“There’s nothing to eat at home. I haven’t owned a soap in seven months.”
“Only thing we are asking now is for them to send us back home. They aren’t doing that either.”
“I’m going to commit suicide. That’s how bad our condition is.”
“I have shared our plight on social media to everyone. If we go to the [Indian] embassy… They too have failed to help us. I don’t know what else to say, I just feel like crying.”
These are the words of four of the thousands of Indian workers, who are stranded in Kuwait.
Over 7,000 employees – former and present – of Kharafi National, an infrastructure company, have been struggling without money, accommodation and even food for about a year now. Of the 7,000 workers from different nationalities, a little over 3,000 belong to various Indian states.
Most of them have not been paid their salaries for up to 10 months, and more than half of them have visas that expired months ago. This means that they cannot even go back home without paying a hefty fine, which they have no means to pay.
Workers have tried everything over the last year and a half – strikes, speaking to the authorities, approaching the Indian embassy – but to no avail. Many of those who resigned months ago are still staying in labour camps, with four in a single room, hoping every day that they would get their settlement from the company and would be able to go home.
“I have no means to feed my wife and children. I haven’t sent any money home in one year,” rues Murugan, a worker from Tamil Nadu, in a video sent to TNM by a local social worker, “Few of us have visas. We have to pay the fines for expired visas but they are not giving us our settlement. I have to pay Rs 80,000 to go back to India. How should I pay that much money?”
Months of trouble with no respite
Sajil Kumar was one of the fortunate ones. A native of Belagavi, Karnataka, Sajil resigned from Kharafi National in January 2017 after working for a year and three months as an electrical design engineer.
He recounts that the trouble began in late 2015. The company was paying salaries at that time, but at a gap of two months on average. But in mid-2016, it became more sporadic and in some cases, there was no payment for months. As a result, a number of people had begun resigning by April 2017.
The people who quit had to serve a three-month notice period. However, many ended up staying back for longer in the hopes that the company would clear their dues.
After the workers increased the pressure on the company, Kharafi National said that they would make batches of 10 and pay the settlement. But by December 2017, even the settlements become difficult to come by.
According to Sajil, these problems started because of some politics between the higher management.
“I stayed for three months after serving my notice period, hoping that they would pay the salary they owed me. But in August last year, I came back home. They still owe me eight months’ wages,” the 32-year-old tells TNM.
Like him, many exited the Gulf country after a power of attorney document which designated an acquaintance in Kuwait to collect the settlement, if it came, on their behalf.
No money, no food, and nowhere to turn to
A number of workers have been waiting outside the Kharafi National head office for several days now. The video below shows employees squatting on nothing but cardboard sheets in the corridor. They have all but a backpack, and some, a water bottle. But no one seems to be interested in their plight.
“The problem is the same. There has been no solution till now. People are sitting here thirsty, hungry, and cold […] It has been 10 months since we resigned […] The company is giving us neither food, nor sending us home,” says the man who is recording the video, also a worker.
The camera then focuses on Murugan. “We have been sitting in front of Kharafi head office and protesting for the past 7 days. Nobody even cares to respond. If we ask the finance manager, he keeps delaying it by a week, every week. I have resigned and have been sitting here for the past 9 months,” he says.
Another video from May 2017 has a man from Tamil Nadu talking about his plight.
“It’s been three months since I resigned and I have been sitting in my room since. Nobody has mentioned anything about the settlement yet,” he says, “The embassy needs to give us an answer.”
What happens next is quite alarming. He takes out a yellow rope, and says, “Let the company do whatever it wants. I’m going to commit suicide. That’s how bad our condition is.”
Another worker says, “We have been at this for many days now. Men have committed suicide, and they have died of a heart attack anxiously waiting for their money.”
Six months later, however, there was no change in their situation. In a video from November 2017, a man can be heard saying, “Should we go to the court, put a case, shoot someone, or commit suicide ourselves? What can we do… I have taken money from 10 people, but I still have nothing. With what face should I go to them, how should I pay them back?”
But even for those opted to move on to another job in Kuwait, there was trouble in store.
Gowtham Bose, a 27-year-old former employee from Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, says that Kharafi National was refusing to release passports of the people who had found new jobs.
“I was asked to get the work permit from my previous employer and furnish it to the new company to secure my job. However, the Kharafi management refused to help in any way. Finally, I had to directly go to the Ministry of Interior and collect my documents. Since I knew Arabic, it was easier for me. Stranded workers who do not speak the local language will find it harder,” he tells TNM.
No help from Indian Embassy either
A recurrent thread in most stories of stranded Indian migrant workers in the Gulf is the lack of help from the Indian embassy. This case is no different.
Workers have tried protesting at the Embassy as well, but to no avail. Alwin Jose, a local social worker with Kuwait Human Rights Society, says that other organisations like theirs have been helping them with food and such. But the Indian Embassy hasn’t been proactive in ensuring the well-being of the workers.
“The Embassy is now waiting for Indian Union Minister of State for External Affairs VK Singh to visit next week to decide the next course of action,” he says.
(Inputs from Sreedevi Jayarajan)