Migrant workers are a special feature of the economy of Kerala. The state has both high outward and inward migration of labour. While there’s a lot of attention paid to outward migration and its economic implication, inward migration is a relatively less explored. For Keralites, migration to the Gulf, Arab countries and Europe provide financial benefits. Additionally, the migration of Keralites to different places of India, particularly, to the metropolitan cities is also high.
Immediately after independence, the economy of Kerala did not look promising. Its society was caste-ridden and was economically fragmented. The production level was also low. From the late 1960s, a sizeable percentage of the state's population started migrating to the oil-rich countries of West Asia in search of employment. In those economies, there was a significant demand for semi-skilled and skilled labour in the construction sector and other sectors linked to the oil industry. The earnings of a worker in those countries were much higher and a large amount of remittance money flowed back to the southern Indian state, changing its economic condition from the 1970s.
Population growth has been negative in many states of India and Kerala is one of them. Population growth in two of the 14 districts in Kerala has turned negative. Additionally, the number of elderly population is increasing. The proportion of those who are aged 60 and above increased from 6% in 1961 to 13% in 2011 and the trend is expected to be similar now. So, the supply of labour in Kerala is less than its requirement. This is the main driving force behind inward migration of labour to Kerala. At the same time, the minimum wage rate is much higher as compared to other Indian states. This is the main pull factor for migration to Kerala. Migrants come from over 195 districts spread across 25 states.
The pull factors for inward migration to Kerala are high demand for labour and a comparatively high wage rate. But there are other things like social security and health facilities, education opportunity of children etc. The Kerala government is keen to provide all these added benefits to the migrant labour force. The foremost is the health scheme, AWAS. The scheme guarantees free treatment of up to Rs. 15,000 in 56 hospitals, including in Regional Cancer Research Centre in Thiruvananthapuram and other medical colleges. Additionally, there is a provision of accident death insurance coverage of Rs. 2 lakh. Children of migrant workers can be admitted to government and government aided schools. In different places, the local administration provides for Malayalam learning centres. These are generally run in the evening and also during holidays. Learning the local language helps the migrant labourers. At present, about 25 lakh migrant workers are in the state.
As the young generation of Kerala is mostly interested in high salary jobs outside the country, the local labour demand gap is being filled by the migrant labour force. The quantity of remittances by outward migrants to Kerala is much higher than the money remitted from Kerala to native places of the migrant labour. Therefore, the state enjoys a huge favourable balance without hampering the required economic activity in the state.
The Apna Ghar programme of the government builds lodging facilities for migrant workers. A huge building was inaugurated in Palakkad in the last week of February, 2019, under this scheme. A migrant worker can get accommodation by paying Rs. 800 per month. These accommodations come with spacious washing and cooking areas.
The Kerala Migration Survey 2016 conducted by Professor Irudaya Rajan of the Centre for Development Studies shows that 22.4 lakh migrants from Kerala live in different parts of the world today, down from 24 lakhs in 2014. It raises the question whether there is any slowdown of migrant labour from Kerala. If this happens, then some problems may arise. There are some noticeable issues. First, the gap between minimum wages in Kerala and in other states of the country has been narrowed. At present, the minimum wage for unskilled labour is declared to be Rs. 450. But it is not always maintained for unskilled migrant labour. A few days ago, the reporter participated in an inter-state media visit convened by the Ministry of Labour of the Kerala government and met a young man in his mid-20s in Kozhikode. He was a migrant worker from Snakrail of the Howrah district of West Bengal. He told the reporter that he had been working as a juice maker in a hotel in Kozhikode. He had been earning about Rs. 15,000 per month. Food and a moderate lodging facility is provided by the owner of the hotel. Earlier, he earned Rs. 7000 to Rs. 8000 when he had been employed as a dish washer and for similar odd jobs in the hotel. The government of Kerala has been planning the implementation of Rs. 600 as the minimum wage in the state. But this has not been declared. If this situation goes on for long, the whole balance of the migration economy may be disturbed. At the same time, one should also notice that the employment opportunity in the state is not expanding according to the required need.
One of the important matters that Kerala needs to address is its employment generation. Kerala is reported to be the state with highest female unemployment. This is viewed as a sign of gender inequality by a section of observers. It is reported that according to the Gender Statistics 2017-18, released by the Department of Economics and Statistics recently, the overall unemployment rate in Kerala stood at 6.7% and a wide gender gap of 14.1% for women and 2.9% for men existed. Noticeably, the national average in both the unemployment rate for women and men stood at 2.2%. It should be noticed that the state enjoys the highest women literacy rate in the country. The study also pointed out that while the gender bias is more pronounced in Kerala, it is the spatial bias that is more pronounced at the pan-India level.
The government has been trying hard to increase job opportunities. It has set up skill development institutes. But the Indian National Congress, the main opposition party of the state, told BE that the incumbent Left Democratic Front (LDF) government has failed to create significant employment opportunities.