Shortage of labour is crippling Kerala
The small Indian state has been exporting manpower for decades – and is now in the throes of a severe labour shortage
Visiting my home state of Kerala from Qatar, where I work as a journalist, I bumped into an old friend who works in another Gulf country. Grim-faced, he was rushing to the site where his house was being constructed. He stopped for a few seconds to talk of the travails of building a house in our village due to a severe shortage of skilled manual labour. Among the experiences he recounted was one in which he had to bring a worker in his own vehicle from several kilometres away, having woken him from the sleep he was enjoying after watching a World Cup match.
Throughout my travel in Kerala, my friend’s experience found a painful echo. Shortage of labour was the talk of the town, and people joked that, to build a house, wads of cash will not suffice; you need good contacts among construction workers.
Kerala, a small state on India’s southern tip, is the largest exporter of both skilled and unskilled manpower to the oil-rich Gulf Arab states. There are around 2.5 million Keralites working in the Gulf, and their remittances to the tune of billions of dollars a year are not only the economic mainstay of the state, but once propped up the forex reserves of the Indian government.
Unfortunately, though, the state whose workforce is manning the economies of the Gulf is itself going through an acute, debilitating shortage of skilled manual labour, which presents an interesting case study in migration. The finger of blame should first point to the pernicious influence of oil-generated affluence.
Kerala is a land of extremes. It’s blessed with abundant natural beauty, winning it a coveted slot on the global tourism map; it’s the first Indian state to achieve 100% literacy; it has made unprecedented advances in healthcare; and it ranks first in the country in terms of per capita household income. There is also is no rural-urban divide, with the entire state classified as semi-urban.
Most importantly, it is an exporter of manpower to the world. Keralites’ enthusiasm to toil in remote places to eke out a living is legendary, and a local joke has it that when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon he was disturbed by a voice from behind – a Keralite asking him if wanted tea or coffee.
On the flipside, Kerala is perennially strike-prone, with a penchant for hartal by political parties and workers; the people of the state are heavy drinkers, with the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in the country; it has the highest suicide rate; and is overwhelmed by a consumerist culture without producing anything except export-quality manpower, and relying on neighbouring states even for basic foodstuffs.
The migration of workers from Kerala to the Gulf states began in the 1970s and the petrodollar-generated opulence transformed its social landscape. Those who amassed wealth abroad flaunted it back home with luxurious lifestyles, with palatial houses becoming a potent symbol of a person’s social status. A new generation of skilled workers, such as carpenters and masons, abandoned their family trade in search of white-collar jobs.
The current crisis is not caused by a shortage of manpower – as the state is reeling under high unemployment – but is the result of skewed social perceptions about work. Today, doing manual labour is considered infra dig; there is a mad race to make quick cash, and people are unwilling to work in their own state while struggling in the torrid desert sun in the Arabian Gulf.
The repercussions are visible. The cost of labour has shot up, with even delinquent workers calling the shots; the agriculture sector has withered, and investors are shunning the state for fear of strikes and unaffordable wages. Even the few coconut trees in the backyard of every house are wilting due to lack of care.
But history is repeating itself. The vacuum in the labour market is being filled by migrants from distant states who are attracted by the high wages, turning Kerala into their equivalent of a “Gulf” state. The construction sector and the quarries are already dominated by non-Keralites, and to top it all, reports are emerging of abuse of these migrants by their employers, reminiscent of the workplace abuse undergone by Keralites in the Gulf.
While waiting for my flight at the Doha international airport last year, I met a young Keralite student at the transit lounge, who was on his way back home from London where he was pursuing higher studies. Among the positive influences of London on him, he cited the city’s work culture. Keralites are known to coalesce easily with foreign cultures, but this is one culture they have failed to imbibe.