Why the Media Should Embrace “Migrant Worker” Over “Athithi Thozhilali” in Kerala’s News Coverage of Inter-State Migrants
When Covid-19 started to peak in June 2020, shutting down the entire world, inter-state migrants in Kerala were looking for options to rush back to their home states. It was then that the media started to use the term ‘Athithi Thozhilali’ / ‘അതിഥി തൊഴിലാളി’ (guest worker) to define inter-state migrant workers.
The headlines read “Kerala sets an example for rest of India with its exceptional treatment of ‘guest workers'” and so on. Back then, the term guest worker was in quotes in the headline to be on the safe side.
In the aftermath of a tragic incident involving the rape and murder of a five-year-old Bihari girl by an alleged Bihar migrant worker in Kerala, headlines once again feature the term “Athithi Thozhilali” (guest worker) in both vernacular and English editions of Kerala-based newspapers. Interestingly, this time, the media has dropped the quotes that previously signaled caution in using the term, indicating a shift towards its widespread adoption by the Kerala media. The persistent use of “Athithi Thozhilali” in the context of inter-state migrant workers reflects a generalized trend in the media, raising questions about the appropriateness and accuracy of this terminology when describing the rights and identity of these workers.
Regrettably, the term “Athithi Thozhilali” (guest worker) was not coined on principles of workers’ rights and is, in fact, inaccurate on several counts. To provide context, it is essential to acknowledge that Kerala is home to approximately 5 million inter-state migrant workers. However, referring to them as “guest workers” fails to acknowledge their constitutional entitlements and does not accurately represent their status and contributions within the state.
A simple Google search carried out on August 4, 2023, for the words “guest worker in Kerala” returned 68,40,000 results in 0.43 seconds. These search outcomes predominantly featured references to “guest workers” either in the headlines or within the body text of various articles. Remarkably, leading media houses like the Times of India, Business Standard, and The New Indian Express prominently featured the term “guest worker” in their headlines, while other publications incorporated it within their content.
A similar Google search with the words “Athithi Thozhilali In Kerala” in Malayalam found 3,86,000 results in 0.36 seconds in headlines and text. Malayala Manorama, Asianet News, Deshabhimani, and many others, including the Kerala state government public relations department press release, had it in the headline.
Both English and Malayalam search results starkly expose how the inappropriate term, “guest worker,” has been carelessly embraced and normalized by prominent media houses, seemingly without giving it much thought. The sugar-coated expression of “guest worker” may create a facade of care and hospitality offered by the host country or, in this context, the state of Kerala. However, this seemingly benevolent portrayal overlooks the harsh reality and undermines the rights and dignity of these inter-state migrant workers.
It is noteworthy that the children of migrant workers have successfully assimilated into the local culture after spending years in the state. Some of these children have even excelled in exams conducted in Kerala, with the medium of learning in Malayalam. However, despite their contributions to the state’s workforce, Kerala still faces challenges related to its migrant labor force. There are allegations that the state government has overlooked the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act of 1979, and inter-state workers in Kerala are reportedly facing similar issues as workers from Kerala do when working in the Gulf countries.
Experts that we spoke to opine that the word “guest worker” is wrong in many ways.
“The term guest worker is not a rights-based one,” Dr. Benoy Peter, Executive Director of the Centre for Migration and Inclusive Development (CMID), commented when asked about the usage of the term. CMID is a grassroots-level organization working for the welfare of inter-state migrant workers.
“When we see these workers as guest workers, it has a meaning that the worker has to leave after work. This is India and the worker is Indian. The Indian Constitution provides the right to work anywhere in India. How can the media call them guest workers,” Benoy questioned.
In Kerala, everyone patronizes these inter-state migrant workers as guest workers, and this could lead to technically denying the Indian Constitution Articles 21 and 41 and saying no to basic workers’ rights or human rights.
Article 21 guarantees the right to life and personal liberty, and the Supreme Court (“SC”) has interpreted this to mean that the right to life also includes the right to livelihood. As a result, it is clear that the refusal of the right to work, which is a livelihood, amounts to deprivation of the right to life.
On the other hand, Article 41, states that the State shall, within the limits of its economic capacity and development, make effective provisions for securing the right to work, education, and public assistance in cases of unemployment, old age, sickness, and disablement, and in other cases of undeserved want.
“When the media uses the sweet-coated word, guest worker, it gives a feeling to the public that the worker will return, he is an alien, and his rights as a worker can be compromised,” Benoy added. The majority of the Keralites also use the term “Athithi Thozhilali” with the tone that they are outsiders, despite being Indians.
The word “migrant worker” is a neutral and accurate term to describe people who have moved to another country to work. It is the preferred term by many organizations, including the International Labour Organization (ILO). The ILO defines a migrant worker as “a person who migrates from one country to another to be employed otherwise than on his account and includes any person regularly admitted as a migrant for employment.”
There are a few important reasons as to why it is important to use the term ‘migrant worker’ in media reporting. First, it helps to avoid stereotypes and negative connotations associated with other terms, such as ‘illegal immigrant’ or ‘foreign worker.’ Second, it recognizes the agency of migrant workers and their decision to move to another country for work. Third, it highlights the important economic and social contributions that migrant workers make to their host countries.
In short, the term guest worker can be misleading or inaccurate, and it may not be appropriate in all contexts. The word “migrant worker” is the most neutral and accurate term, and it is the preferred term by many global media and organizations.
The ILO glossary defines a refugee as someone forced to flee their country due to persecution, war, or violence, with a well-founded fear based on factors like race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or social group membership. An asylum seeker seeks international protection, with their claim pending a decision in the country of submission. Not every asylum-seeker will ultimately be recognized as a refugee, but every refugee was initially an asylum-seeker. However, the Indian media often misuses these terms in headlines and text, potentially compromising workers’ rights.
Interestingly, Kerala’s neighbor Tamilnadu has better media reporting standards when it comes to this topic. The Tamil vernacular press defines migrant workers as ‘Pulampeyarntha Thozhilali’/’புலம்பெயர்ந்த தொழிலாளி’, which is the right term to define an inter-state worker. And the definition for Pulampeyarntha Thozhilali in Tamil is exactly what ILO says about migrant workers.
“If we go wrong with the wrong definition, then we will fail from the starting point itself when it comes to fighting for workers’ justice,” opined Hubertson Tom, a lawyer and migrant rights activist, based in Chennai. According to media reports, there are one million migrant workers in Tamil Nadu.
The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of WeThePress.