There were several lakh migrant workers in Kerala when the floods struck early this month. Many are now staying in relief camps – mainly in Thrissur, Ernakulam, Kottayam, Alappuzha and Pathanamthitta – but large numbers have left. While many have departed because there is no immediate prospect of work, labour activists claim that some migrants were forced to leave after being harshly treated by some employers and discriminated against in relief camps.

Benoy Peter, executive director of the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development, a think tank based in Perumbavoor, Ernakulam, said some migrant workers had complained of discrimination in relief camps. “The local community refused to share the relief camps with the labourers in some places,” he said. “So the authorities opened exclusive camps for them.”

It does not mean they were mistreated everywhere, Peter hastily added. “Many employers took their workers to relief camps and paid them their wage arrears,” he noted. “They even asked them to come back when the situation improves. But some employers cheated their workers as they sent them off without settling their dues. A few employers who lost everything were not in a position to settle their dues.”

Perumbavoor, about 45 km northeast of the commercial hub of Kochi, is known as the hub of migrant labour in Kerala. It is home to over two lakh migrants, many of whom work in the region’s plywood factories. In all, Kerala has nearly 25 lakh migrant workers, with 2.35 lakh coming every year, according to a 2013 study by the Gulati Institute of Finance and Taxation, an autonomous body that advices the state government on social and fiscal policies. They work mainly in construction, plywood making, hospitality, fishing, laterite mining, apparel manufacturing and on plantations. Nearly 20% of the workers came from Bengal, 18% from Bihar, 17% from Assam and 15% from Uttar Pradesh. They are primarily attracted by better wages than in their own states and decent living conditions.

Their exodus in the wake of the floods is expected to hit Kerala’s economy quite hard.

Migrant workers in the Puranattukara relief camp in Thrissur. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

‘We are safe’

Speaking to migrant workers in relief camps across Thrissur and Ernakulam appeared to confirm Peter’s assertion, with the majority insisting they faced no discrimination. But there were some voices that had other opinions.

All 23 migrants in a camp at Puranattukara in Thrissur said they were given shelter when they needed it the most. “We would have died in the floods if the government had not set up this camp,” said Rizwan Pasha from Uttar Pradesh who works as a painter in Adat.

The rented place that Pasha was staying in with a few fellow migrants was flooded on August 15. By the next morning, the water was waist-deep. Their employer immediately took them to the relief camp in his vehicle and settled their dues. “He asked us to come back after this is over,” said Praveen Kumar, also from Uttar Pradesh.

They intend to stay put, however. “We are getting food, water and clothes,” Pasha said. “Everything is taken care of. We are safe. We will resume work once the floodwaters recede. We don’t face any discrimination.”

In another camp nearby at St John’s Higher Secondary School in Parappur, the migrants blamed the inefficiency of government officials for their woes. They said 17 of them managed to reach the camp only on August 17 because the government issued all warning notices in Malayalam. Moreover, the state officials did not effectively communicate to the migrants staying in low-lying areas the need to move to relief camps.

Dharmendra from Odisha who is a supervisor at a brick kiln in Annakara said he could not understand the official instructions. “They did not tell us clearly why we should go relief camps,” he explained. “We thought they were asking for us to do some document verification. When the floodwaters began to rise quickly, our employer got all of us to the relief camp on August 17.”

Their employer, Jopen, agreed with the workers. “They should have deputed officials who know at least one North Indian language,” he said, referring to the government.

Migrant workers in a relief camp at Chalakkudy, Thrissur. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

‘Least priority’

Migrant workers staying at the Government Model Boys Higher Secondary School in Chalakkudy, Thrissur, claimed they were given least priority when the camp filled up. On August 19, the day after the floodwaters receded, Bibek Giri from Bengal’s Murshidabad was sitting on the verandah of the school. He had been sleeping there for five days. “When we came here all classrooms were full,” he said. “So they asked us to use the verandah.”

A social worker volunteering at the camp, however, said migrants were not deliberately excluded. “We don’t have the space,” he said, asking not to be named. “The school had more than 1,500 inmates on Saturday.”

In Perumbavoor, the government set up separate camp for the migrants after some local people refused to share space with them. “So, we had two camps in Perumbavoor,” said a social worker at the camp. “The camp for the local people is functioning now. We have closed the camp for the migrants as all of them preferred to leave.”

The first special train taking migrants home from Kerala left Ernakulam on August 18. Photo courtesy the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development

Going home

Peter helped dozens of migrant workers find shelter and also lobbied for special trains to northern and eastern India. He alleged that the migrants faced most mistreatment by railway officials. “Many of them came to the Ernakulam station after losing their documents and savings,” he said. “They had been starving for days. But after boarding trains without tickets, railway officials harassed them. Our organisation got many distress calls from people who were told to get off trains en route. The Railways should have treated them more humanely.”

On August 20, Peter appealed the governments of Bengal and Assam to help provide free trains for the migrants who wished to return home from Kerala.

The first special train carrying migrant workers left Ernakulam on August 18. The 21-coach train reached Kolkata on Monday, PTI reported on Tuesday, quoting South Eastern Railway officials. It said two other trains which left Ernakulam on Sunday evening would reach the eastern city on Tuesday.

Heroes all

For the migrants caught in the floods, though, there were no greater heroes than organisations such as the Malabalar Cultural Centre that provided food and water to the workers, many of them starving.

The Malabalar Cultural Centre, collective of people from North Kerala living in Kochi, provided food for over a lakh migrant workers stranded at the city’s railway station from August 18 to 20.

“We have many restaurant owners in our group,” said Mohammed Kamran, the organisation’s secretary. “We were supplying food to relief camps. When we came to know about the plight of migrant workers we began distributing food to them as well.”

They served three meals a day. “On August 18 alone, we served lunch for 20,000 labourers,” Kmaran said.

Such acts of solidarity have eased the panic among migrant workers, at least for now. The mad rush to catch trains home has also subsided. On Tuesday, there were few people at the Kochi railway station. Among them was Israful Sheikh, a resident of Murshidabad, and three of his friends who had came all the way from Erumeli in Kottayam.

Sheikh said they were going home as all construction work, which they were engaged in, has stopped. “The floods also destroyed our accommodation,” he added. “We will come back after two weeks. We cannot make ends meet without a job.”

Peter said migrant workers will emerge as the heroes when Kerala starts rebuilding just as fisherfolk were the heroes of the rescue operation. “The state will have to depend heavily on migrant workers in the post-flood phase for cleaning and other related works,” he said. “I think they will emerge as heroes.”

Israful Sheikh and his friends plan to return after two weeks. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen