“For public attention: To prevent the exploitation of migrant workers, the public and contractor associations have collectively taken a decision and request you to hire them at wages given below. Masons: Rs 750 to Rs 800. Helper: Rs 600 to 650. Only those who are interested in working at these rates may stay here.”
A number of posters, with the above instructions in Malayalam, Bengali and Tamil, have sprung up at Muvattupuzha, a town home to hundreds of inter-state workers in Ernakulam district in Kerala. At first glance, these posters may sound harmless, but there’s a distinct, underlying tone of warning in them, activists say.
They say that contractors and agents, through such anonymous posters, are aiming to arbitrarily fix the wage rates of migrant labourers, especially those working as masons and helpers in the construction industry, without developing any kind of consensus with the state labour department. Not just that, the posters imply that those who are not willing to work at these specified wage-rates may leave the state.
“Currently, masons get around Rs 950 and helpers Rs 750 a day. So these are attempts by contractors and agents to cut down on existing wage systems. These posters are criminal in nature. They’re basically telling the migrant workers that if they are not ready to work at these rates, they have no right to stay here,” said George Mathew, a coordinator with People’s Union for Justice.
Close to 3.4 million migrant workers, chiefly from states like West Bengal, Assam, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Bihar, form a part of the extensive labour force in the unorganised sector in Kerala, a state that offers the highest wages for such workers across the country. From plywood industry to construction, cashew to footwear, garments to hospitality industry, these workers are a formidable element of the state’s major sectors.
But, there have been numerous incidents, said Mathew, of migrant workers being harassed and cheated over wages by the locals.
After the posters came up, Mathew, on behalf of the PUJ, wrote a letter to the state labour minister TP Ramakrishnan. He also filed complaints with the district labour department and the local police.
“Agents, who hire labourers indiscriminately without following any labour laws, have no right to fix wages unilaterally. It is illegal to fix posters like this. To unilaterally decide wages of labourers, to tell them not to assemble at points where they have stood looking for work for years and to assault those who do not agree with their view is symptomatic of the practice of slavery,” a copy of the letter, shared by Mathew, read.
Muvattupuzha Inspector Nirmal Bose acknowledged that he received a complaint about the poster.
“One of two such flex boards with the poster have been found. We investigated but could not find who issued these posters. Nevertheless, the municipality has been told to remove these posters,” Bose said.
“We don’t get widespread complaints of worker harassment. Sometimes, when we hear of disputes over wages, we try to intervene and get them resolved,” he added.