Migrant labourers from poorer states get paid much less than those from more developed states in Tamil Nadu
Other than the Annas (big brothers) from Tamil Nadu, the rest of the migrant workers in Kerala are referred to as Bhais (brothers) irrespective of whether they come from the eastern or northern states of India.
But when it comes to paying them, the divisions are more distinct – they become Assamese, Biharis, Bengalis, Odiyas and Tamilians.
An investigation by The Lede has found that the Annas of Tamil Nadu get higher pay than the Bhais, despite both doing the same job.
Talking to The Lede, Kamal Barman, an Assamese migrant construction worker in Thiruvananthapuram, confirmed that there is a pay difference for the same job.
“I work as a helper in construction sites. I get Rs 650 per day as wages. But the Tamilians who work with me get Rs 800 or sometimes even Rs 850. They are doing the same job I do and also the working hours are the same. But there is no equality in pay,” Barman said.
Barman, who plans to be in Kerala for a few more years, has been working here for the past 10 years and is not particularly worried about the pay difference.
When asked why Tamilians get higher wages for the same job, Barman said that Tamilians are very close to Keralites and this familiarity means more money.
“One reason is that Tamilians have been migrating to Kerala much before us. They know most of the contractors here and the language too. So they negotiate well. We struggle on those fronts. So we are paid less,” Barman said.
Narayan Majumdhar, 51, a helper from Assam, also said the same.
“Tamilians are very close to Keralites. And they have come here much before us. So they get more. But it doesn’t worry us,” said Narayan, who earns around Rs 700 per day.
A recent study by non-profit Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID) reveals that migrants from 194 districts across 25 Indian states/union territories were working in Kerala during 2016-17.
Over four-fifths of these districts belong to eight Indian states - Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Assam.
Contrary to the popular perception that migration from Tamil Nadu has significantly reduced, CMID’s research reveals that Tamil Nadu continues to be one of the major sources of footloose labour in Kerala.
Among the eight leading source states, Tamil Nadu, along with Assam, had the largest number of districts from where workers were found in Kerala.
Migrants from 24 out of the 32 districts in Tamil Nadu work across all the districts in Kerala.
Tamil migrants played a key role in the construction sector in Kerala from the mid-1970s.
In the 1990s, Kochi, the construction hub and commercial capital of Kerala had witnessed large migration of labourers from Tamil Nadu.
In 2007 workers from 13 districts in Tamil Nadu, predominantly from Dindigul, Trichy, Theni, and Madurai were working in Kochi city.
Interestingly, three-fifths of the migrants in Thiruvananthapuram district in 2007 were from Tamil Nadu.
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%).
Benoy Peter, executive director, CMID, says there is no surprise that there are different wages for labourers from different states. He adds that this has been even in the case of Keralites, with women getting paid less than men for the same work.
“This is because of the differential vulnerabilities of these people and there is good supply compared to demand. If you are desperate for a job, you are ready to compromise. This is the opportunity that the employers exploit. The more vulnerable you are the less you negotiate,” Peter told The Lede.
“For the same job, the Malayali gets the best wage, the Tamilian gets next best, and for the rest of them, it depends on how best they negotiate,” he added.
According to Peter, the tribals, the elderly, women, those who do not understand the language, those who are relatively new to Kerala, those whose families are in debt traps, those who have more dependents, those who did not get a job immediately after migration are some of the groups vulnerable to exploitation.
Workers from tribal, Scheduled Castes and minority communities from far off regions appear to constitute the majority of the migrant workforce in Kerala. This includes single women and girls, senior citizens and families.
According to the CMID study, of the 194 districts in India from where migrant workers have come to Kerala, 33 are among the top 100 districts in India with the largest number of Scheduled Tribe population.
In 21 of the 194 districts, the proportion of Scheduled Tribes ranged from 98% to 50%.
Peter also added that the relative wage differential at source and destination is another reason.
“If I come from a place where daily wage is Rs 200, I am happy with Rs 600 and okay if some others get Rs 650, as what I get is far beyond my expectations,” he said, adding that the rights sensitivity is minimal, and given the poor support from trade unions, a population which is skewed towards socially and economically deprived communities will not raise their voice unless there is intervention.
Agricultural labourers in Kerala receive Rs 648 daily on an average – non-agricultural labourers receive Rs 615 a day.
The average daily wage in West Bengal is Rs 245, in Assam Rs 230, in Bihar Rs 210, in UP Rs 216 and Rs 207 in Odisha, according to statistics provided by the Labour Bureau of the Indian government.
Confirming what Peter says, Palanivel Murukan, 50, a mason from Tirunelveli district in Tamil Nadu said that there is a pay difference and he gets higher than what other Bhai masons get.
“We are skilled. We know Keralites. We know the work. And we are here for a long time. So, there is no surprise in us getting higher pay,” says Palanivel, who travels home once in two weeks.
Meanwhile, a senior official from the state labour department said that disparity in pay is not encouraged at all and those who are victims can approach them.
When The Lede asked how workers could complain when they do not even have a proper job contract, the official explained that even verbal complaints are noted down and inspections are initiated.
Given the transformation in the age structure of the population, migrant workers from outside Kerala have become an important and integral part of the Kerala economy.
Their presence is very evident from the agriculture sector to the service sector and from urban centres of the state to remote corners.
Besides fuelling the industrial growth in the state, these workers also spend nearly one-third of their earnings in Kerala which could be around $100 billion in 2017.
And the available estimates indicate that migration to Kerala from other states has either surpassed or is on the verge of overtaking the quantum of migration from Kerala.
The future of human development in Kerala is also dependent on how fast this migrant population catches up with the current level of development in the state.
Peter said that given the saturation of most of the human development indicators, migrants’ access or lack of access to products and services is likely to influence the overall achievements.
“Kerala needs to realise that the state requires the migrant workers more than they require the state. Creating this awareness among key stakeholders is fundamental in developing migrant inclusive policies. It is important to expand the scope of NORKA (Non Resident Keralites Affairs) to a Department of Migrant Affairs to manage the heavy in-migration to the state. Kerala now has the opportunity to diffuse its much-acclaimed social development to some of the most deprived regions of India while these workers help the state tide over the worsening human resource crisis,” he added.