Home / Politics / Policy /  Migrant workers flee after Kerala floods, upend labour dynamics

Perumbavoor (Ernakulam): Assam Mobile, a store with a Bengali signboard in Perumbavoor, has downed its shutters following the devastating Kerala floods, but remains a testimony to Kerala’s migrant workforce, and their present plight. The blue-collar workforce in Perumbavoor, a municipality in Ernakulam district, which houses dozens of labour-intensive plywood factories, are mostly made of migrant workers.

On Sunday, the factories dotting the lanes and bylanes wore a deserted look, with the premises and the machinery covered in mud. And, the migrants, too, seem to have fled the scene, hit by losses. “Some 2,000 migrants have left, a majority of the workforce has just vanished," said Abbas, a helper in a local factory.

A 2013 study by the state labour department said 2.5 million, or one out of 14 people of Kerala’s 33 million residents, were migrants, most of whom were involved in menial labour. The numbers look even more skewed given that every fourth male between 20 and 64 years, is likely to be a migrant, mostly from Uttar Pradesh and Assam. The study concludes that they send 19,000 crore back home every year.

Two 18-year-olds, Sharif-ul Islam and Rafeeq-ul Islam, have, however, taken shelter on the rooftop of a building along with a group of 10 others. “During the floods, Perumbavoor was heavily inundated, which forced hundreds of people to escape to safer locations, mainly to a local church," they said.

The “bhais", as the migrant folk are known here, were the first to get hit, they say, but also were the last priority for the locals. The rescue boats evacuating people to the church came to them at the very end, after securing the lives of the local population, they say, only to be discriminated against on food and supplies.

“Food counter mein, Kerala ke log ek tharaf ki treatment, bhai log aaye toh yeh nahi karo voh nahi karo bol rahe the (At food counters, Kerala people were given one kind of treatment, but bhais were told not to do this, or that)," said Sharif-ul Islam, who has been living in Kerala for the past two years.

Unlike the rest of Kerala, the non-Malayalee workforce had an added impediment. As the waters rose, they had little means to understand what is happening around, as many of them do not follow the local news media.

“They were told that the dams have collapsed and that was what was the cause of the flooding. They left immediately for the railway station to catch the next train out of the state," said Hamsa, a plywood businessman. A senior manager at a bank in Kerala, who was at the nearest Ernakulam South railway station on Friday, told Mint that there was a major rush of the migrant population.

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And, those who stayed back are staring at an uncertain future, as the Kerala floods have left them jobless. “Almost all factories are in a very bad shape, some have suffered heavy damages to goods and equipment, some have to re-wire the entire building. We cannot operate for the next two months at least. So we cannot pay them any salary or provide for their housing. We have clearly told them this, and suggested them to go back home," said a factory owner from the region, requesting anonymity.

“I don’t know how I’ll go back, as I don’t have any cash. Nobody has cash, sir," said Sharif-ul Islam. However, he has not lost hope and expects to find some work in neighbouring cities. “When the crisis came, nobody was there to help us. But people will need us because they need certain jobs to be done."

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