The pandemic has exacerbated the struggles of Indian migrant workers abroad

Migrant workers in the Gulf have not been paid for months and are faced with fines for overstaying their visas. Many are unable to afford the repatriation flights while some are forced to call home, asking for money.
Indian migrant workers in Kuwait.
Indian migrant workers in Kuwait.
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Pawan Kumar has been on the lawns of the Indian Embassy in Kuwait since Monday night. The 34-year-old from Punjab has been sitting there, along with 23 other Indian nationals, waiting to hear from Embassy officials about renewing their residence permits.

Pawan told TNM that they do not have rooms to sleep in or proper toilets at the Embassy premises. “We were told that the staff toilets cannot be used. There are only two visitors toilets, which are unclean. We volunteered to clean the toilets,” he said. The Embassy is providing them with food. 

Embassy officials brought the group of 24 Indian nationals to the diplomatic premises as they did not have valid residence permits. They had been sleeping, along with 56 other Indian nationals, on roads and alleyways in Kuwait for nearly a month before that. Ever since they were brought to the Indian Embassy, the lawn is where they have been sleeping.

Due to the global crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Kuwaiti government had announced amnesty for residency violators or those without a valid residency permit. Workers from foreign countries could leave the country without paying any fines. Over 3,000 Indians had submitted applications under the scheme. However, about 80 Indian undocumented workers did not make the cut.

“By then, people had already left their accommodations. Since we could not go back, we have been taking shelter on the streets. While neighbours were kind enough to offer us some food, we did not have access to toilets,” said Pawan, who was forced to quit his job as a carpenter a few months ago after his company stopped paying him his salary.

“I was promised a payment of 96 Kuwaiti dinar (Rs 23,189), but I received only 62 KD (about Rs 15,000). My father, who passed away, left behind a huge debt. I have to take care of my elderly mother in India. With the daily expenses and sending home money, I was left with almost nothing,” explained Pawan.

He was in the process of looking for another job when lockdown upended plans.

“Now, with the new crisis, I do not have money to buy food, let alone send some money to my mother or buy tickets to return to India on the special flights by the Indian government,” he lamented.

This is the story of thousands of Indian migrant workers in foreign countries, especially in the Gulf, some whom TNM managed to speak with.

A vast majority of workers from India, who go to the Middle East, are semi-skilled and unskilled workers. Many among them are employed on a temporary basis and have to return once their contract expires. According to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), as on November 30, 2019, a total of 3.34 lakh workers emigrated from India.

These workers, from across India, migrated abroad with dreams — of better job opportunities, earning just enough to build a house for their families, supporting families back home who depend on them, paying off large loans, and just surviving.

The endeavour to get a job abroad for these workers involves a raft of risks: many are victims of job scams that thrust them into low-paying jobs in harsh working conditions. Some have sold their land to travel abroad, others are forced to forfeit their passports to their sponsors upon arrival. There are many who have to wait for months to get their salaries. And most are crammed into small rooms with scant basic amenities.

Stories of these workers’ exploitation and the violation of their human rights from these regions are overwhelming. To add to their existing daily struggles, the COVID-19 pandemic has either scuppered their dreams forever or put them on hold indefinitely.  

No money for food, let alone tickets

Considering that a great number of workers do not even have money to buy food, purchasing flight tickets to return home is a distant dream for them.

The Indian government’s Vande Bharat Mission to evacuate Indian nationals stranded in foreign countries, especially migrant workers who have lost their jobs, requires the travellers to bear their own travel costs. This includes flight tickets without any rebate, and in some cases, quarantine charges on arrival in their respective Indian states.

For many migrant workers, this strikes a dual blow.

Some countries like Kuwait pardoned residency violators through amnesty schemes and allowed undocumented workers to fly out without paying any fine for overstaying. But not all countries extended these rights to their guest workers.

Jaseem (name changed), a native of Kerala, had been working at a bakery in Muscat, the capital city of Oman.

The Arab country had waived off the fine for those whose residence permits had expired after the third week of March. This was around the same time when there was a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases in the Sultanate and officials feared community spread.

Jaseem’s residence permit, however, expired before this, in December 2019. This means that he is looking at a fine of more than 240 Omani rial (nearly Rs 47,000) for his five-month overstay. 

If he has to fly back to India, he has to first pay the fine and then purchase tickets on Air India to travel on the repatriation flight. While the first phase of the Vande Bharat Mission has ended, the Indian government will deploy the next set of flights to bring back its stranded nationals from May 16 to May 22, with eight flights between Oman and India.

“Since I have some serious kidney issues, the doctors in Muscat recommended that I seek extensive treatment in Kerala. Accordingly, I registered with the Indian Embassy here in mid-April and got shortlisted as well. But when I apprised them of the fine, they asked me to sort it out with the company and get back to them. When I approached the company, they said I have to pay the fine,” explained Jaseem.

“But how will I pay when I have not received my salary for the last seven months?” he asked.

According to a social worker in Oman, who did not wish to reveal his name, the delay in renewing the residence permit is caused by the company. It stems from the exploitative kafala or sponsorship system in Arab countries, where the companies become sponsors of their foreign migrant workers. Under this practice, the company has the liberty to withhold the passport of its employee on arrival.

“Even if the employee reminds the employer, they send them off assuring that they would renew it; but it always gets delayed. Besides, since many workers do not get their salaries on time, they also fear that they would not get their overdue amount if they demanded an immediate renewal,” the social worker explained to TNM. 

“When my labour visa expired, I asked my company to renew it but they kept delaying it. For many others, their labour visa expired more than seven months ago, which means, they have fines amounting to over Rs 1,00,000. But like me, many are yet to receive their salary for months. They are from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Some of them have been working here for 20 to 30 years. There are people among us who are above 75 years,” said Jaseem.

While they filed a complaint against the company for non-payment of salaries, many along with Jaseem do not have the money to buy food or medicine, or even avail healthcare if a person is infected. 

No roof over their heads

Thanks to some non-government organisations (NGOs), social workers and help from (some) Indian Embassies, these workers are able to get their next meal or cook with the kits provided as relief materials.

For instance, In Iraq, about 120 Indian workers, whose companies have been shut due to the pandemic, are being provided with food by organisations like the Telugu Gulf Employees Welfare Association, with the help of the Indian Embassy in Iraq.

The population of Indian migrant workers here is less. While a majority are from Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, others are from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and West Bengal.

“The people here are generally courteous and willing to help. We have been able to identify those who were stranded on the streets and find them temporary accommodations,” said A Dakshina Murthy, president of the Telugu Gulf Employees Welfare Association in Erbil, Iraq.

Many who still have jobs are provided with food and accommodation by their companies. Some are fortunate to just have a roof over their head, but not people like Kismat and Salman, who are sleeping in alleyways and near shelters.

Like Pawan, Salman’s residence permit has expired. He had left his job as a cashier at a hypermarket in Kuwait as the company stopped paying him for the last few months. This makes Salman, who hails from Bengaluru in Karnataka, an undocumented worker.

Salman left his accommodation, hoping to travel back to India on Kuwait’s amnesty scheme. But he did not meet the government’s requirement. He is now sleeping in an alleyway, without his documents or even his bag.

“Since I have not been receiving my salary, I could not pay the rent. I did not want the owner to know that I was leaving the country. So I left my bag of clothes behind in the room and some important documents with my friend. Now my friend is locked in his room by the owner. He opens the room only to give him food,” said Salman.

Kismat, a native of Uttar Pradesh, is in a quandary. He neither has his passport nor a place to stay. He had arrived in Kuwait on February 4— just a month before the Gulf country began reporting COVID-19 cases— to work as a private chauffeur. Kismat had to submit his passport to his employer since he did not have another valid proof of identity.

It has been over three months, and Kismat, too, has not received his salary. “When I asked my employer for my passport to return to India, he claimed to have lost it. I only have a copy of it, although my residence permit is valid for one more year. When I asked him to at least let me continue to live in the accommodation within the premises of his house, he refused, citing fears of spreading COVID-19,” he said.

Kismat then managed to take shelter at his friends’ accommodations, but not for long. “Coronavirus cases are rising here and everybody is scared,” he said.

As of May 13, Kuwait has over 10,000 cases and 78 deaths due to COVID-19.   

Worried about families back home

In Qatar, images have been circulating on social media platforms ever since some lockdown restrictions were eased on Tuesday, where many are seen lining up in front of money exchange centres. 

The line in front of a money exchange centre in Doha on May 12.
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“Their families back in India or other countries are waiting for this money. The situation of their families, especially those who depend on these workers, is sad. Besides, these workers will not have the facility to transfer the money via online banking or apps,” an Indian residing in Qatar, who did not want to be named, told TNM.

But not many are able to send money back home at this time of the crisis. Bala Goud, a 30-year-old from Telangana, took a loan from a local financier and went to Dubai to work for two years, construct a house for his family back home and hopefully lead a financially stable life.

“I used to send home some money to repay the loan and savings for my house. Now,  because of the lockdown, I doubt if I would be receiving my next month’s salary,” said Bala, who works as operations supervisor in a services providing company in the United Arab Emirates and earns a little over Rs 40,000.

Sadly, because of the uncertainty and no work, Bala told TNM, many migrant workers who stay in labour camps have been asking their families in India to send them some money instead.

Contemplating a return to India

Salman, who was earlier mentioned in this story, sounded mortified speaking about his plight with this reporter.

“My family in Bengaluru is financially stable. My father is a government servant. My family warned me about going abroad. But I left. In fact, I was a victim of a job scam. But I held on to whatever job came my way. This lockdown has brought me to the streets and has put me in an embarrassing position that I cannot call my parents and friends. You are the first person I am talking to in three days,” he told this reporter. Salman is unsure if and when he would return to India. 

Raju Tadwai, who hails from Kamareddy district in Telangana, says he would ‘rather die in a foreign country.’ 

“I somehow cleared a debt of Rs 4 lakh and constructed a house. If this pandemic or lockdown had not happened, I could have cleared the remaining (over) Rs 2 lakh debt, got my sister married and arranged my own wedding by next year,” said Raju, an informal worker who is currently out of a job.

“Many are now saying it is better to die here. If we die due to other reasons or due to COVID-19, our families will anyway not be able to see our bodies amid all these protocols,” he said.

Katla Lingam, a native of Telangana, found a job as a driver in Kuwait with great difficulties. “For me, going back to India, without a guaranteed job, is nothing short of another crisis,” he said.

(With inputs from Charan Teja)

Update: Pawan and a few other workers without a valid residence permit have been granted Emergency Certificate (a one-way travel document). They will be able to fly back on the next flight to India.   

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