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Jan 19, 2024

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Workers at a construction site. Picture by : Anindito Mukherjee

Kochi: Hari Prakash (name changed), a migrant labourer in Kerala, has been awaiting wages of ₹18,800 from his contractor for over a year.

Hailing from Bihar, he now lives with his family in the Ernakulam district of Kerala.

“In 2022, I did painting work for over a month for a contractor but didn’t get any payment. He initially said he would pay, but I couldn’t reach him over the phone afterwards,” said Prakash.

“When I complained at the Angamaly Police Station, the police mediated a compromise wherein he agreed to pay ₹12,000. But his cheques have bounced thrice,” he added.

Last month, Prakash was among the 50-odd labourers who attended an adalat organised by the District Legal Services Authority (DLSA) in Ernakulam, hoping to get the wages their employers or contractors had cheated off of them.

 

The adalat, comprising a retired sub-judge and a lawyer, was supposed to hear both parties and settle the complaints.

 

A total of 38 cases were heard on the day, but none, including Prakash’s, could be settled since not a single respondent — employer or contractor — showed up at the adalat despite advance notices.

 

Over the past two decades, migrant workers from North and East Indian states have been pouring into Kerala that offers them better wages than their home state. However, their complaints reflect a growing problem of wage thefts.

India Labourline (ILL) — a helpline for workers in distress run by a collective of civil-society organisations under the leadership of Aajeevika Bureau and the Working Peoples Coalition — has received 1093 complaints in the 14 months since it started its Kerala chapter in Kochi in October 2022. 

Almost 98% of all complaints received were about non-payment or withholding of wages.

Disha D, the centre’s coordinator in Kochi, said they have intervened in 739 wage-theft cases so far, and that the total amount claimed by these workers alone added up to ₹1.3 crore. The amount claims range from as low as a few hundred rupees to ₹1.4 lakh in a case filed collectively by 13 contract workers of Kochi Water Metro.

“In the cases where we intervened, over half the complainants were from the construction sector, including painters and carpenters. About 20-30 percent were from the plywood industry. Others worked in shops, restaurants, the fish-processing industry, and the likes,” Disha told South First.

The team has settled nearly a third of the 1,093 cases, she noted.

A file picture of the India Labourline. Pic credit: Aajevika Bureau

Since workers from West Bengal and Assam formed the biggest chunk of migrant labourers in Kerala, they also accounted for the biggest share (528) of the complaints the ILL received.

Workers in Ernakulam have been raising wage-theft issues with officials as well, which resulted in the DLSA adalat in December.

But labour activists said that knee-jerk responses such as a single adalat were insufficient as migrant workers were vulnerable and their cases difficult to resolve.

 

The adalat referred 34 cases to the Labour Department since they lacked evidence.

The district assistant labour officer of Perumbavoor Jayaprakash KA said that resolving these cases was often difficult owing to lack of evidence. “Also, many migrants leave their workplaces abruptly without informing the employer, and ask for pending wages later on,” he told South First.

“One-third of the migrant workers in Kerala are footloose labourers,” noted Benoy Peter, the executive director of nonprofit Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID), which runs ILL’s Kochi centre.

“They stand in town areas in the mornings and wait for an intermediary or employer — usually a local person — to hire them on a temporary basis,” he explained.

Such workers have no proof of the work they do. In fact, most of them don’t even know the full names or addresses of their employers. And that makes filing of complaints difficult.

Though migrants hired in bigger groups by contractors tend to have some proof, such as a job card, this pattern of hiring is relatively less in Kerala, said Peter.

A report released by the Kerala State Planning Board in 2021 acknowledged that employers in the state tend to underpay migrant workers compared to locals.

Peter said migrant labourers worked longer hours than local workers, and employers preferred migrants for not just their skills but also ease of exploitation and that states like Rajasthan and Jharkhand had a much better system of complaint resolution through dedicated government helplines, a model that can be emulated by other states as well.

KN Gopinath, chairman of the Kerala Institute of Labour & Employment, a state-run body, said the state had 6 lakh registered migrant workers, whereas their actual number was estimated to be 10-12 lakh.

Labour rights organisations demand that at least regular adalats, or helplines or centres that actively resolve wage-related complaints, should function in the state.

Labour Commissioner Dr K Vasuki couldn’t be reached for comment.

(This story first appeared in South First.

The story headline and text have been edited for length)

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