"A few months ago, when I was waiting for a bus in Menaka [in Kerala's Ernakulam district], a shopkeeper accused me of stealing a mobile phone from his shop," recalls Dilip (surname withheld), a migrant worker from Odisha who has been living in the state for the past eight years.
Dilip tells The Quint that he had not even been to that shop, "but when the shopkeeper saw me standing at a bus stop nearby, he came running to me, held me by my collar, and forcefully took me to his shop. He was yelling at me and threatening to kill me – and I didn't even know why!"
It was only later, when the shopkeeper checked the CCTV footage, that he realised he had the wrong person, Dilip claims.
Looking at the migrant community through a lens of suspicion has been prevalent in Kerala, even before the rape and murder of a Bihari girl in Aluva in July 2023, allegedly by a migrant worker.
So much so that the 'othering' has from time to time resulted in violence towards members of the community, leading to deaths.
May 2016: An Assamese labourer was allegedly mistaken for a thief, tied up, and left to die in the sun by a group of people in Kottayam district
2018: A labourer from West Bengal died in Kollam district, days after he was attacked by three men on the suspicion of stealing a hen
May 2023: A Bihari man was killed in a suspected case of mob lynching in Kondotty, in Malappuram district, after he was accused of theft
As the recent rape case again puts a spotlight on migrant workers, The Quint speaks to experts on the potential dangers of the criminalisation narrative not only for migrant workers, but also for Kerala.
Why Kerala Needs Migrant Workers
Benoy Peter, a policy and advocacy specialist at the Kerala-based Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, says the 'othering' in Kerala is "ironic".
"One, because migration is very much a part of our culture. And two, because we need migrant labourers as much as they need us."
"The Gulf boom of the 1970s had caused a significant migration of people from Kerala to West Asian countries. But over time, the direction of labour migration in Kerala has changed – now, Malayalis mostly migrate to Europe and North America owing to lack of economic opportunities," Peter points out.
But the fact remains that because of Kerala's own migration patterns, there is a dire need for workers in the state – a gap that is filled by migrant labourers.
"We must not forget that Kerala, too, is in need of blue-collar workers as we have a growing ageing population. There is an acute shortage of people who can do physical jobs, and almost all industries depend on migrant labourers – whether it is construction, fisheries, garments, or mining."Benoy Peter
A Kerala Planning Board survey from 2021 pegged the number of interstate migrant workers in the state at 31 lakh during the year 2017-18 – with this number projected to grow to 60 lakh by 2030.
While migrant workers are drawn to Kerala owing to its high minimum wages, "the state will be in real trouble if they choose another destination," Peter says.
A case in point – in 2017, nearly 400 migrant workers fled from Kozhikode after a few fake audio clips surfaced on WhatsApp with claims of migrant workers facing death threats in Kerala. One such fake clip even claimed that a migrant worker from West Bengal was killed by hanging by a hotel owner. The unexpected exodus of migrant workers put immense pressure on their employers – mostly hotel owners – who wrote to the authorities to take action against the spreading of the clips.
Rejimon Kuttappan, a migrant rights activist, says that the Kerala government terming migrant workers 'guest workers' doesn't help their case either.
"Calling them guest workers is highly discriminatory. Being a guest worker means you are not a part of 'our' society. It means that we only want them for their labour and don't want them to be a part of the mainstream."
This is evident in the fact that most employers pay the 'guest workers' lower than a native worker for the same job, as documented by the Planning Board study. For instance, in Ernakulam district, the average difference in pay between a local workers and a migrant worker is Rs 3,157 per month.
"Most of the migrant workers who come here are from marginalised communities. As a society, Malayalis will let them work in their homes, but when it comes to bringing them close to their families, say through marriage, that's a complete no-no. It shows what a deeply casteist society ours is."Rejimon Kuttappan
Athidhi Portal & Data Collection
Just days after the rape and murder case in Aluva, Labour Minister V Sivankutty announced that the State Labour Department would expedite the registration of 'guest workers' on its new portal called 'Athidhi'. The portal would collect information on migrant workers and provide each of them with a unique identification number.
Speaking to The Quint on the condition of anonymity, a Labour Commissionerate official said that a 'guest worker', his employer, or contractor can get him registered on the portal.
"At the moment, registrations are not mandatory. We are pushing for an ordinance to make registrations mandatory."
Minister Sivankutty, too, recently said that the Kerala government is mulling over making registration of migrant workers compulsory.
However, the migrant rights activists The Quint spoke to point out that mandatory registration by any state government goes against the fundamental right to livelihood of a migrant worker in any part of the country.
The police department, too, is collecting details of migrant workers in a district-wise manner.
"We are taking down the details and particulars of all the migrant workers who are in the district limits. All the SHOs have started the registration and we expect to complete the exercise of updation of data of all the migrant labourers by the end of September," Ernakulam Rural Superintendent of Police Vivek Kumar told The Quint.
The data collected by the police include particulars of whether the workers possess any social media accounts, whether they have a PAN card, Aadhaar card, and a Voter ID card, whether they have land, where they hail from, and what their permanent address is, among others.
"After collecting this data, we are going to write to the district SP concerned for getting a police verification done at their native place to see if they are involved in any crime," he said.
While activists say the enumeration of workers at the grassroots level is important, the existing modes of data collection only add to the 'migrants are criminals' narrative and would not translate into social security measures for the community.
Why Social Security Must Be the Objective
As per the 2021 study by the Kerala Planning Board, about 96 percent of migrant workers live in shared houses, while 39 percent live in temporary, kaccha houses. The conditions of these houses as well as their toilets are poor, making them vulnerable to all kinds of diseases. In the absence of proper protective gear at workplaces, they are also prone to injuries due to accidents.
The report further states, "It is noted that about 86 percent of these other state migrant workers do not avail any kind of social security benefits. This is a reflection of their poor quality of employment in a welfare state like Kerala."
In 2017-18, the Kerala government launched a scheme for the migrant workers called the AWAZ Health Insurance, which provides health insurance and accidental death coverage for migrant workers living in the state. However, as per the report, only 13 percent of workers were registered under the scheme.
Later, in 2022, the Migrant Workers' Welfare Board launched another registration portal, called the 'Guest' app, which saw the enrolment of 1.5 lakh workers.
The Labour Commissionerate official, who did not wish to be named, said that with the Athidhi Portal, the government aims to consolidate all welfare schemes in one place.
"We want to have a unified format, and with the cooperation of all other departments, we hope to bring everything under Athidhi, through which workers can get a unique ID, a card, and get benefits."
Activists, however, say that such initiatives tend to be short-sighted as migrants are a floating community in Kerala – and instead of introducing new schemes, the government must audit existing schemes, so that migrant workers need not go through the same processes over and over again.
"We should begin with getting address proofs to migrant workers through rent agreements. If they have an address proof, they can get a voter ID. If they have voting power, they actually have a say in what's happening around them," says Peter.
Moreover, the government must hold contractors and employers accountable – and ensure that they are paid as much as the native population for the same labour, he added.
"The basic idea is to not treat them as a separate community," he said.
This is the second part in The Quint's special project exploring the lives of migrant workers in Kerala's Ernakulam district in light of the recent rape case which has put them under intense scrutiny. You can read the first part here.