Inexperienced, irregular NRI workers hit harder in COVID-19 first wave

The Centre for Indian Migrant Studies recently conducted a study on a sample of returnees to four South Indian states from May to August 2020 to understand the process of repatriation.
Migrant workers rep image
Migrant workers rep image
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It was on May 7, 2020 that the first of the repatriation flights came to India, after all travel had been disallowed for nearly two months due to the pandemic. COVID-19 had prevented tens of thousands of migrant workers from coming back home to India, even as they desperately needed to. Many who were working outside India had lost their jobs or had not received their wages for months. When the airports opened in May, 80% of the Vande Bharat Mission flights of the Union government brought migrant workers from six Gulf countries to four South Indian states — Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. In the first and second phases of repatriation, Kerala received 23,627 migrant workers, Tamil Nadu received 2,338 migrant workers, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana together received 5,186 migrant workers.

The Centre for Indian Migrant Studies (CIMS) recently conducted a study on a sample of returnees to these four states in the initial phases (May to August 2020) of the pandemic, to understand the process of repatriation. “We studied details of 353 returnee migrants and conducted 30 to 35 interviews. Most of them are construction workers, drivers and domestic workers. More than 67% of the respondents had little migration experience — being in the Gulf for less than nine years, and half of them below four years. We could conclude that it indicates they were the first ones to lose their jobs (since job loss was cited as the main reason for the return of migrant workers),” says Akhil CS of CIMS, who conducted the study. 

The Migrant Forum in Asia did the study in three countries — India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. CIMS did the India study. Of the 353 workers they surveyed, 149 were from Kerala, 62 from Tamil Nadu, 70 from Andhra Pradesh and 72 from Telangana. About 8.2% of them were women.

Mostly low-skilled workers that returned first

It was mostly low-skilled and semi-skilled workers who returned in the first two phases, as understood by the study. “The junior staff and newly appointed staff were more vulnerable and forced to work overtime or to work with low wages. A number of skilled migrant workers also shared similar concerns,” the study says.

A health worker who returned in phase two of the repatriation process said that she decided to quit her job as a nurse in Oman because of ‘heavy work burden and salary deduction as part of the pandemic’. TNM had earlier reported about the wage theft that was witnessed among migrant returnees to Kerala.

Those with irregular jobs hit harder

At least 40% of the respondents in the study reported job loss as the main reason for coming back home. Cancellation and expiry of work visas forced another 13.2% of the workers to return. A domestic worker interviewed in the study said that they had run away from the recruiter as the work conditions were bad and no salary was paid, but later found a job as a front person staff at a hotel. However, with the pandemic, they lost that job as well, and could not stay there or return home through proper channels as they didn’t have their passport or civil ID. The amnesty programme offered by Kuwait had helped their return.

The CIMS study says that workers who had irregular jobs such as in the domestic worker’s case were hit harder than regular employees.

“Concerns were raised against the preparation of a priority list (as to who gets to return first). Several unwell workers didn’t get a seat in the first two phases. We found that workers employed with a proper company got quarantine facilities and access to healthcare. However, workers in the informal sector, employed in smaller firms, found it difficult,” Akhil says.

Role played by diaspora groups

Even as they faced very difficult situations such as job loss and wage theft, many of the workers had to pay the travel fare on their own. More than 39% of the workers surveyed in the study paid their own fares to travel back to India, while 26% got financial support from their employers. “Some of the workers received support from their friends and well-wishers. Surprisingly, the support of Indian missions and diaspora groups for ensuring the transport of workers from workplace/home to the ports was minimal,” the study says.

However, the diaspora organisations played a big role in helping out the stranded workers in the initial days. “Even though only 10% of the workers received support from diaspora groups, the support systems offered by diaspora groups often substituted the state machineries at the destination countries,” says the study quoting a worker who said that they could sustain without any money because various socio cultural organisations provided food kits regularly and helped with registering in the embassy for the return home.

Akhil says that many of the Malayali associations were happy to help workers from other states as well. “There are more number of Malayali associations in these countries than others,” he says

Lack of awareness campaigns

Workers who had stayed at labour camps in foreign countries where they worked hardly received any information or updates of the situation, according to the study. Among the people surveyed, more than 53% said that they had depended on social media for information on the Vande Bharat mission.

Even the safety guidelines and instructions received during the trip were not helpful. Akhil says that few respondents reported having received any guidelines at all. “Only about 16% reported getting guidelines during the flight but even that was in English, a language many of them were not comfortable with. There was hardly anything in local languages,” he says.

There were awareness classes on COVID-19 safety protocol at the airport, with some states doing better than others. In Andhra Pradesh for instance almost all the migrants received awareness or counseling at the airport, while in Kerala this was 26.1%, and in Tamil Nadu, 18%. Seventy percent of Telangana migrants received awareness campaigns.

Expensive quarantines and discrimination

To add to the dire financial situation of the returnees, the Telangana government insisted on privately paid-for quarantine facilities on arrival. Even though most of the returnees were low-wage workers, they were forced to pay hotel bills for the mandatory quarantine of seven to 14 days. A worker surveyed in the study said that they were given only two options: quarantine facilities for either Rs 15,000 or Rs 30,000. The Telangana government stopped the practice after strong opposition from migrant groups and civil society organisations.

Another issue faced by the returnee migrants was discrimination. Before their return, India had reported lower cases of COVID-19. However, when the numbers rose after the repatriation flights began service, rumours spread that migrants were carriers of COVID-19. According to the study, 24.7% faced various kinds of discrimination during and post quarantine. Among the states, 34.3% of the migrants from Telangana faced discrimination on return.

The next step was rehabilitation for those who lost their jobs in foreign countries, and though all state governments had announced financial support, few returnee migrants have received any. Among the migrant workers in Kerala, only about 37.5% had received an initial assistance of Rs 5,000 each. However, other states reportedly did not provide any support to the workers. However, all the states did give out free ration supplies to them.


The main recommendation of the study is for the Indian Embassies to create a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for a crisis. “The study’s aim was to understand how to improve the repatriation process and ensure the welfare of returnees. Having an SOP is a must. Another recommendation is to have mandatory emergency provisions in labour contracts. As of now there is nothing about how an employer should respond during a crisis, what are the rights of the workers (during such a crisis) and so on. Thirdly, it should be made mandatory that migrant workers register at the mission (Embassy). And fourth, Embassies should have power of attorney to help with their legal grievances,” Akhil says. 

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