COVID forces India’s former Gulf workers to forge new futures

Pandemic causes biggest return of overseas workers in 50 years, with some desperate to return due to mounting loans.

Labourers wearing face masks as a precaution against coronavirus leave for work in Kochi, Kerala [File: RS Iyer/AP]

It is not yet dawn but Yeroor village is long awake, the hum of productivity floating over “Gulf Street”, a lush green boulevard named for the thousands of workers who leave the southern Indian state of Kerala every year for jobs in the Middle East.

But now the workers are back, from machine operator Sudheesh Kumar, who has been forced back into manual labour in Yeroor to make ends meet, to former banker Binoj Kuttappan, who has taken up dog breeding in the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram.

In the single biggest reverse migration in more than 50 years, workers from the Gulf have streamed back to the coastal state of Kerala in the past year, propelled by a pandemic that deflated dreams of overseas riches and changing family fortunes.

While once they came home wealthy and revered, bearing gold, sunglasses, clothes and funds to buy homes, now they have returned sheepish and penniless.

“Prior to COVID, they were celebrated as heroes. Now they have nothing,” said Irudaya Rajan, a professor at the Centre for Development Studies in Kerala, who has studied migration patterns in India’s southernmost state.

“This is the first time they have returned empty-handed and will end up borrowing and selling assets,” said Rajan.

Among the Indian states, Kerala sends the most workers to the Gulf, accounting for about 2.5 million of six million Indian nationals there.

The state received about 19 percent of $78.6bn transferred to India from overseas workers in 2018, the highest state tally in the country that is the world’s top recipient of remittances.

But more than 1.1 million people have returned in the last 10 months, 70 percent having lost their jobs as domestic workers, builders, waiters, chefs and more, official data shows.

This has wrecked workers and their families’ lives and destroyed businesses dependent on the India-Gulf migration.

Kumar, 50, spent 22 years in the Middle East, with his final job in Saudi Arabia operating machines at Jeddah airport’s wastewater treatment where he earned triple the average Kerala wage.

In March 2020, he flew home – briefly, he thought – but flights were grounded in a bid to contain the new coronavirus.

Now, the father of two splits his time between farm labour and working in a stone quarry in the village of 13,000 people.

“I had planned my life when I left 22 years ago. I had any ordinary man’s dreams – a house, good education for my children,” a deflated Kumar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation outside his house, sweat beading his brow.

Kumar has been forced to sell his car and farmland to pay off a loan for his four-bedroom home in Gulf Street.

Now he is earning 400 Indian rupees ($5.50) a day compared with a fixed monthly 20,000 rupees  ($272) in Jeddah with overtime on top.

“I have no shame in doing hard labour, but how did I land here? Where did I go wrong?” Kumar said.

Migrant workers wearing face masks wait for transport in Kochi [File: RS Iyer/AP]

During the Gulf War 30 years ago and the 2008 financial crisis, many workers were forced back to Kerala, but this time the numbers are far higher number and the job market tighter.

A nationwide initiative linking returnees with jobs has notched up more than 30,000 registrants, about 80 percent of them from the Gulf States of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Oman, according to a government release.

Shamna Khan, 30, whose right leg is badly swollen by lymphoedema, never needed to work because her husband Shafir sent enough money home from his job in a glitzy Qatar mall.

The couple turned their mud and clay house to concrete, laid tiles, built an indoor toilet and got help for Shamna’s leg.

But after Shafir returned jobless last March, Shamna registered for India’s rural job scheme for about 300 rupees ($4) a day that guarantees a minimum 100 days of work in their village such as building roads, digging wells and trenches at farms.

“I am happy to work as I can support my family, but my leg is prone to infections,” said Shamna as she dug a trench at the village’s rubber plantation.

Sharif, who works at the quarry, worries about the looming uncertainty, his unpaid loans – and Shamna’s health.

“There is no other work here,” Sharif said.

A cyclist wearing a face mask pedals past daily wage labourers waiting to be hired for the day, by a roadside in Kochi [File: RS Iyer/AP]

More than 90 percent of Indian migrant workers, most of whom are low and semi-skilled workers, work in the Gulf region and southeast Asia, according to the United Nations.

Connecting them with jobs are recruitment agencies and travel firms which match workers with employers and book them on flights – a hectic business that Ajimon Mak, 45, nurtured for 14 years in Thiruvananthapuram.

“Ticketing was my main business, it was a passion and I was always busy. During the lockdown I saw it all go down to zero,” said Mak, who moved into fishmongering and recently opened a fish shop in Thiruvananthapuram.

Former banker Binoj Kuttappan, 40, also forged a new path after returning from Abu Dhabi last year following layoffs at his financial service company and decided to turn his passion for dogs into a breeding business.

“I would have never done this if not for the pandemic,” said Kuttappan, showing off seven dogs he bought for 150,000 rupees ($2,044).

With plans for a pet accessories shop, a garden for dogs and air-conditioned kennels, he has no plans to return to the Gulf – but others are counting the days until they can go back.

Kumar has started calling agencies seeking work in the Gulf.

“My savings for our future are gone and now our future looks bleak,” said Kumar. “I no longer think of making a profit. I only think of surviving the day.”

Source: Reuters