His cellphone is ringing but Divakar Kumar, a migrant worker from Bihar, is reluctant to answer. That’s because he knows who is calling and why.
“It’s my wife,” says Kumar, standing outside his rented room on Kochi’s outskirts. “She wants me to send Rs 5,000 immediately to buy five blankets; for my children, aged parents and her. How will I arrange that amount? This time last year, I was sending home Rs 15,000, but now I am struggling to scrape together Rs 3,000 every month. There are hardly any jobs left here now,’’ he says.
The 26-year-old’s predicament captures the crisis that has engulfed migrant workers from states in the north and North-East in Kerala due to the economic slowdown. At the last official count — a government study of 2013 — the state had around 25 lakh migrant workers, mainly employed in construction and allied areas, and the service sector, especially hotels and restaurants.
Kumar, for instance, has been a construction worker in Kochi for the last three years. But now, he says he is struggling to feed his family in Lakhisarai district’s Babhangawan village. “There were 40 men from my village working in construction sites in Kochi. But 25 have returned home over the last three months. Last week, I got work only for two days. If this is the situation, all of us will have to return,’’ he says.
Sravan Kumar, 35, from Nawada in Bihar, says it’s been five days since he got any work. “I have been here for five years, but I have never faced this situation. There were seven others in my room and all of them have gone back. Our contractors say there are no jobs. The daily wages were around Rs 800 last year, it’s Rs 600 now. Even then, we get work only for two or three days a week. We have nothing left to send home,’’ he says.
At Koduvally in Kozhikode district — the state’s famed Gulf pocket — labour contractor V T Shihab says migrant workers from the eastern states have been returning home over the last six months. “I was managing over 150 workers, mainly from Malda and Murshidabad in West Bengal. Now, there are about 25. Not a single new project is coming up in rural and semi-urban areas due to the financial crisis and entrepreneurs’ reluctance to make fresh investments. What is happening now in the construction sector is mainly completion of pending and government-sponsored work,’’ he says.
Shihab says he is getting frequent calls from those who have returned to their home states. “They are ready to come back if there is work only for 2-3 days a week. In the present situation, I can’t give any assurance. It seems these workers have no other place to go now,’’ he says.
According to economist and state finance commission chairman Dr B A Prakash, the return of migrants should be seen against the backdrop of a severe recession in Kerala. “The floods in the last two years have damaged trade, agriculture and small-scale industries. Business activity has come down considerably in rural and semi-urban areas. Purchasing power has shrunk and non-resident Keralites are returning from the Middle East due to job losses there,’’ he says.
“The slump in construction, which is the major economic activity across Kerala, has affected the prospects of migrant workers, mainly the unskilled ones,’’ says Prakash.
In several semi-urban and village areas across Kochi and Kozhikode, houses and tin-sheeted one-room camps erected for migrant workers wear a deserted look. At Perumbavoor, the state’s largest migrant hub, the Sunday “bhai market” is now a pale shadow of its peak days.
“Most of the contractors have sent back their workers. I have already dropped 20 migrants who were with me over the last year,’’ says Hazrath Ali, a contractor in Perumbavoor.
The exit has impacted local trade and public transport, as well. “Most migrant workers in our area have gone back. When they were here in large numbers, they used to spend money on mobile recharge and accessories, poultry and grocery. In the peak morning and evening hours, transport buses used to be full of these workers but they are running empty now,” says K Illiyas, who runs a mobile shop at Katharammal, in Kozhikode, which is a hub of migrant workers.
Many hotels in the state, too, have begun avoiding migrant workers due to the crisis. “Business has come down by 50 per cent in recent months. We have no option but to reduce the staff or close down as eating out, especially fine dining, has come down in Kerala. Due to shrinking job opportunities, local men are ready to work without bargaining for wages,’’ says Moitheenkutty Haji, who heads the Kerala Hotel and Restaurant Association.
According to a state labour official, the job crisis is mainly in semi-urban and rural areas where workers are hired by local contractors for daily wages, mainly in the agriculture sector. “There is a dip in construction and other activities in the rural areas. The crisis has not yet been felt in cities, where major projects are being executed,’’ says the official.
Those who are staying back — mainly from Bihar, Odisha and Assam — say those who have gone back are seeking jobs again. “Some of us, who can manage little bit of Malayalam, are looking for jobs in other areas in Kerala,’’ says Muhammed Aslam from Assam.
Sagar Naik, 23, from Suruda in Odisha’s Ganjam district, is now depending on other migrant workers from his village for food. “I haven’t got any work in the last one month. My marriage is fixed for next March and my house is under construction. But without work and salary, I don’t know how to manage,’’ he says.