Trade unions have been an integral part of Kerala’s history of public action. The formation of Kerala’s first trade union– in Alappuzha in 1922 by coir workers – had the support of Narayana Guru, the pre-eminent social reformer. Kerala’s social security measures for workers, specially the welfare fund model, were inspired by early experiments of trade unions in forming labour associations and co-operatives. As a result, informal workers have been brought into the formalised structures of labour organisation and their wage rates have risen. In other words, the badge of “militancy” that is often bestowed on working classes is not an anomaly but a constitutive element in the State’s unique developmental experience. Indeed, the slow growth of Kerala’s material production sectors is a fact. The stagnation in production resulted in the unemployment rates among an educated labour force going up. The wave of labour migration to West Asia was a direct consequence of this. On the one hand, such migration was aided by the state’s early enhancement of human resource endowments. On the other, whether such migration was caused by the militancy of the Malayali workers is a debated matter. First, the causation argument ignores the concrete limits to large-scale industrial development in Kerala, given its ecological and geographical specificities. Secondly, it overlooks the failure of policy in reaping the benefits of the knowledge economy in the 1990s. Kerala, despite being a pioneer in tech-park development, was rather slow in expanding the base and getting ahead of other states.
Yet, the Malayali migrant has been subjected to widespread ridicule for the lack of development of a trade union movement in his destinations of migration – mostly presided over by authoritarian governments. His/her activist instincts were circumscribed, as they were thrown into labour groups diverse in terms of origins, cultures and class-consciousness, and subjected to conditions of work that fostered insecurities. Most migrant workers suffered from infirmities and scorn at work; but they took solace in being away from the sight and sympathy of family and friends, and escaping the stigma of manual work and caste-based occupational rigidities. Unlike in Kerala, terms of employment in West Asia are often tyrannical. The kafala system of sponsorship ties workers to their employers. Passports are confiscated to keep workers immobile. Most workers pay a few lakhs to their “agents”, but find their remunerations to be far less than what was promised. Housing conditions in most labour camps are appalling, with up to 15 workers cramped into single rooms. Insurance cover is poorly spread out. Concerns over worker’s safety have heightened after 1000 worker deaths were reported from Qatar, which hosts the 2022 FIFA world cup.
While migrant workers are silenced by the dullness of economic circumstances, a global movement for worker’s rights in West Asia is slowly, but surely, building up. Gulf Labour, a global alliance of artists, is an excellent example. From the 2000s, Abu Dhabi has had a major plan to develop the Saadiyat Island (Island of Happiness) as a major tourism-cultural project. Its cultural district is to have three international museums including Louvre and Guggenheim. Artists and curators affiliated to Gulf Labour have refused to provide their works unless labour regulations at the museum construction sites are regulated. While many Gulf Labour artists are denied entry into the UAE, there have been visible protests by artists at global art venues, as the Venice Biennale in 2015, demanding that Louvre and Guggenheim insist on ethical labour practices as conditions to establish museum projects in the region. A movement for labour rights also emerged from the New York University (NYU), as its off-shore campus was being constructed in the Saadiyat Island; NYU professors led the movement which resulted in the announcement of strong contractual safeguards for workers at the construction site in 2010. These are not worker-led protests, but externally-driven protests. Only time can tell whether these would grow into worker-led protests.
In fact, sporadic worker protests in West Asia are growing though few get reported: neither the strikes nor their brutal suppression. There was, of course, the most famous workers’ strike at the BK Gulf Corporation site in Abu Dhabi in 2014. Then in 2015, when their overtime pay rates were cut, over 200 workers at a mall construction site in Dubai broke barricades and blocked traffic at the city’s Financial Centre Road. In Ras-al-Khaimah, when an Indian worker fell to death from a building in 2015, workers’ protest turned violent. The portrayal of the submissiveness of the Gulf migrant worker, then, is more a taunt at the Left than based on the harsh realities of work in these countries with no semblance of democracy. The derided “militancy” of the worker in Kerala, though has occasionally taken forms of lumpenism, represented a demand for fairness and justice in an emerging capitalist society. It was a largely successful endeavour too; incidents as in the Manesar plant of Maruti-Suzuki are unthinkable in Kerala. At the same time, leaders of the Left have acknowledged the occasional acts of overreach and pledged to make amends. In my view, our focus should be on domestic policies that would further strengthen the facilities of social security for workers even as we remove bottlenecks that raise transaction costs, reduce productivity and profitability, stunt technological advance and impede the inflow of private capital. We may pass over the taunt.
(R. Ramakumar is NABARD Chair Professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and a non-ministerial member of the Kerala State Planning Board)...