Zulfikar Sheik is an entrepreneur in Poolakadav junction in Kozhikode district in Kerala. As a twelve-year-old, he migrated to Mumbai to work in the construction sector. After working two years there he moved to Kozhikode hearing the high wages in Kerala. He learned and worked as a mason and earned enough money to send home and to save some cash. He brought his two brothers and many other relatives and villagers to work in Kerala.
A Bengali from Bardhman, West Bengal, Zulfikar has a heart for his people. He realized the difficulties the new migrant workers face for meals and initial support. With his saving, he opened an eatery with tea and snacks. After work, the tired Bengali workers flock to his small shop to enjoy the Bengali sweets and snacks. Gradually he opened a second shop in the adjacent room for another hostel. He serves hot Bengali meals with an affordable price. Those who have no work, he gives them free meals and accommodates them in his rented house for a week or so until they find a job. He also assists them to find the job.
Though illiterate, Zulfikar can speak Malayalam fluently. He is respected among all sections of people including Keralites. When there is an accidental death of any of the migrant workers from West Bengal, he makes a contribution and asks others to do the same. He arranges to take the body home by flight or ambulance and the balance money is given to the bereaved family. Migrant workers feel safe and secure in his shop.
A visit to Zulfikar tea shop, Gracy Thombrakudy, SCN, came to know that there is an organized theft taking place in the migrant residences in Poolakadav. Without wasting any time she straight went to the local police station to ask for police patrolling from 1.00 am to 3.00 am. For Sister Gracy, the over 15,000 migrant workers are her brothers with whom she works.
Sister Gracy looks out for the new migrants arriving in Kozhikode to arrange the health insurance card for them. She not only visits with their employers but also their workplaces and where they live. Sister Gracy and her team have been instrumental in closing down many of the inhuman dwelling places in the city inhabited by the migrant workers.
Migrant workers face many hardships under the contractors. They do not know the local language and customs and are easily manipulated says Sister Gracy. The migrants are seldom paid the high wages prevalent in Kerala. Some of them are paid only around 60 percent of the daily wages and the rest is taken by the contractors. A few of the contractors do not pay their wages on a daily basis. When these contractors are on loss or make less profit they intimidate the workers with threats and chase them away without paying the backlog of the wages. Whenever Sister Gracy and her team get the wind of it they approach the police for help. In many cases, the migrant workers leave the empty-handed handed for love of their life. If they are lucky enough they get paid through the interventions of the police.
Unfortunately, Sister Gracy was questioned by the intelligence agency of the government. After that interaction, the officers realized that Sister Gracy is doing a genuine work which is very much needed. From then on she got the full support from the government. Sister Gracy’s primary concern is the migrant workers and their families back home in Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.
Though many of the migrant workers left Kerala during the cloud bursts, mud-slides and the floods there are people who stayed back. The migrants are always ready to do any odd job at any place in spite of the many hardships they have to endure. In some places, the locals are prejudiced against the migrant workers. Some of the dwelling places of the migrant workers are netted to prevent them from seeing the locals. They are deprived of fresh air. According to region and religion, they live in groups.
In collaboration with the NGOs, the government helps to provide a better living condition for the migrant workers through monitoring and timely interventions. Migrant workers play a vital role in the booming economy of Kerala. They are an integral part of the development work of Kerala.
Malini Manjoly, SCN