Assam migrant workers in Kerala shell out their own Medical expenses


Assam migrant workers running a hotel at PerumbavoorBy- Abhishek Dey

What is the current day-wage of labourers in Assam? The answer depends on the place and nature of work. Being the heart of commercial activities in Assam, Guwahati pays higher than other towns in the state. In Guwahati (and almost everywhere), the construction workers get higher than others. Even within construction, there are grades – The Raj mistry gets higher than a brick layer. And a brick layer gets higher than a helper.

While Guwahati has reached its saturation with regard to labour demand, there are places in the country which have quite a labour shortage. And hence they demand labourers, that too, at a rate much higher than elsewhere. Kerala is one such state. In February 2013, a study by the Labour Ministry of Kerala revealed that around 630 labourers arrive in Kerala every day, and 17% are from Assam. While, my personal survey on the subject gave me a figure almost double to that. The study also estimated a wage range of Rs 350 – Rs 900, where only around 10% of the labourers manage to get more than Rs 500 a day.

Labour migration in Kerala must seem like a déjà vu to the Keralites. It is the state, from which a large labour exodus had moved to the Gulf in the ‘70s. Even today, every family has, at least, one member in the Gulf nations, who sends remittances to build palatial houses, but no labourers to materialize these dreams. Another reason for labour shortage in the state is its 100% literacy rate, which generates a desire for only white-collar jobs among the people.

In Kerala, migrant labourers from Assam are engaged in almost all industries among which construction, rubber and plywood are the largest employers. In Ernakulam district, there is a place named Perumbavoor. It is known as the labour hub of the state. It is no surprise to see a shop selling maah bhaat  (fish rice) and dal cooked with thekera tenga (I wish I could name that in English) in traditional Assamese style.

The Kerala government has welfare and social security schemes for migrant labourers and a sum of something around Rs 320 Crores is spend on them every year.  Kerala was, in fact, the first state in India to have its own Migrant Workers Welfare Scheme. Despite of having such schemes to boast about, Kerala fails to cover the medical expenses of migrant workers. They also don’t get a paid leave if they have to take the doctor recommended rest. The surplus wage rate they earn, have to be spent on basic food (which is very expensive in Kerala) and medicines.

Kerala ranks first in Dengue (Yes, it is not Delhi which has had more than 55000 cases this summer). Many migrant workers in Kerala suffered from dengue this year, and most of them had to shell out money from their own pockets. The pathological tests are expensive, so are the medicines. “I had a high fever and the doctor suspected dengue. I had to be admitted in a hospital but our employer did not pay a penny,” said Jeetu Gogoi, a migrant worker from Assam.

Jeetu Gogoi, who hails from North Lakhimpur in Assam, works at a rubber factory in Manarcaud (Kottayam district of Kerala). The rubber factory has a labour force of 30, out of which, 19 are from Assam and six from Arunachal Pradesh. “To recover from Dengue, I had to take rest for 10 days. That wasn’t a paid leave. Neither did our employer pay any medical expense,” said Ajay Tirkey, a migrant worker in the same rubber factory. Almost all workers complained about long working hours that exceeded the limits mentioned in the various acts, which adds to their plight.

Yasin Ali, another migrant labourer from Assam, works at a construction site in Kottayam town. His employer is a known builder who pursues construction business in many districts of Kerala. Yasin himself has worked in three different places – Thiruvananthapuram, Thrisshur and Kottayam (present). He fractured his hand recently on duty. His employer should have paid but he didn’t.

The Migrant Workers Welfare Scheme, launched in 2010 by the left government (then) of Kerala, provides for healthcare assistance up to Rs 25000 a year and various other benefits to migrant labourers working in the state. But it hasn’t been much effective so far.

The scheme has an annual membership fee of Rs 30. But the workers either do not have proper identity proofs or they do not come under registered contractors which make it difficult to get them registered under the scheme, said Mathew TM, assistant labour officer at the District Labour Office in Kottayam.

The immigrant workers need leaders to carry their demands to the concerned authorities. Even Kottayam has a few unions to represent them but they are hardly aware of them. “If they come to our office, we shall definitely make necessary arrangements for them,” said Advocate K Anil Kumar, district committee member at the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Kottayam.

Medical benefits are also conferred by the Employees’ State Insurance Act (ESI). Workers of the organized sector get themselves registered under this act, right when they are hired. But it is not so for the majority employed in the unorganized sector. “ESI requires long term commitment to one job, which is not possible for a migrant worker. Else, it is a loss,” said Vikram Sonowal, a migrant worker who recently shifted from a known footwear unit to a local latex factory. He further emphasizes how the wages they get are not sufficient to give a long term commitment to one job. However, he admits that the minimum wage rate in Kerala is much higher than what he could have earned in his native state.

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Assam migrant workers in Kerala shell out their own Medical expenses

By: Times of Assam Bureau Read time: 16 min