He sat at a table with his wife and two young daughters. Soft rays of morning sunlight shone through the metal bars of the window behind him. Mohammad Rafeeq told me that he was glad to be back here, in a familiar place, with the people that he loves. He doesn’t plan on going back.

Back is the Gulf. He spent three years working as a labourer laying tiles in Qatar. He told me that his experience was fine, that he got by, and that he didn’t have it as bad as some other unskilled migrants working across the region.
Rafeeq left home to earn a better living but after years of trying he told me that he ran out reasons to stay. Now home in his village in Kerala, he does the same job and makes more money.

It’s not only the comfort of home that Rafeeq has to thank, but also his government for the improvements that it has made to labour laws and practices. They’re not perfect by any means but many people here – from recruitment agents to industry observers – agree they’re better than what they used to be. Rafeeq’s story is perhaps a testament to the effect those changes are having on the fortunes of many thousands of workers and more widely, the state’s economy.

Better back home

Improved working conditions in Kerala are also contributing to the changing dynamics of its labour recruitment industry. One agent told me that he used to place 700 people per year in the Gulf, but expects to place only 350 this year.
In Kerala this is not necessarily a trend driven by fear of bad treatment or unsafe working conditions abroad. Rather, it’s a trend overwhelmingly driven by simple mathematics: given the choice, why would a worker pay to leave home and earn less money abroad?
It’s worth mentioning too that this is not a national trend. In fact researchers say the opposite is evident in states like Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. They, in the years to come, could be the new frontiers of India’s unskilled labour drain. And if Kerala’s local economy continues to grow robustly, and is able to provide competitive incomes for those who have long been forced to seek opportunities in regions like the Gulf, it may not be fussed about handing over the title of major manpower exporter.
But for all the talk of new government regulations, recruitment licence requirements, remittance economies, worker treatment, accountability, and wages, one thing is clear: The capacity of an economy to absorb workers, to use up all of its “supply” of unskilled labour (and pay fairly for it), is fundamental to the question of whether workers from countries such as India choose to stay at home or go abroad.
Kerala, for now, is showing signs that it might be able to balance supply and demand. While some workers still need to try their luck abroad, the state’s local economy is expanding and providing opportunities for others to stay.
Rafeeq is one of the lucky ones. Today he can make ends meet closer to home. For this father-of-two the biggest challenge now is keeping his daughters happy. And it’s a challenge he’s grateful to be home to meet.