Once heroes, former Gulf Indian workers forge a new future
* Pandemic causes biggest return of foreign workers in 50 years
* Former Gulf workers seek new livelihoods
* As loans increase, some desperately want to return to the Middle East
By Roli Srivastava and Rakesh Nair
YEROOR, India, March 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – It is not dawn yet but the village of Yeroor has been awake for a long time, the buzz of productivity floating above “Gulf Street”, a leafy boulevard named for the thousands of workers who leave South India from the state of Kerala every year for jobs in the Middle East.
But now the workers are back, from machine operator Sudheesh Kumar, who was forced to return to manual labor in Yeroor to make ends meet, to former banker Binoj Kuttappan, who embarked on the dog breeding in the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram.
In the largest reverse migration in more than 50 years, Gulf workers have returned to the coastal state of Kerala over the past year, propelled by a pandemic that has deflated dreams of wealth abroad and of changing family fortunes.
While once they would return home rich and revered, wearing gold, sunglasses, clothing, and funds to buy houses, now they have come back sheepish and penniless.
“Before COVID they were celebrated as heroes. Now they have nothing left,” said Irudaya Rajan, a professor who has studied migration patterns in Kerala, India’s southernmost state.
“This is the first time that they have come back empty-handed and will end up borrowing and selling assets,” said Rajan, professor at the Center for Development Studies in Kerala.
Kerala is one of the states that sends the most workers to the Gulf, with around 2.5 million Indians out of 6 million. Kerala received around 19% of the $ 78.6 billion transferred to India by foreign workers in 2018, the largest number of states in the country which is the world’s largest recipient of remittances.
But more than 1.1 million people have returned in the past 10 months, with 70% losing their jobs as domestic workers, builders, waiters, chefs and more, according to official data.
It has turned the lives of workers and their families upside down, and destroyed businesses dependent on India-Gulf migration.
Kumar, 50, spent 22 years in the Middle East, with his last job in Saudi Arabia, operating sewage treatment machines at Jeddah Airport, where he earned three times the average salary in Kerala.
In March 2020, he flew home – briefly, he thought – but flights were brought to a standstill in an attempt to contain the novel coronavirus.
Today the father of two divides his time between agricultural work and working in a stone quarry in the village of 13,000 inhabitants.
“I had planned my life when I left 22 years ago. I had every ordinary man’s dream – a house, a good education for my children,” Kumar deflated to the Foundation. Thomson Reuters outside his house, sweat beading on his forehead.
Kumar was forced to sell his car and farmland to repay a loan for his four-bedroom house on Gulf Street.
Now he earns 400 rupees ($ 5.50) a day, compared to 20,000 rupees a month fixed in Jeddah with additional overtime.
“I have no shame in doing forced labor, but how did I end up here? Where did I go wrong? Kumar said.
FROM THE SHOPPING CENTER TO THE QUARRY
During the Gulf War 30 years ago and the 2008 financial crisis, many workers were forced to return to Kerala, but this time the numbers are much higher and the labor market tighter.
A national initiative linking returnees with jobs has registered more than 30,000 registrants, including around 80% from the Gulf States of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, according to a government press release.
Shamna Khan, 30, whose right leg is severely swollen with lymphedema, never needed to work because her husband Shafir sent enough money home from work in a glitzy Qatari mall.
The couple turned their mud and clay house into concrete, laid tiles, built an indoor bathroom, and got help for Shamna’s leg.
But after Shafir returned without a job last March, Shamna enrolled in India’s rural employment program for around Rs.300 per day, which guarantees a minimum of 100 working days in their village, as the construction of roads, digging of wells and trenches on farms.
“I’m happy to work because I can support my family, but my leg is prone to infections,” Shamna said as she dug a trench in 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.
More than 90% 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.
Recruitment agencies and travel agencies match them with employers and book them on flights – a turbulent business Ajimon Mak, 45, developed for 14 years in Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram.
“The ticket office was my main activity, it was a passion and I was always busy. During the lockdown I saw everything drop to zero,” said Mak, who moved into the fish shop and recently opened. a fishmonger in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala.
Former banker Binoj Kuttappan, 40, also charted a new course after returning from Abu Dhabi last year following layoffs at his financial services company and decided to turn his passion for dogs into one breeding business.
“I never would have done this without the pandemic,” Kuttappan said, showing seven dogs he bought for 150,000 rupees.
With plans for a pet accessories store, dog garden, and air-conditioned kennels, he has no plans to return to the Gulf – but others are counting the days until they can go home.
Kumar began calling agencies looking for work in the Gulf.
“My savings for our future are gone and now our future looks bleak,” Kumar said. “I don’t think about making a profit anymore. I just think about surviving the day.”
($ 1 = 72.9580 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; edited by Lyndsay Griffiths and Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http: //news.trust.org)
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