At Gundumalai village in Kerala’s Idukki district, Sunu Nag is bent over his smartphone, swiping across images of migrant workers struggling to reach their homes during the lockdown.
The 36-year-old plantation worker from Godda district in Jharkhand, however, is not keen to return home. Neither are thousands of other migrant workers from North and Northeastern states who work in Kerala’s plantation sector.
According to the Labour Department, while over 2.30 lakh migrant workers left the state in special trains, those working in the plantation sector haven’t shown the interest to return. Regular work, free housing and several social security schemes are among the reasons.
According to B K Ajith, general secretary of Association of Planters Kerala (APK), about 50,000 migrant workers from northern states work in the plantations, mainly tea, coffee and cardamom. “These workers stayed back as they have a secure job round the year. For many of them, the state’s plantation sector has given a life they could not find in any other migrant labour market in the state. These workers are mainly from Jharkhand, MP, Odisha, West Bengal and Assam.’’
Sunu, who works with Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Limited, stays in Kerala with his wife and two children. “I came here five years ago. My wife Magri and I are both employed and we get Rs 450 each a day. I have got a free labour line house at the estate. There is a crèche facility for our children.”
Sonu said more than hundred workers from Jharkhand stay in his neighbourhood. “We have learnt about the plight of our brothers in many parts of the country. Many people in our villages do not have jobs or are working for meagre wages without any other benefits. We don’t want to go back.”
A Labour Department official said migrants in the plantation sector could be termed a privileged group at the time of the lockdown. “Plantation workers are entitled to all benefits, including PF, ESI and maternity leave with salary and medical coverage envisaged in the Plantation Labour Act. Even during lockdown, they had work in estates. The wages are regular and both husband and wife get work,” the official said.
Kerala’s plantation labour sector has been dominated for generations by local and Tamil workers. However, when the younger generation of these traditional labourers lost interest in the sector, plantation owners had to scout for new hands.
According to Harrison Malayalam Plantations Limited vice-president V Venugopal, “Estate jobs were passed on from one generation to another. In recent years, children of plantation workers got educated and found jobs outside. When there was a shortage of new hands from the traditional sector, we went for migrant workers. Some of them had come in search of jobs and others were handpicked by employers through agents,’’ said Venugopal. Lissy Sunny, an estate worker in Munnar and leader of Penpillai Orumai, which led a women labour unrest in 2015, says, “We don’t want to send our children for estate work anymore. Let our children find jobs outside this sector. In the coming years, the number of traditional workers in estates would come down.’’ Lissy’s son works with a private firm and daughter is a college lecturer.
APK general secretary Ajith said demand for plantation jobs is likely to go up due to lockdown. “We are getting job queries from persons who lost jobs in cities. This could be an indication that people are more concerned about social security,’’ he said.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines