A significant share of inter-state migrations in India can be categorised as distress migration. In the absence of livelihood opportunities in the backward regions of the country, the impoverished leave their homes in distress and migrate to different parts of the country searching for employment. Environmental degradation due to drought, flood, cyclone, earthquake, and other natural calamities is also one of the emergent reasons for migration.

Without much community or family support to take care of their families when they are far away, many of these migrants are forced to take their families along with them to their place of migration. They are treated as outcasts and are neither respected nor treated fairly as an integral part of the society in their destination.

Most of the migrant workers are illiterate and ignorant, belong to marginalised communities and are mostly engaged in the unorganised or informal sector. They are exploited during routine and overtime work, prejudiced in payment of wages and other benefits, allocation of job, and terms of employment. They are not organised and their labour standards are not protected.

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Further, education of the school-going children gets interrupted when the migrant families take them along. Different categories of children are affected by internal migration in India, including the dependent child migrants who migrate with family members, independent child migrants who migrate without parents or guardians, and stay-behind children who are left behind when parent(s) migrate.

In this regard, the case of dependent child migrants who have migrate with family members from other states to Kerala is notable, and even more so the specific case of children of plantation workers in Kerala. 

Kerala as a destination state

Kerala is one of the major destination states for migrant labourers in India, and migrant workers constitute a substantial proportion of Kerala’s labour force. Due to higher wage rates and increasing demand for workers in manual jobs, migrant labourers are in almost all occupations and sectors of the economy in the state.

As per the 2001 Census, the total number of migrants (by domicile) from other states in Kerala was recorded at 4,12,849, which is 1.3% of Kerala’s total population. The largest number of migrants in Kerala is from Tamil Nadu (67.8%), followed by Karnataka (13.49%), Maharashtra (4.47%), Andhra Pradesh (2.29%), Pondicherry (2.12%), Uttar Pradesh (1.43%) and West Bengal (1.03%). Among the districts of Kerala, Ernakulam district received the highest inflow of migrants (13.56%), followed by Idukki (12.85%) and Trivandrum (11.77%) (Surabhi and Kumar, 2007).

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Tea and coffee plantations, construction, tourism, and hotel industry have attracted migrant workers and their children from other states of the country. The migrant unskilled workers in this state can be broadly categorised as those who work on contract basis, under a contractor or an agent for a fixed period of time, and those who work as daily wagers seeking work in the labour market on a day to day basis. 

However, having difficulty in learning about the rights afforded to them in Kerala or about prevailing wages and protection, most of the migrant workers live in deplorable conditions. They are looked upon with profound ambivalence and at times as a threat to security.

In his 2013 article in ‘Migrant Labour: The Other Half’, R. Krishnakumar says:

“The migrant labourers are often deliberately kept at bay, in order to ensure not only their social insularity but also to disempower them from asserting their rights as citizens and labourers. This systematic exclusion works to the advantage of the host society in various ways: to keep the wage levels low, rent levels high, services cheap, and to maintain a labour force that is at their beck andcall, one that can be absorbed and driven out at will.”

The poor living conditions of the migrant workers in Kerala were brought to the fore by various news reports in the past, including the ones during the COVID-19 lockdown and those on the recent landslide in Rajamala. 

Features of in-migrations in Kerala

There are evidences for short distance migration to Kerala from nearby states, like Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, since long. Historically, the districts neighbouring southern Tamil Nadu, like Thiruvanthapuram and Kollam, have large number of workers from Kanyakumari and other neighbouring districts of Tamil Nadu.

Also, in recent years, long-distance migration has been taking place from distant states, like West Bengal and Assam. Migrants from West Bengal and Assam primarily get absorbed in tea plantations in Kerala. Informal information networks through migrant workers play an important role in migration of workers to Kerala. Poor economic conditions in their native places and relatively high wage rate and better employment opportunities in Kerala, along with other overlapping factors, have been identified as the main reasons of migration to Kerala.

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Even though the nature of employment does not change often even after migration, it is quite probable that there has been a shift from the low-income brackets before migration to relatively higher income brackets after migration. Notwithstanding the improved income level, the living conditions for most of them remain deplorable. The majority of migrants live together in either poor rented houses or make-shift accommodations at work sites with one room shared by many, that too without proper ventilation or sanitation arrangement.

Regular large scale out-migration of labour from Kerala has led to scarcity of semi-skilled and un-skilled workers in almost all economic activities of the state. This has resulted in increase in market wages significantly more than the prevailing notified minimum wages. At the same time, foreign remittances from out-migrants have facilitated real estate and construction sector boom in Kerala. This has led to huge demand for certain categories of workers, such as carpenters, welders, plumbers, drivers, electrician, motor mechanics and other craftsmen.

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The shortage of construction and other workforce in Kerala caused in-migration of workers from other states to Kerala. In this regard, S.I. Rajan and K.S. James opine:

“Emigration of workers from Kerala, demographic contraction of the supply of young workers brought about by the rapid demographic transition in the state, the higher wages charged by Kerala workers, the ability of Kerala workers to sustain themselves with remittances from relatives, the  reluctance  on  the  part  of  Kerala  workers  to  do  dirty  and  hard  physical  work  –  all  these  have  stimulated the era of replacement migration in Kerala”. 

Migrants in the plantations sector

Kerala’s plantation labour sector has been dominated for generations by local and Tamil workers. However, when the younger generation of these traditional labourers lost interest in the sector, plantation owners had to scout for new hands.

According to trade sources, about 50,000 migrant workers from northern states work in the plantations, mainly tea, coffee and cardamom. These workers initially came as migrants and subsequently stayed back as they got engaged round the year, and respective employers in plantations treated them as regular workers. Also, wages in Kerala plantations are substantially higher (more than twice) than that of states like Assam and West Bengal.

For these migrants, the state’s plantation sector has provided an alternative viable livelihood opportunity, which they could not get in their native places. These workers are mainly from Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal and Assam.

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In tea plantations, jobs have inter-generational continuity and passed on from one generation to another. In recent years, many of the workers’ dependents could access better educational opportunities outside plantation, and availed themselves jobs beyond the immediate plantation surroundings. When there was a shortage of indigenous workers, in-migrants from northern states came and filled-up the void. 

Some of them had come in search of jobs and others were handpicked by employers through agents. However, these workers don’t want their children to get engaged in plantations. They send their children to good English medium public school in the vicinity and expect that they land up good jobs outside the estate sector. In the coming years, the number of traditional workers in the estate sector would come down.

Impact of migration on children

Children of migrant labourers are affected by the trauma of moving from a known setting to an unknown destination, living in a different social and cultural environment, impoverishment of their families, poor living conditions, break in continuity of education, low self-esteem due to exclusion and discrimination based on ethnicity. In-migration plays an important role in the incidences of child labour in Kerala, and education of the children of the migrant labourers in Kerala is a matter of serious concern.

Analysis carried out by Ellina Samantroy, Helen R. Sekar, and Sanjib Pradhan using the data based on Census 2001 and 2011, DISE, and various survey rounds of the NSSO, revealed that the high rate of migration of families from other states in search of work in Kerala has also resulted in the annual growth rate of child workers by 5.7 per cent during the inter-censal period 2001 and 2011, the highest in the country.

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Child workers as a percentage of child population in Kerala also showed increase from 0.5 per cent in 2001 to 0.8 per cent in 2011, even though the child population in the state declined from 5,531,381 in 2001 to 5,377,882 in 2011, which was a decrease of 0.3 per cent per annum. The analysis of shifts in the incidence of child labour between 2001 and 2011 across districts in Kerala witnessed an increase in child labour in 13 districts and declined in only one district.

Effective implementation of education policies in the host states has enabled children to get primary education and move ahead. There has been tremendous progress in the field of education in Kerala. Among the states, it is the state with highest literacy. Such education in most cases is geared towards the local population and medium of instruction is usually the local language.

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However, migrants find it very difficult to put their children in school, partly because of their constant movements in search of livelihood, and partly because of language difficulty. Migration is one of the prominent reasons for children discontinuing their education and being compelled to work. Even though some of the never-enrolled migrant children get enrolled during large-scale enrolment drives with the desire to take up education at the destination state, they either stay out of school, are absent frequently, or drop out and eventually suffer learning deficits due to learning difficulties based on differences in academic curricula and language.

At times, their names continue to remain in the school rolls, but they are out of school and migrate to other work places with their families that undertake a broader array of survival strategies to cope with their circumstances, shifting their occupation and place of employment from one to another. 

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It is difficult to trace these children for educational rehabilitation and mainstreaming back into education because of the employment mobility and occupational shift of their parents to different places. Shifting of places of their employment, financial problems, lack of awareness on the importance of education and disinterest of the parents in the continuation of their children’s education are some of the major reasons for children of migrant labourers in Kerala dropping out of school. Yet, the state has the highest number of literate child workers (82.2%) in the country. 

In plantations, jobs are relatively steady and migrants do get a place to stay. But they find it difficult to send their children to schools. Medium of instructions being Malayalam in government schools, migrant children find it difficult to study in such schools. Thus, they mostly remain out of school. In such cases, both parents work in plantations and it is not feasible to keep children at home alone. They take their children with them in most occasions, and these children are found to be working as well. Such children might not always be working in core plantation activities, but in supplementary activities. 

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The Kerala government is considering the development of a Skill Development Institute for migrant workers. It has already established the Indian Institute of Infrastructure and Construction (IIIC) in Kollam city and new centres of Kerala Academy of Skills Excellence (KASE) will be opened soon in other districts.

Although a large number of the children of migrant workers are enrolled in government schools, the state education department has opened schools for the children of migrant workers under the ‘Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan’ scheme. Region-specific teaching curriculum has to be often adopted as the origin and languages of migrants always differ. Authorities are trying to open schools for migrant children in their respective mother tongue as medium of instruction.

At the same time, migrants are also taught reading and writing skills in Malayalam and Hindi through the state literacy mission. More than 400 migrant children registered for the first batch and classes were conducted in unlikely places, like inside factories and auditoriums, anganwadis centres and union offices, libraries and shelters. Still, a large number of migrant children are outside the reach of primary education imparted through public means. 


In Kerala, children of migrant workers in plantations, children of footloose labourers and older children from poorer families are less likely to get enrolled in schools and more likely to drop out. While migrant workers who have been to other destinations rate Kerala as a state that treats them comparatively better, these workers also experience discrimination and exploitations.

Children dropping out from school has serious repercussions, as incidences of child labour might increase. Moreover, it is imperative to have reliable information on the quantum of in-migration, which is generally of a floating and footloose nature, so that the numbers and diversity of migrants and their children are taken into account while making population projections and consequently in planning. It is also essential to address the social integration of migrant labour in Kerala.

Views expressed are the authors’ own and not necessarily of the organisations they belong to.


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Featured image: Flour warehouse worker in Mattancherry, Kerala, India | David Baxendale, Flickr