Labourers from other states decide to head home as Coronavirus fears spread & jobs become scarce
Muthukumar Vadivel, a migrant worker in Thiruvananthapuram from Tamil Nadu, is planning to leave Kerala with his friends for a few days till the Coronavirus scare dies down.
“I was working as a mason in the city. We are hearing that the number of confirmed cases in Thiruvananthapuram itself is four. Even though we are not scared, our family in Nagercoil is scared. So we may not continue here for many days. In a day or two, we may go home,” Muthukumar, who travels daily in public transport bus to Thiruvananthapuram from his home town, said.
Around 35 lakh internal migrants, the majority of them footloose labourers, are planning to leave Kerala as they are scared of Coronavirus spread in the state, an internal migrant workers’ activist and researcher said.
“The fear of Coronavirus has gripped the workers. Additionally, as the entire state is coming to a standstill, the job opportunities for these workers are low now. It is not affordable for these daily wagers if there is no work. So they have started to return home,” Benoy Peter, Director of Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID), told The Lede.
“Trains coming from North India are vacant and the trains heading to North India from here are becoming crowded,” Benoy said.
Kerala is a ‘Gulf’ for internal migrants as they can earn decent wages due to the minimum wage system present in the state. While agricultural labourers in Kerala receive Rs 648 daily on an average, non-agricultural labourers receive Rs 615 a day.
Meanwhile, the average daily wage in West Bengal is Rs 245, in Assam Rs 230, in Bihar Rs 210, in Uttar Pradesh Rs 216 and Rs 207 in Odisha, according to statistics provided by the Labour Bureau of the Indian government.
So there are around 34.11 lakh internal migrant workers in Kerala from 194 districts across 25 Indian states/union territories who were working in Kerala during 2016-17.
And over four-fifths of these districts belong to eight Indian states: Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and Assam.
According to Benoy, the majority of the footloose migrant workers fall into the high-risk category of getting infected because they use public transport for travel.
“Using public transport is a high risk, now. Additionally, these workers live in unhygienic conditions. And 99% of their shelters are crammed too,” Benoy said.
Additionally, Benoy said that workers from Tamil Nadu are more prone to be infected because the majority of them are aged workers.
“Additionally, they are less literate too when compared to other state workers to understand the awareness campaigns for Coronavirus,” Benoy said.
CMID’s research reveals that Tamil Nadu continues to be one of the major sources of footloose labour in Kerala.
Migrants from 24 out of the 32 districts in Tamil Nadu work across all the districts in Kerala.
Benoy claimed that internal migrant workers all together are spending Rs 15,000 crore annually in Kerala.
“Their average wages are Rs 15,000 per month. And they remit around 8000 and spend the rest here. If they leave, then Kerala is going suffer that loss too,” Benoy added.
Meanwhile, CMID assisted the National Health Mission to prepare multi-lingual Coronavirus awareness audio clips which can be shared through social media.
“These workers love to listen than read a pamphlet. So we made these audio clips. It is shared widely among them,” Benoy added.
“There are Hindi, Assamese and Bengali versions made now and circulated,” Benoy added.
Kerala Labour Department officials have already started visiting migrant camps and large-scale construction sites to make labourers and their employers aware of the preventive measures to fight Coronavirus.
An official in the labour department said that though no ban has been imposed on jobs, employers will be responsible for arranging all sanitation and safety measures for their workers.
The official also added that employers have been told to contact the helplines in case of noticing any suspected cases.
“Though there has been a demand to stop large-scale construction works employing more than 100 workers, the department is yet to come up with any directive on the issue. Health Department officials too have started inspections at labour camps,” the official added.
Labour migration from beyond southern India started significantly with the arrival of migrants from Odisha to work in the timber industry in Ernakulam district. Later on, workers from UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam also started to flow in.
The Kerala government-owned Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation (GIFT), Thiruvananthapuram, estimates that inter-state migrant numbers in Kerala have jumped from 25 lakh in 2013 to 34.11 lakh in 2018.
GIFT’s 2013 report claims that migrants from West Bengal make up 20% of all migrant labourers in Kerala followed by Bihar (18.1%), Assam (17.28%), Uttar Pradesh (14.83%) and Odisha (6.67%).
Kerala has reported three new cases of the novel coronavirus. With this, the total number of positive cases of COVID-19 reported in the southern state has reached 24.