Lockdown. Social distancing. Self-quarantine. The COVID-19 outbreak forced a number of new words to become part of the world's collective vocabulary. But perhaps the most powerful of such terms came from the state of Kerala where the government has started referring to migrant labourers as "guest labourers".
In wake of the severe economic crisis that hit the unorganized sector as a total lockdown was imposed in India Tuesday midnight onward, thousands of migrant and daily wage workers have been left in a lurch. At such a time, Kerala government is being praised not just for its proactive approach toward handling the coronavirus outbreak but also for its treatment of such workers whom the Chief Minister, as well as other government officials now, refer to as “Atithi thozhilalikal”. Atithi means guest and thozhilalikal means “mazdoor” or “labourer”.
The observation was made by a journalist on Twitter who referred to as “creating new words/cultures during #CoronaCrisis”.
In Kerala, there’s a new word to refer to migrant workers. It’s guest labourers (Atithi thozhilalikal). As the CM to officials started using it, it’s becoming a common word there, I am told. creating new words/culture during #CoronaCrisis — Liz Mathew (@MathewLiz) March 27, 2020
This is not the first time that the term has been used in Kerala. In fact, the term was coined first by the state's Finance Minister Thomas Issac during his Budget speech in February 2018. The idea then had been to commemorate the 3.5 million migrant labourers in Kerala and honour them for their contributions to the state’s labour force.
Kerala is considered one of the friendliest states when it comes to guest labourers, especially since minimum wages for the unskilled labour are almost three times the amount they would receive in several other states for equal work. The government has also taken several efforts to increase education among migrant workers through courses in Malayalam aimed at increasing literacy and integration through schemes like Changathi.
Amid the coronavirus outbreak that has brought economic activities in the unorganised sector to nearly a halt, the move by the Vijayan government to honour the victims did not go unappreciated on social media.
🙏🙏 Kerala is setting so many examples — Anjali Ojha (@ojhaanjali) March 27, 2020
Hats off Kerala! We reveal who we are in times of crisis. And Kerala is shining through. — Tanushree Mainrai (@MainraiTanu) March 27, 2020
However, some expressed concern that just renaming migrant workers as guests would not solve the crisis that thousands of workers find themselves in a soup as jobs dry up.
And in the absence of public transport during the lockdown, many were forced to undertake arduous journeys back home on foot
Calling them "guests" instead of migrants, nevertheless, marks a refreshing shift in a state's approach toward its migrant workforce, which is often targeted as "outsider" in times of economic stress. At a time when the global COVID-19 pandemic is adding is threatening to leave millions in India jobless and foodless, the government's efforts at inclusion should come as a lesson for other Indian states.
The government has also set up community kitchens for guest labourers and others hit by the crisis to ensure no one in the state goes hungry.