For Indians in the Gulf, Covid paints an uncertain future

On March 7, Johnson Ninan left his home in Malappuram district in Kerala to return to Kuwait, where he worked as an oil industry consultant, after an 18-day break. When he arrived at the Kozhikode International Airport, he heard the news – Kuwait had barred flights from India, to contain the spread of Covid-19. The 48-year-old headed back to his family in Malappuram district to wait it out. Little did he know worse lay ahead.

In April, he, along with hundreds of colleagues, received letters from his employer terminating their services. “I have been working in that company for the last 14 years. This was completely unexpected,” says a tense Ninan, who has been told that his last working day will be in July.

While Ninan is home with his family in this uncertain period, there are a host of Indian migrant workers, particularly blue collar workers, in the Gulf countries who are leading an even more precarious existence, struggling for basic necessities like food and shelter. “I know of workers who have been without jobs for two months, don’t have money for rent and are now forced to sleep on construction sites,” says Swadesh Parkipandla, President of the Pravasi Mithra Labour Union in Telangana, which works on immigrant workers’ welfare.

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The workers Parkipandla mentions and people like Ninan are part of the 8-10 million Indians estimated to be working in the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in West Asia, responsible for sending home about half of India’s remittances, which peaked at $83 billion last year. India is the world’s top receiver of remittances. But even as the first two flights from these countries landed in India on May 7, carrying about 200 passengers each in one of the largest repatriation missions of its kind, the fate of lakhs of others are under a cloud. The combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, a historic crash of oil prices due to the slowdown of economic activities around the world and an increasing bid by the countries in the Gulf region to nationalise their workforce has left India’s large migrant workforce staring at an uncertain future.

Indians have been migrating to the Gulf countries since the 1960s, and form large parts of the population there. In the United Arab Emirates, for instance, there are about 3.3 million Indians, constituting a third of that country’s population. About 60-70% are estimated to be blue collar workers, also among the most vulnerable in a crisis and particularly so in the current pandemic, where physical distancing is a preventive. In sectors like the construction industry, among the largest employers, many of the workers live together in camps and dormitories, sharing bathrooms and other facilities, increasing the risk of a contagion. For instance, Saudi Arabia’s health ministry said on May 5 that non-Saudi residents made of 70% of new Covid-19 cases that week, from the 30,251 confirmed cases in the country. “Many are in a dangerous situation because they have not been paid salaries nor has their Iqama (residence permit) been renewed by their employer, without which they cannot step out,” says Latheef Thechy, chairman of the Pravasi Legal Aid Cell, on the phone from Saudi Arabia.

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The Covid-19 pandemic also brought in its wake a historic fall in oil prices, which has left the oil-dependent Gulf economies gasping. There is no respite in sight, either. The International Energy Agency is predicting the lowest oil demand in a quarter of a century. As a result, the economic prospects of the Gulf region, and the employment prospects of numerous immigrant workers from India, remains bleak.

The way this crisis will manifest in India will not, immediately, be through an exodus of migrants returning, say experts. “The effect of the crisis is not so much in the form of migrants coming home, because they are stranded (in the countries); it is in their inability to earn as much as before, because of which they are unable to send as much money to their families back home,” Dilip Ratha, World Bank’s lead economist for migration and remittances, told ET Magazine. The World Bank has forecast that remittances to India will fall by 23% this year, to $64 billion.

“Migration and remittances have played a crucial role in uplifting many poor rural families in eastern and central rural Uttar Pradesh from poverty. The oil crisis will hit them hard, says Rajendra Mamgain, professor at National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Hyderabad. His specialisation includes labour and migration. Contrary to popular perception, the largest number of blue-collar workers to the Gulf countries has been from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the last few years. Simultaneously, in the last decade, there has been a decline of 90% in blue-collar workers going to the GCC from Kerala, once the largest source state. Mamgain says this shift was driven by the construction boom in the Gulf countries in the last few years and the demand for cheap labour, more easily available from states such as UP, Bihar and Rajasthan, compared with Kerala. For these workers, it was a chance to earn much more than in their home states, where opportunities were few and wages unattractive.

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Even those who return are not expected to do so all at once. S Irudaya Rajan, professor at the Centre for Development Studies and an expert on migration, expects 10-15% of migrant workers to return in the next six months or so, as a result of the ongoing crisis. The first preference will be for pregnant women, those with small children, elders. Next will be those who have lost their jobs, says Rajan. According to the Indian consulate in the UAE, of the 150,000 Indians who had registered to fly home, about 25% cited job loss as their reason for leaving. In Kerala, about 4.13 lakh Malayalis abroad had registered with the non-resident Keralites affairs (NORKA) department to return, of whom about 61,000 had lost their jobs.

But returning, too, is a privilege not everyone can afford. Flight tickets on the Vande Bharat Mission, as the repatriation exercise has been dubbed, cost Rs 13,000 and upwards from Gulf countires, unaffordable for many blue-collar workers, especially those who left India recently. There is also the question of what they will return to, with many having incurred heavy debts to migrate. Our research shows that a typical migrant in the Gulf region often pays more than a years worth of expected wages as fee to the recruitment agent in India before migrating. There are cases where people pay 60 months or 48 months worth of wages, says World Bank’s Ratha. This is funded through loans from informal channels taken at exorbitant interest rates. With migrants unable to remit money and agents keen to keep them working, they risk much harassment and hardship. If they return, they will not be able to find work easily in India, adds Mamgain. They will remain unemployed for a pretty long period.

The unemployment rate in India had soared to 27.1% in the week ended May 3 from 8.7% in March, according to the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, and 122 million are estimated to have lost their jobs in April. Adding to this fraught situation has been the gathering trend of GCC countries nationalising their labour force. The Saudi government had embarked on this path from 2011, introducing the Nitaqat system, which limits the number of foreign employees a company can engage. Indian blue-collar workers migrating to Saudi Arabia have been steadily declining since, falling as much as 45% from 2014 to 2016, according to the Ministry of External Affairs. Oman has similarly embarked on an Omanisation policy, with the ministry of finance directing state companies in the last week of April to replace foreign workers with locals in a speedy and organised manner. One-third of the country’s residents are estimated to be expatriates.

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Earlier, Kuwait announced an amnesty scheme valid till April 30 to allow migrant workers without legal papers to leave the country without any punitive measures. CDS’s Rajan expects other Gulf countries to announce similar schemes. These countries know there is a shadow workforce. At any point of time, 10-20% of Indians will be undocumented workers or those who have overstayed, says Rajan.

This uncertainty has also meant some Indians who had registered to return are now having a change of heart. There is an apprehension that if they return, they might lose their jobs. After the initial panic, many are now reluctant to come back, says Jose Abraham, who heads the New Delhi-based Pravasi Legal Cell.

Analysts say India is yet to frame a policy for workers who will return. Situations such as Covid-19 highlight the urgent need for policies to help migrants reintegrate. Although 17.5 million international migrants may be a small population in a country of 1.3 billion, they are a skilled and experienced workforce. An effective reintegration policy and its implementation leads to a win-win opportunity for governments, workers, and employers, says Shabari Nair, labour migration specialist for South Asia, International Labour Organization. He suggests that reintegration is as much an issue for states as for the Centre, with remittances contributing to a significant part of state GDP, as in the case of Kerala.

Reintegration, he adds, needs to be seen as a social issue as well, and not just as a jobs issue. The Covid-19 – induced crisis has created shortages of every kind and going forward, we will have to redraw the map for migration, says Rajan. It will be a new world but I don’t know what it will look like. But some aspects of the old, like the urge to migrate, might never be extinguished. Ninan, for one, says he wants to return to Kuwait as soon as he can and then figure a way forward.

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