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Prince Thomas
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Overcoming Labour Shortage, the Kerala way

labour

The gap between demand and supply has pushed up labour rates

Image: Shutterstock

There is a new phenomenon in Kerala’s labour economy, one that will warm hearts of the local communists.

But first a short background
Two years ago when I went to Kerala I had written about my interaction with Devender, a migrant from Bihar who had traveled all the way down to the southern part of the country in search of better paying jobs. As a daily wage earner in Kerala he was earning Rs 400, double of what he would have got back home after a day of hard work.

This story in Hindu Business Line says that there are about 2.5 million migrant Devenders in Kerala today. A survey estimates that this number could increase to nearly five million within 10 years. Ironically, there are about same number (2.5 million) of Malayalees working abroad, mostly in the Middle East –  famously called “Gulf” among dreamy malayalees.  And this might well explain the reason for labour scarcity in the state.

Bereft of any credible domestic industry, youngsters for generations have been traveling beyond the state borders for jobs. But the shortage of labour has become acute in the past few years as service and construction industries in the state picked up pace (I couldn’t get numbers for this but the construction boom is visible to any visitor in the state. The growth in service sector is thanks  mainly to tourism boom in the picturesque state. Kerala’s GDP grew by a handsome 8.24 per cent in 2012-13, much faster than the national growth)

The gap between demand and supply has pushed up labour rates. If he is still in Kerala, Devender – who was a painter –  today would be earning at least Rs 600 a day, a jump of 50 per cent in two years. A mason in Kerala earns Rs 750 a day, about double of what his  unfortunate peer in any eastern part of the country would earn.

Meanwhile, shortage of labour has only intensified. And this has now given way to a new phenomenon. Land owners in central Kerala, especially  those with rubber plantations, have started sharing their produce with daily wagers in order to attract them.

The job usually includes tapping the tree for rubber ‘milk’ and then making sheets out of the pulp through a roller. So if a landowner was getting 10 rubber sheets a day, he now gives five of them to his daily wager. This is a great bargain for the worker as otherwise, the most he would earn is Rs 1.50 to Rs 2 for every tree he taps another 50 paisa or a rupee for each sheet that he rolls.

Labour shortage has been a problem that has plagued the Kerala rubber industry, which has over 90 per cent of the country’s rubber plantations. The local Rubber Board was in 2010 forced to source labour from other states including Odisha, and even paying them to go through a crash course in rubber tapping. But surely, these steps have not helped much.

The share in ‘revenue’ especially works in favour of the daily wager when price of rubber is moving up.  Right now a kilo of rubber in Kerala costs about Rs 150, down sharply from a high of almost Rs 250 a kilo last year. But it is still a good time for the rubber tapper.

The revenue share practice is right now predominantly in rubber plantations, but other forms of sharing have happened in other crops like tapioca.

While the labour economy in Kerala tries hard to find a balance, there is an interesting paradox. In a state where scarcity of manpower is high and wage rates are among the highest in the country, unemployment rate in 2013 was 7.4 per cent, 2.3 per cent higher than the national average! Pray, explain that.

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Unemployment rates being higher may also be due to better reporting in kerala unlike the rest of India (The pan India figure is a guestimate , no one will ever know what is the unemployment rate in India)
Well written and researched by the author. . A few points which you might reflect on .. 2.5 million workers abroad in gulf region, can you guess the revenue falling back into the state.. (75000 crore) that's a record which was broken this year. So the developments happen because there is a better economy and cash flow.. Un employment rate : now it's bit ironic.. But the fact is that the education makes an average keralite egoistic and not willing to work as a mason or a rubber tapper. Let's pray and hope the future generations find more opportunities in their own land and the ecosystem supports it rather than making it another revolution.
Prince Thomas
Thanks for writing in Deepak. And also for pointing out the record breaking remittances. You are right about Malayalees being egoistic about manual labor. I know of many in my native place who choose to be idle unless they get a more "respectable" job.
The best workers fro Kerala are in Gulf, the worst is left behind. and they are unemployable. Out of state workers are hard workers and don't shirk like their communist influenced worker in Kerala. Do you know that a left party had called for ban on traditional songs paddy filed workers sing during work because then they do more work?
Excellent article. Agriculture in Kerala is on its deathbed. Labour shortage is only a manifestation of this problem. Only two decades ago, Kerala was an agarian society. Disinterest in physical work has led to this sorry situation
 
 
Prince Thomas
Despite the seemingly royal linkages of my first name, I like to see life from the back bench. While studying it helped when lectures were unending but later I realized it also worked as a corporate reporter. It gives a clear view of both the performer and the viewer; of the 360 degree perspective and the minute detail. Now while tracking the world of business for the pages of Forbes India as Senior Assistant Editor, I will use this space to share what I observe from that rear seat.
 
 
 
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March 25, 2014 16:32 pm by anil
Unemployment rates being higher may also be due to better reporting in kerala unlike the rest of India (The pan India figure is a guestimate , no one will ever know what is the unemployment rate in India)
March 01, 2014 20:15 pm by Prince Thomas
Thanks for writing in Deepak. And also for pointing out the record breaking remittances. You are right about Malayalees being egoistic about manual labor. I know of many in my native place who choose to be idle unless they get a more "respectable" job.
February 28, 2014 23:03 pm by Deepak
Well written and researched by the author. . A few points which you might reflect on .. 2.5 million workers abroad in gulf region, can you guess the revenue falling back into the state.. (75000 crore) that's a record which was broken this year. So the developments happen because there is a bett...
February 28, 2014 20:30 pm by Pratap Nair
The best workers fro Kerala are in Gulf, the worst is left behind. and they are unemployable. Out of state workers are hard workers and don't shirk like their communist influenced worker in Kerala. Do you know that a left party had called for ban on traditional songs paddy filed workers sing during...
February 28, 2014 19:58 pm by Sumal
Excellent article. Agriculture in Kerala is on its deathbed. Labour shortage is only a manifestation of this problem. Only two decades ago, Kerala was an agarian society. Disinterest in physical work has led to this sorry situation