Kerala added one more item to its long list of 'firsts' last week. It became the first Indian state to institute a welfare programme for migrant workers.
"Behind every rise of Kerala there is the effort of workers from other states," the state government said in an advertisement announcing the programme, which provides for medical assistances to migrant labourers and educational assistance to their children.
Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan inaugurated the scheme on May Day eve. Labour Minister PK Gurudasan presided over the inaugural function at which three other ministers distributed membership cards to selected migrant workers.
The local media, which was following up developments relating to the exit of the Kerala Congress (Joseph) from the ruling Left Democratic Front to merge with the Kerala Congress (Mani), a constituent of the opposition United Democratic Front, paid little attention to the event.
Preoccupation with politics apart, the media's indifference was indicative of the apathy of the middle class to the plight of workers from other states. Reports of exploitation of migrant labour rarely evoke sympathy in the state.
Millions of Keralites are working in other parts of India and abroad. There are an estimated 2.2 million of them in the Gulf States, which have been the main destination of jobseekers from the state since the 1970s.
Inward labour migration, which was going on at a slow pace for many years, gathered momentum in the recent past as remittances from Keralites working abroad fuelled construction activity and unskilled workers arrived to do jobs which local workers did not find attractive.
Observers have noted that unskilled workers of other states are coming to Kerala, "viewing the state as their Gulf." Labour contractors get them to work for longer hours at lower wages than are paid to local workers.
Dr N Ajith Kumar, Director of the Centre for Socio-Economic and Environmental Studies, who studied the condition of migrant labour in Kochi in 2007, had said the rising inward migration raised questions of governance, public health, sanitation, water supply, housing, urban environment, education, infrastructural needs and law and order, which warranted the attention of the authorities.
The State Planning Board, in its report for 2009, observed that migrant labour, like child labour, was a social hazard. It said workers had been coming from distant states like West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand besides the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Their number was increasing.
The board said migrant labourers were working under shabby conditions and did not even get subsistence wages. However, it claimed that much had been done in the last five years to "improve the life situation, education, health etc of migrant workers."
No one knows for certain the size of the migrant population in the state. Unofficial estimates vary from one to three million.
After the Andhra Pradesh police arrested Malla Raja Reddy, a Maoist leader of that state, from a hideout in Angamali, near Kochi, in December 2007 the Kerala government ordered a survey of migrant labour. The results of the survey have not been made public.
Meanwhile some alarmist theories are circulating among the middle class. A blogger wrote in 2008 that in three years' time 30% of the state's active population would be immigrant labour. Another claimed that migrant workers already formed two to three per cent of the population in most constituencies and they were in a position to tilt the election results.
The chief minister, while launching the welfare programme, said it would benefit about 500,000 people. This indicates that a large number of migrant workers will remain outside the protective umbrella.
In 1979 the Centre had enacted a law to regulate employment and service conditions of migrant labour. It covers every establishment or contractor employing more than five migrant workers. Few states have given effect to the provisions of the law.
Construction, road making and cable laying are among the activities in which large numbers of migrant workers are involved. Kerala was the first state to set up a welfare board for construction workers in response to the Centre's suggestion. It is this board which has been charged with the task of implementing the new welfare programme.
A migrant worker who registers under the programme will be required to pay an annual contribution of Rs30. The board will credit twice that amount in his account. The government will provide the rest of the money needed for the welfare measures. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 3, 2010.