Kerala Government’s Migrant Database: Welfare Measure or Surveillance Attempt?

Over the last few years, Kerala has witnessed an increasing flow of labourers coming in from other states seeking employment. According to a study conducted by the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation (GIFT), three years ago, there are 25 lakh migrant labourers working in the state.
In a sense, they are a support system to Kerala’s economy.

However, in light of the recent Jisha Murder Case and other crimes being attributed to these labourers, there seems to be a deep mistrust of them in the psyche of the public.

Retd. Justice K. Chandru of the Madras High Court is an expert in labour law. He says, “Whenever a crime is committed, in which a migrant worker is suspected, it is the attitude of the people against migrant workers that matters. People have a tendency to take the law into their hands and brutally attack the migrant worker. Even the State/Police excesses are condoned.”

This fear within people has naturally translated into calls for the profiling of migrant labourers.

According to Dr. C.S. Venkiteswaran, Associate Professor of GIFT, this sort of demand can do more harm than good. “Right now, some of the migrant labourers live in the most inhuman conditions. Some of them are made to work for over 18 hours. These issues need to be addressed. How can we blame a minuscule percentage of migrant labourers for crimes that happens in the state? Their services are of value to us and so we must try to integrate them into society. Shouldn’t we extend the same benefits we give our labourers? Starting from establishing minimum wages, there is a lot to be done,” he says.

In 2010, the V.S. Achutanandan-led LDF government had set up a Kerala Migrant Worker’s Welfare Scheme, with the primary objective of providing social security to these workers. Under the scheme, a labourer has to pay Rs. 30 as yearly contribution, which would be collected under the Kerala Building and other Construction Worker’s Welfare Fund Board. The government and the board will contribute three times the amount given by the worker.

However, according to Labour Minister T.P. Ramakrishnan, only 53,136 people have been registered under this scheme. In this Assembly session, he proposed to start a database project of migrant labourers to ascertain the number of such workers in Kerala.

This move has evoked apprehension in experts, who are equating the proposed database to a surveillance method.

Justice Chandru is of the opinion that the laws relating to migrant labourers are inadequate. “I do not think creating a database by any State government will have any relevance. It is not going to solve the problems of migrant workers, unless the Union government thinks of a comprehensive legislation that will address all issues including sociological, economical, and cultural aspects,” he says.

Is it then safe to assume that the proposed database is a step towards the profiling of migrant labourers? Kerala Labour Commissioner K. Biju IAS disagrees.

“There is no compulsory registration that is going on. It is not possible to completely register them (migrant labourers) under any act. Even though there is the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, the onus is on the contractor to register the worker. It is an old act. Actually, people should not whip up a sentiment saying we must register migrant workers,” he says.

He goes on to add that the need of the hour is an incentive-based scheme to help migrants.

“Our economy runs on them. We need to come up with a welfare-based system. As a result of that, in this budget we have introduced a scheme called Awaz, a comprehensive health insurance scheme. Most people will join this scheme as it is beneficial for them. As a result, we also get information on the floating population of migrant workers. We are not starting a database. Suppose, we want to find out how many inter-state migrant workers are there, we do not have the data. This only a means of data collection, rather than putting them on surveillance,” he says.

According to the Commissioner, the government is already working towards improving the lives of migrant labourers in Kerala. The ‘Apna Ghar’ project has been completed in Palakkad, through which 751 units have been provided for them. Now, there are plans to start similar housing units in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Kozhikode and Perumbavoor.

When a considerable number of Malayalees work in the Gulf, aren’t we being hypocritical by harbouring a bias against fellow Indians working in Kerala? As the state is hugely dependant on the services of these workers, it seems to be time for us to shed our prejudices and work towards making our society more inclusive.

With additional reporting by Unnikrishnan R.

Main photograph by Imre Salt, via Wikipedia

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