Migrant workers are not leaving Kerala because they fear for their safety. They have been departing because November’s demonetisation decision and the Goods and Services Tax, rolled out in July, have reduced the number of jobs on offer, according to fellow workers and trade union leaders.
Media reports early this week suggested that workers from northern and eastern India had received a series of WhatsApp audio messages in Hindi, urging them to leave Kerala to escape from the “locals who kill Hindi-speaking labourers with the support of the state government”. Pictures of the purported victims of such violence had also been circulated. The rumours gained credence after hundreds of migrant labourers were spotted at railway stations across the state. In reality, they were heading home for Diwali.
On Monday, the Kozhikode chapter of the Kerala Hotel and Restaurants’ Association complained to the police that “exodus of migrant workers” had created a staff shortage in the hospitality industry, forcing three restaurants to shut shop. The Association found out about the exodus after 26 restaurant workers disappeared the same day. “They didn’t inform their employers and didn’t even collect their wage arrears,” said Muhammad Zuhail, president of the Association. “Our internal investigation revealed they had left because of these fake messages. There was a photo of a hotel employee who had committed suicide early this month. It might have scared them.”
The following day, the Kozhikode district administration seemed to confirm the news reports, saying nearly 500 migrant labourers had left the district in the wake of the scaremongering on social media.
Yet, no exodus has been reported from any of the state’s other 13 districts. For instance, no panic has been reported from Perumbavoor, which is known as the hub of migrant labour in Kerala. Located 45 km northeast of the commercial hub of Kochi, Perumbavoor is home to more than two lakh migrants, many of whom work in the region’s plywood factories.
“No one has left Perumbavoor in the wake of the social media scare,” said Benoy Peter, executive director of the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, a non-profit think tank based in Perumbavoor.
Peter explained that the effects of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax have rendered many labourers jobless. After demonetisation, the plywood industry came to a standstill. “There was a severe cash crunch,” he said. “Production was reduced and it resulted in job losses. Those who couldn’t find jobs went back to their home states.”
Advocate Bobby Thomas, convener of Migrant Workers Union, an independent organisation that works for the rights of migrant labourers, also blamed demonetisation for the departures. “Media paid scant attention to the issue then,” he complained. “Now they are hyping the exodus story based on unverified reports. Labourers didn’t get wages regularly after demonetisation. Most of them couldn’t open bank accounts as they didn’t have identity proofs. They couldn’t send whatever money they earned home without bank accounts. All these factors led to their return.”
Kerala has nearly 25 lakh migrant workers, with 2.35 lakh workers coming every year, according to a 2013 study by the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, an autonomous body that provides fiscal and social policy inputs to the state government. Nearly 20% of the workers came from West Bengal, 18% from Bihar, 17% from Assam and 15% from Uttar Pradesh. They are primarily attracted by better wages than in their states and decent living conditions. They work mainly in construction, plywood making, hospitality, fishing, laterite mining, apparel manufacturing and on plantations.
But finding a job isn’t guaranteed. “Around 30% of job seekers from other states remain jobless in Kerala,” said KK Basheer, secretary of Manav, a voluntary organisation that works among migrant workers. “The job market is shrinking. Labourers can’t afford to pay for food and rent without jobs. People are returning to their states every day, and thousands are mulling going back.”
Akhtarul Islam is from Murshidabad in West Bengal. He came to Kerala nine years ago to work on construction projects. About three years ago, he set up a restaurant at Allapra in Perumbavoor to provide “homely food” to the migrant population.
Islam said he heard about the fake WhatsApp messages from his friends. “I knew it would not be true,” he said. “I was not scared.”
In fact, he added, nothing can scare him more than “notebandi”. “People from other states left Allapra immediately after November 8, 2016,” he said. “I could not run the restaurant because I had to pay Rs 9,000 as monthly rent. I did not have any option but to go back home.” He only returned to Allapra in April.
Alam Gir Mondal, from Murshidabad, runs a cell phone accessories shop at Allapra. He received the audio clip and pictures from a friend. “I knew it was a fake message when I heard it for the first time,” he said.
In Kozhikode, the epicentre of the panic, Sheikh Abdul Bashar, a waiter, said he found over a dozen missed calls from his mother when he got up on Monday. It was quite unusual as she used to call him once a week.
“When I called her back, she pleaded with me to go back to our home in West Midnapur,” the 24-year-old said. “She said people from West Bengal are being murdered in Kerala, and she has seen photos of dead bodies on her phone.”
Bashar told her he was safe and that the photos were fake. “But she didn’t clam down,” he said. “She wants me to go home at least for a day.”
Bashar had seen the WhatsApp messages the previous night. “They were forwarded by a friend,” he said. “I didn’t expect the messages would reach home so quickly.”
Quelling the rumours
The administration has since moved to reassure the migrant workers. On Tuesday, they were called for a meeting with Kozhikode collector UV Jose. “They are just rumours,” Jose told the workers. “Please don’t fall for them.”
Jose also said there are nearly 30,000 migrant workers in the district and they are all safe. “You should inform your relatives that you are safe here,” he told them. “You should urge your friends to come back to Kerala. The government and the district administration are with you and you can approach me or any police station if you face problems.”
Kozhikode Police Commissioner Kaliraj Mahesh Kumar said they are looking for people spreading the fake messages. “We will bring them to book soon,” he assured the workers.
Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan too promised to bring those spreading the rumours to book.
The state police chief Loknath Behra addressed the migrant workers in Hindi and Bengali and urged them not to believe disinformation campaigns on social media.
Meanwhile, the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) has alleged that the scaremongering is a part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s continuing campaign to portray Kerala as a “land of terror”.