Saturday, April 27, 2013


By Sunita Williams / Trivandrum

It's the beginning of the end of dreams for most Indians, particularly those from Kerala, working in the Gulf region, as many of them are forced to return home. INN  looks at the grim scenario and tries to find out the reason

Keralites working in the Gulf, as a class, are facing a crisis of status — and of survival. Some 30 years ago, it was a matter of pride for Kerala families to say that they had some Persian connections (the word Gulf was yet to become common among the ordinary people then). Men working in the Gulf then were in high demand in the marriage market. Half the Malayalam movies released between then and now had stories directly related with migration to the Arabian Gulf.
However, pictures, videos and reports that flooded the media during the Gulf War-1 showcasing the conditions the majority of the Malayalee migrants to the Gulf were working and living in changed the perception: Insecure jobs, low salaries, terms of work contracts that were equivalent to those of slavery, crammed labour camps, filthy toilets, long queues in the morning for water being brought by tankers driven by corrupt drivers...

That picture of disgrace for the Gulf Malayalee has kept on becoming bleaker and bleaker since then. Luckily for those from Kerala, known for the several past decades as a money-order-based economy, and their families and relatives, the Gulf dreams did not end with the two Gulf Wars. In fact, there were people who had even bought star hotels in Kerala with money earned from the business of supplying chicken to US military camps in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait even while supporting Saddam Hussein. But that was not enough to save the Malayalee from the image problem despite the fact that a small minority has always been in the high-pay, secured-job category in the Gulf. The new circumstances in the Gulf have, however, generated a feeling that it is high time Malayalees ended the habit of viewing Arabia as the ‘Promised Land’.

The legal machine designed to expel the (illegal) working class migrants has already been switched on in Saudi Arabia; Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and even the UAE are priming their legal machineries with the goal of reducing the size of expatriate populations. It is called Nitaqat in Saudi Arabia, a programme to ensure a minimum representation by nationals in the country’s employment scene, clearly a product of the fear of the rulers about backlash from the people in the context of the Arab Spring uprisings in the region. Many countries — like Yemen, Palestine, Vietnam, Philippines, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — are bound to feel the heat of this new trend, a direct result of the Arab Spring.

However, there is no doubt that Kerala, whose remittances from abroad (mainly Gulf) is almost 31 per cent of the State’s GDP and 1.4 times more than the internal Revenue income of the Government, will be the worst hit. Even a 10 per cent downslide in these figures can have the catastrophic effect. “But what are the governments in Thiruvananthapuram and New Delhi doing to address the issue is the big question. They can do nothing to reverse the situation, but there are things they can — and should — do to ensure the survival of the lakhs of people who could be coming back like refugees to their own land. Still, they will do nothing,” says Anas Ahmed of Malappuram, who was among the first Nitaqat-hit to leave Saudi Arabia.

Nitaqat works at many levels against the low-income expatriate community in Saudi Arabia. Associated initiatives by the Saudi Government, implemented through Labour Department officials and Jawazat police (passport cops), are stringent in content and practice. Companies have to ensure eight to 30 per cent representation by nationals in their total workforces, depending on the employee strength. There are specific guidelines on the pay package and other amenities required for nationals, which small companies will never be able to abide by. 

Migrants working under sponsors other than their original contractors will have no space to work and live in the kingdom. There is no dispute that all this is fair from the viewpoint of any nation and it is immensely clear as to who all will be hit by such norms. Searches for “illegal residents” started after March 27, the deadline set for complying with the Nitaqat norms, spreading panic through the migrant worker communities. The move, which included arrest, removal to deportation camps and expulsion, was to affect an estimated two million of the 6.5 million expatriates in Saudi Arabia.

“The panic among our people can’t be described in words,” says Ashraf from Kollam who returned at the very start of the reverse exodus from Dammam. “Small shops owned by Malayalees remained closed. Malayalees stopped venturing out of their camps fearing arrest by uniformed officials posted even at the doorsteps or by plainclothes policemen roaming the streets. Regularisation of papers is possible, thanks to the corruption present anywhere under the sun, but you will have to pay as much as Rs3,00,000 for that. I know that hundreds of Indians, mainly Malayalees and Tamilians, were removed into the already crammed deportation centres to suffer but Indian diplomats were never seen trying to help them get exit cards. I am not sure if you can understand the fear in the hearts of men trapped without proper papers and sponsors in a country like Saudi Arabia where laws are not meant to scare people but to be implemented in letter and spirit,” says Ashraf.

Ashraf, now 52 and father of two teenage girls, exited at the first available moment, paying extra money for air ticket and bribing his way to the airport and on to the plane. “Everywhere, there was a Keralite,” he says with a bitter smile. On April 6, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud announced a three-month reprieve for all “illegal” expatriates to either legally regularise their residence permits or to get out. “It was by no means a gesture of generosity from the king. 

The Saudi authorities had no other option as recognised companies doing government jobs on contract said in no uncertain terms that works would not be completed in time if low-income migrant workers were rounded up and sent back. Also, there was immense pressure on the Saudis from the Government in Yemen,” says Wilson, a manager with an infrastructure firm having government contracts worth millions of dollars in Riyadh. But politicians in India, from Chief Minister Oommen Chandy of Kerala to Union Minister for Overseas Indian Affairs Vayalar Ravi claimed brazenly that the relaxation was the result of India’s diplomatic efforts!

The governments in Thiruvananthapuram and New Delhi and researchers who depend largely on stock methodology surveys are arguing that fears about the Gulf dream coming to an end in the context of the Nitaqat cleanup in Saudi Arabia are grossly misplaced. They are justified in their theory that Nitaqat hits only illegal immigrants in Saudi Arabia and that they are only a portion of the immigrant community there. 

As far as Kerala is concerned, those who may have to return empty-handed in the changed circumstances number only up to 1.75 lakh, while Saudi Arabia has over 5.75 lakh Malayalees. “But they may be missing the larger picture”, says Suresh Kumar, an expert in migration patterns. No country in the Arabian Gulf would now be able to stay away from the job nationalisation process, thanks to the strong message emanating from the class of educated youth in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

“Rulers in these countries are now convinced that free ration, subsidies and grants are no more going to be insurance for political power. They are now beginning to understand the fact that what the people want is power or at least a share in it. The authorities will have to find ways to contain that explosive thought. Nitaqat in Saudi Arabia, that way, is just a beginning,” says Kumar, adding, “Ordinary Gulf-dependent Keralites, who had seen how the war in Kuwait had ravaged their lives back in the early 1990s, would understand the gravity of the situation better than those sitting in the governments.” 

Amid reports that corporate firms and sections within the Government there were opposing the proposed employment nationalisation plan, Kuwait’s Minister for Social Affairs and Labour Thikra al-Rashidi on April 14 asserted that there would be no change in the plan to cut the size of migrant employees by 100,000 per year for the next 10 years in order to accommodate more and more nationals in government and private sector jobs. 

A similar development is taking place in the UAE, where 40 per cent of Kerala’s total emigrants — officially, 2.28 million and over three million, informally — work. An influential member of the Federal National Council of the UAE had on March 31 reiterated the country’s resolve to implement nationalisation in the government job scene apart from the private sector.

Bahrain, which has already faced the brunt of the Arab Spring, and Oman, which has not yet won over the minds of immigrants as a hospitable paymaster, are thinking on the same lines. “One must view these developments in the background of what had happened just four years ago when the ‘economic bubble’ of Dubai burst, pushing the Government there into near bankruptcy. Ministers here had said that the Dubai meltdown would not affect Keralites. But it did affect them, and close to 40,000 Keralites had to return home,” says Manu Subramanian, an Abu Dhabi-based cost-and-work auditor.

As per surveys done in 2011, the Gulf had been providing jobs to over two million Keralites. The UAE had 8,83,313 Keralites, while their number in Saudi Arabia was 5,74,739. Qatar was then the third Gulf country with the largest population of Kerala migrants numbering 1,48,427. The number of Malayalees in Kuwait then was 1,27,782 while Bahrain had 1,01,556 Keralites. “Do the governments here have any idea as to how it would affect Kerala if 20 per cent of these people have to return in the next five years?” Manu asks.

Experts in migration studies say that the age of globalisation is bound to be the age of cyclical migration. Workers — professional, skilled and unskilled — are to become eternal floaters, leaving one country when the opportunities end there for another in search of new assignments. And this proved true when Dubai economy melted down in 2009 leading to heavy job losses. A good portion of the affected were Keralites but a good percentage of them opted not to return home and instead migrated to Abu Dhabi within the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the new destination of job-seekers from the Orient. 

But cleanup plans like Nitaqat would leave no space for cyclical migration, it is pointed out. “Semi-skilled and unskilled workers from places like Kerala cannot have the luxury of migrating to the US, Canada or countries in Europe. Their lives have to revolve around the Gulf. But when all the governments in Arabia focus on nationalisation of their job scenes, where is the chance for country-to-country migration? The only option is to come back,” says Manu.

In the wake of the Nitaqat problem, Kerala Chief Minister Chandy and KC Joseph, his Minister in charge of the Non-Resident Keralites’ Affairs (Norka), had asserted that those returning from Saudi Arabia would not have to suffer because the Government was devising an effective rehabilitation plan for them. This promise was made in March-end. Three weeks later, there is no sign of any such rehabilitation plan. Ask Ronnie (name changed), who had seen nothing but lack of sensitivity from government officials when he landed at the Thiruvananthapuram airport from Riyadh in the first week of April. “I was happy to spot this Norka helpdesk at the airport but I soon realised what it meant for us. There were three men at the desk and they had no time to talk to us. We were asked some questions, made to do some form-filling job.

There was no word of assurance, not even a goodbye. A week later, I contacted the district collector to learn that no information on my return had been passed on to his office,” he says, adding that even the promise of Chandy to get the returnees home free turned out to be hollow. “In fact, airline companies just hiked their fares to cash in on the situation,” says Ronnie.

Keralites repatriate to the country Rs65,000 crore a year on an average. Over 80 per cent of this is coming from those toiling in the deserts of Arabian Gulf. Despite such a huge monetary inflow, the successive governments have not been able to do anything creative and productive with it. As a result, most of this money is spent on non-productive investments like homes, gold ornaments, vehicles, etc, thus creating a false feeling that the way to sociological and economic development is retailing. “I bought my (bogus) visa paying Rs1.75 lakh. In five years, I made about Rs7.5 lakh. What I have now is a house on which I have a loan repayment liability of Rs16,000 a month and some 25 sovereigns (200 gm) of gold, most of which has been pledged in the bank. In short, I am unwanted here. It is back to masonry in which I am no expert. But the problem is that if the trend continues, wage levels may soon come down,” Ronnie says with a needle of despair and anxiety in his voice.


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