profits and dismiss all legal responsibilities. Migrant workers are blamed for peddling drugs across the state. Along with this, lack of documentation prevents police from tracking down the miscreants and acting tough.

State must ensure wellbeing

Kerala Government welcomes migrant laborers to the state. It has implemented many projects to enhance their wellbeing through legal protection and safety instructions at hazardous work places. During the pandemic, Kerala was praised for protecting the migrant laborers by including them in free ration schemes.

It should take strict action to ensure complete documentation of migrants. They should be included in free ration schemes. Adequate living conditions should be ensured at accommodation states. Regular inspection by labor and health officials will improve their working conditions. Above all, state and police should approach humane and sympathetic approach towards these laborers.

* Mubashir is a journalism student at Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi currently on internship with SabrangIndia

Related:

Proposed K-Rail project to wreck Kerala’s fragile ecology
Emergence of ‘Super States’ in India

* Mubashir is a journalism student at Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi currently on internship with SabrangIndia

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