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Migrant workers changing the face of Kerala

Opportunities in Kerala come at a price

Children of migrant laborers sell toys on the pavement in Thiruvananthapuram Children of migrant laborers sell toys on the pavement in Thiruvananthapuram
  • ucanews.com reporter, Thiruvananthapuram
  • India
  • February 28, 2013
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Ten years ago, 49-year-old Bimal Sarkar sat in a train for two days and two nights to reach Kerala, 2,300 kilometers from his home.

Now he is a carpenter earning 700 rupees (US$14) a day.

"It’s big money, as I get only 200 rupees for the same work in my village," he said. And in Kerala, he can work six days a week, while jobs are scarce in his native village in West Bengal.

Sarkar is just one of more than two million laborers who have migrated to Kerala from the east, many of them in the past decade. He sends 3,000 rupees every week to his wife and children.

Kerala's labor minister Shibu Baby John says workers' remittances from the state have reached 175 billion rupees annually, according to a state-sponsored survey.

About 75 percent of the 2.5 million migrants come from five states -- West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and Orissa -- most of them mobile, single males between 18 to 35 years old.

In some neighborhoods of Kerala, there are now schools that teach in the migrants' mother tongues and cinemas showing movies in Oriya, Bengali and Assamese languages.

This migrant influx has been caused because people from Kerala themselves have been migrating for over a generation, to Arabian Gulf nations, Europe, America and Australia. 

With Kerala's high education standards, workers from the state find it relatively easy to find work overseas. Currently, an estimated three million Keralites work outside India. Kerala topped the country’s overall foreign remittance with 581 billion rupees (some US$12 billion) in the first six months of 2012.

But this large scale exodus has created a vacuum which the migrants from the east have filled, 60 percent of them working in the construction sector.

The influx does not come without problems. 

New workers are not part of any trade union or any social security network, nor are they aware of their labor rights. "They are only bothered about prompt payments,” minister John, also a union activist, told ucanews.com.

There is also a housing shortage.

“They live in the most unhygienic places, like cattle sheds. They have no access to medical facilities,” said K Chandran Pillai, another workers' advocate based in Kochi. He believes the government should intervene, as the existing trade unions have failed to address migrants' issues and political parties are generally not interested in the "floating population."

Social activist John Thomas said even religious groups in Kerala seem to have ignored migrant workers.

"Kerala church groups send missionaries to northern and eastern states, but have ignored the migrant people from these areas in the state," he said.

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