“A person truly has freedom only in his/her own state”, explained Suresh to his wife trying to coax her into leaving Kerala. He had come from Tamil Nadu and was carrying loads for the Maintenance Department of a supermarket in Thrissur. Here, his manager treated him differently from his coworkers, shouting at him for minor mistakes and throwing around insulting words. Suresh, and many like him often feel alone in their own country. Keralites are famous for making homes for themselves all over the globe, but in our own home, many of our own brothers and sisters are feeling exceedingly unwelcome.
According to a report commissioned by the Labour ministry, the number of Migrant Labourers in Kerala has crossed 25 lakhs. The study shows that over 75 per cent of them come from the states of West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa. They come here in various ways and for various reasons. Hamid was transferred to Kerala by Voltas Limited from their branch in Bihar. Having come here at age five accompanied by his uncles, Kochi has become a home for him with the exception of his friends. The same can be said for Dinesh from Rajasthan who now sells watches on the streets of Broadway.
What has attracted them to Kerala is the relatively high wages they get paid here and prompt payment at the end of the week. Ramba and Mary who have been living here for thirty years has been travelling from Aluva to Ernakulam with their extended family to sell nick knacks that they make. Though they are very satisfied, like many such small businesses they are unaware of their labour rights and they are not unionised. A study from Kochi, which is believed to be housing the largest number of these migrants, concludes that migrant labourers are in fact paid higher wages here, but they work for longer hours and their real wages may be lower as they have to incur higher cost of living in Kochi on food, shelter and transport.
Labour and Health officials have shut down several labour camps in Ernakulam district for lacking proper sanitation facilities. There are more than over 134 camps for migrant labourers in Ernakulam alone. There are little or no social security laws protecting them with hundreds of people sharing slum-like homes that grossly eludes sanitary and health conditions. This state of living can be perfectly illustrated with the example of young Talib and his friends who live in the North Bridge colony. They have migrated here for a few months from Delhi to sell drums. While his older friends tried to paint a pretty picture, seven year old Talib broke into a rant saying, “The ‘Sarkar’ here is made up of crooks, they do not feed us or look after us. In Delhi people actually help us but Kerala is a horrible place where people don’t even give paper to little kids for recycling, people here are thieves. The police even hit us.”
Recently, the government has grown mindful of these conditions. The aforementioned Labour Ministry study done by D. Narayana and C.S. Venkiteswaran has made some suggestions for welfare programs the government can initiate. Such as a voluntary registration system, affordable housing, health coverage and awareness programmes in their native languages. Plans by the Labour Ministry to provide Gulf-like labour camps for migrant workers have recently made headlines.
The greatest problem faced by migrants is the transition to a new place. Jaibunnisa and Kainuma who come from Delhi wander around Kochi trying to sell waste paper and plastic so they can make money to buy ornaments. They sleep in a Verandah at the railway station where the police regularly warn them to leave. A lot of the people look like them but they feel different from them. While they make-do by cooking and eating their native food, the language barrier really gets in the way of normal life. “All states should speak all languages”, pleads Kainuma. “Whether it be Hindi, Malayalam, Urdu or English, all languages are one and the same. People should learn how to speak all of them.”
The lives of migrant labourers are still largely lawless and unregulated. They are a large portion of our population that remains undeniably neglected, whether they realise it or not. While the type of acceptance Suresh and Talib dream about might still be far away, the least we can do for our brothers and sisters is to welcome them in a language that they can understand. And that language is tolerance.