Gulf. The Sorrowful Homecoming of Migrant Workers

For years, the African and Asian workers gone to seek their fortune in the Eldorado of the Persian Gulf were acclaimed as heroes in their villages. Now they are coming back empty-handed to swell the ranks of the unemployed, having lost their jobs on account of the pandemic. Some are trying to go into business for themselves.

A street in Ponnani, Kerala, where many migrant workers come from in the Gulf States
© Sebastian Castelier

Once the hub of the world’s spice trade, the district of Malappurum in the Indian state of Kerala, tucked way between the forests of the Nilgiri Mountains to the East and the lush shores of the Arabian Sea to the West is now the backyard of the Arab Gulf States. For a full third of the households of Malappuram, the cash which the expatriate workers send back to their families is a vital source of income. It pays daily expenses, school fees, electronic appliances and real estate, and has been at risk ever since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I was working in Dubai for a construction company but I was fired,” Vipin mournfully tells me. He is one of the 2,230,000 pravasikal (“migrant” in the local language, the malayalam) back in Kerala since May 2020. “Right now, I am living on my savings, but they will soon run out. In our village, many people have already come home from the Gulf, but there are no job opportunities here,” he told me in May 2020. A year later he scrapes by with his wife and their two-year-old daughter on odd jobs and temping until he can set off once again for the Gulf and its prosperous economies. The unemployment rate in Kerala, already higher than the national average before the pandemic, skyrocketed during the early months of the health crisis, from 9% in December 2019 to 26% in May 2020. “My family has escaped the Covid, but the situation around me is getting worse every day,” he adds. India documents hundreds of thousands of cases and over 4,000 deaths every day in a terrible second wave which began in the middle of April 2021.

For the oldest pravasikals the return home during the pandemic is tantamount to “leaving behind a life of labour and the benefit of tax-free wages” for “an old age without the safety net of social security.” Indeed, the Gulf economies are built on a model of migration which provides an abundant foreign workforce on a fixed-term basis in exchange for wages that are higher than in their country of origin. Excluded as they are from the public retirement system, reserved to nationals, immigrant workers must salt away money for their post-migratory life or else rely on the next generation’s financial support. An approach which is very much like the traditional practices in their homeland where, in the absence of a welfare state, seniors must rely mostly on the solidity of family ties and the social fabric.

National preference

The Chief Minister of Kerala, Pinarayi Vijayan, points out that his state is “really indebted” to the pravaskals for their contribution to local development. According to a World Bank study, when the share of the GDP represented by the money which the expatriate workers send home to their families increases by 10%, “the number of persons living below the poverty line decreases by 1.6%.” But some accuse the returning migrants of spreading the Covid-19 virus. While others question the precarious nature of the migration models offered foreign workers by the Gulf States. Naturalisation or a permanent residence permit are privileges reserved for the very few. In January 2021 the United Arab Emirates declared that they were making citizenship available to foreign investors, people with special talents, physicians, engineers and artists designated by the Royal Family or Emirati officials.

Besides which, workforce nationalisation programs are proliferating in Golf countries in order to prioritise the hiring of nationals. While only 270,000 Emirati nationals live in the EAU’s largest city, Dubai, there are plans to increase this population by 76% during the next two decades and to attract skilled labour from all over the world, while its Saudi and Omani neighbours must cope with the scourge of unemployment. The reverse migratory flux due to the pandemic illustrates a longer-term phenomenon at a time when the craze for renewable energies has left the oil- and gas-based economies of the Gulf groping their way in a world where the supremacy of fossil fuels is waning.

According to the National Centre for Statistics and Information of the Sultanate of Oman, the number of foreign workers in that country declined by 14% between the beginning of the pandemic and January 202l. In Saudi Arabia, nearly 13% of its citizens are unemployed and reducing the country’s dependence on foreign labour is one of Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salman’s hobby horses. In Kuwait, national preference is an unabashed policy accompanied by an anti-migrant rhetoric with racist overtones, accusing foreigners of all the Emirate’s ills.

The labour-exporting countries of Asia and Africa are well aware that the future of the Gulf States hangs on their ability to convert their economic and social models and they are trying to develop fresh westward migration routes for more qualified workers, but also to strengthen their local economic fabrics. An effort which requires a drastic modification of their approach to migration which has become such a powerful symbol of success that it has deprived the local economies of the creativity and economic dynamism of youth. “If I migrate, it will strengthen the economy in the Gulf countries, but not in India. We would do better to change our way of thinking" is what Afeefa Rasheed, an Indian student of 21, told OrientXXI in 2019. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), low-skilled Indian workers holding down jobs in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, earn between one and a half and three times more than they would be working for an Indian employer.

“It is as if we had won the war”

Unlike Vipin in Kerala, others were not actually fired. They were simply on the wrong side of the border when Saudi Arabia decided, in the middle of March 2020, to close its borders. All flights were cancelled, and they found themselves unable to get back to their workplaces. Many of these collateral victims of the pandemic lost their jobs and were stuck in their home countries. Only the most affluent were able to get back to Arabia, paying for a journey with a stopover of anywhere from a week to a fortnight, in Dubai or the Maldives, for example, where the flight connections with the Kingdom had been resumed. A Twitter account called Bring Back Saudi Residents were open to alert Saudi authorities. “Flights between India and Saudi Arabia are still suspended. It has been over a year now and for those who are still stranded in India, with no job and no salary, the situation is terrible.” This comment was posted by the person at the origin of the Twitter account who wishes to remain anonymous because they live in Saudi Arabia. “Some have resigned themselves to the inevitable and have asked their friends or colleagues to wind up their tenancy agreements or sell their cars in Arabia,” the person added.

These forced homecomings have left the men and women who had counted on emigration to the Gulf as a way of improving their lot, with a difficult choice: either go back to square one in the migration game—and pay the recruitment fees a second time—or try their luck in their country of origin. Praveen, 27, is from Itahari, a city with a population of some 140,000 in South-East Nepal. He left his family home in January 2019 to find work in Dubai, hoping to wipe out the family’s debts. The migration agent who organised his departure charged him over $850 as a “recruitment fee,” in violation of the laws of the Himalayan nation,

The young man paid up and a couple of weeks later landed in Dubai, where his work consisted in supervising the transfer of passengers in wheelchairs at the international airport. But at the end of the year, the Covid-19 pandemic grounded the entire Emirates fleet, causing a temporary stoppage of the world’s number one airline hub where 86 million passengers transited in 2019. “When the pandemic began, the company stopped paying us. With 200 Nepalese colleagues, we staged a kind of revolution in front of the administration budding, but they told us to go back to our rooms, get some sleep and eat the food they handed out to us. It was a difficult situation. I am the pillar of my family with that job. My father is 84 and my mother 71 and they live on the money I send them,” he tells me.

Plagued with doubts as to the future of his profession and deprived of his salary of $300 per month (in violation of UAE laws), Praveen resigned and went home. After 20 months in Dubai, he had to borrow the money to pay for his ticket from Kathmandu to his home town, a distance of 360 kilometres. “I was so happy when I got there. It was as if we had won the war and were celebrating our victory,” he says. Disappointed by his migration experience, Praveen decided to take charge of his own destiny. After a few months temping to pay for a modest wedding with the love of his life—“I cut costs as much as I could”, he specified—he is now trying to scrape together the wherewithal to start an employment agency. His future company will be devoted to helping people in his region find local jobs instead of taking emigration as a way out. For the moment, only 60,000 Nepalese have emigrated again since the country reopened its borders in July 2020, as against the 240,000 who came home during the pandemic. “I pray that my future business will prove prosperous”.