Updated: May 11, 2020
Bangalore: On the night before Kerala’s Valsala Kkayyil was to fly back to Oman from Kish, a tiny coral island off Iran’s southern coast, the Oman government suspended all flights from the country. It did so after two Omani women with travel histories to Iran tested positive for the Coronavirus.
Unlike the rest of Iran, Kish requires no entry permit and is a visa sanctuary for migrant workers from the Gulf. Like many others with about-to-expire work and tourist visas, Kkayyil had come here on 22 February 2020 on a 90-minute flight from Oman. Her Arab employer had given her four days off, paid for a new domestic-worker visa and air tickets to fly back to Oman’s capital, Muscat, to resume her domestic chores on 26 February 2020, the day flights were suspended.
Around the same time that Kkayyil was stranded in Kish, Muscat bakery mechanic Raju (he uses only one name) was running out of medicine. By the end of February, the Indian with a history of diabetes had not been paid for over a half a year, his dues adding up to Rs 311,850, at current exchange rates.
“It’s not just me,” Raju told Article14 over the phone in April. “Over a hundred colleagues from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan are also owed wages.” Raju’s Omani residence permit lapsed in 2019 and had not been renewed. But the pandemic was not the first thing on his mind. As fears of the coronavirus grew in Oman, the 61-year old mechanic urged his boss to pay him or give him a 25-rial monthly sustenance stipend. His employer did neither.
On 4 March, in Kuwait City, a two-hour plane hop from Muscat, a driver from Tamil Nadu—he requested we not use his name—filed an official complaint, a night after hiring a private taxi and fleeing from his employer’s residence. In October 2019, his Kuwaiti sponsor had recruited him to be a personal chauffeur. But when he arrived in Kuwait, the 24-year old was forced by his boss to pick weeds, wash cars, lift bricks and paint walls on a building project for 16 hours a day. There was no choice but to obey.
Kkayyil, Raju and the driver will not be among the 14,800 Indians that India is evacuating from 13 countries between 7 May and 13 May 2020 via special flights and naval ships, paying fares up to Rs 100,000 from the US, Rs 20,000 from Singapore, Rs 12,000 from Bangladesh and Rs 25,000 from the Gulf. The Indian government said its missions were preparing “priority lists” of “distressed” nationals, who would be evacuated if they could pay.
When Raju heard of the government’s rescue plan, he sent me a voice message on Whatsapp: “I have not been paid in nine months. I don’t have ten rupees in my pocket. If the government asks me to pay to go home, I have no idea how I will do it.”
“The move to repatriate overseas Indians is an important step,” Jose Abraham, President of the Pravasi Legal Cell, a nonprofit, said over the phone from New Delhi. “Yet, stranded workers with unpaid wages may not be able to claim this service.”
The Dilemma Of Gulf Workers
The residential status of workers in the Gulf monarchies, no matter how long they have worked there, is tied to their job and is valid only for the duration of their contracts. As soon as permits expire, workers must return home or risk being fined or detained.
Wages are higher than what they could earn in their home countries, but few are paid a living wage that would allow them to bring spouses or children across. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have complained of systemic labour exploitation and abuse in the region. As many as 600,000 people may be working in situations of forced labour in the region, according to United Nations’ estimates.
As the coronavirus pandemic spreads through the Gulf—faster in crowded labour camps and working-class neighbourhoods—employers suspended worker wages and cut jobs, according to worker accounts made available to me. Some migrants continued working outdoors without pay. Hundreds of workers—many without valid residence documents—are homeless, sleep under the sky, eat in soup kitchens and fight over common toilets and bathrooms.
When labour tribunals postponed hearings, workers with pending wage-claims could not take their employer to court. Migrants with existing health conditions, including those testing positive for the coronavirus, found it hard to buy medicine or visit a doctor.
As May began, the six Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates reported 61,255 cases and 341 dead from Covid-19. The majority of those infected and the dead are migrant workers. In Saudi Arabia, for example, 8 out of every 10 coronavirus deaths were reported among expatriates. In late April, Bahrain’s health ministry noted that 9 in 10 active cases were among migrants. Statistics from the health departments in UAE and Kuwait showed that nearly everyone infected were foreign nationals.
‘Even During The Lockdown, I Worked A Six-Hour Shift’
At the start of March, the six Gulf countries recorded 123 cases of the coronavirus. At the time, migrants were still flying into the Gulf to work. Among them was an Indian painter from Lucknow who landed in Doha, Qatar, in the first week of March.
The painter—he requested we not use his name—works for a large contracting company and lives in an eight-bed dormitory in a working-class neighbourhood in the industrial district to the south of Doha’s posh city centre. Days after the painter arrived, tiny Qatar, which is less than four times the size of Goa with an average income of over $125,000, the world’s highest, started reporting a spike in coronavirus cases.
On 11 March, Qatar reported an outbreak of 238 new infections in a single residential property in the Industrial district, a few kilometres away from where the Uttar Pradesh resident lived. The painter lives in a large camp that he says houses a thousand workers. “It is difficult to even sleep and eat properly, let alone practice social distancing,” he said. “Even during the lockdown, I worked a six-hour daily shift.”
As March progressed, and new cases mushroomed across the Gulf peninsula, each of the countries enforced a lockdown. All six Gulf nations ordered the closure of shopping malls, restaurants, coffee shops, open-air markets, gyms, public parks and places of worship. Bahrain banned public gatherings of over five people and Kuwait imposed a curfew in expatriate neighbourhoods.
Both countries threatened violators with a three-year jail term. Following an outbreak in the industrial district, Qatar deported over 400 Nepali migrants to Kathmandu for allegedly flouting curfew rules. Some of the expelled labourers told Amnesty International that they were detained on the pretext of getting tested for the coronavirus but were transferred to a crowded detention centre and deported.
On 20 March 2020, Neelam Mourya, a housewife from Maharajganj, in northern Uttar Pradesh, packed her clothes and left to see her brother in Ludhiana, Punjab. Her husband, Dinesh Mourya, a contract labourer in the United Arab Emirates had been unemployed since February.
“The contractor last paid him his salary in February,” Neelam told me over the phone. “They asked him not to send his wages home because they were not sure when they could pay him next.”
On 25 March, as India was locked down, Neelam, like her husband, could not return to her village.
‘We Should Throw Migrants Out Into The Desert’
As it became clear that crowded labour camps and accommodations posed a greater threat of infection, some Gulf citizens were seeking the lockdown of working-class neighbourhoods and deportation of labourers.
On 26 March, Safaa Al-Hashem, a Kuwaiti Member of Parliament (MP) called on her government to “purify the country” by deporting illegal workers. In 2019, the MP had said that migrants in Kuwait must pay fees for all public services including the air they breathe.
At the end of March, Hayat-Al-Fahad, a popular Kuwaiti actress blamed migrants for depriving Kuwaitis of hospital beds during the pandemic. The actress said she was “fed up” and demanded that migrant workers be thrown out “in the desert”. Many Gulf nationals criticised their comments.
Between February and March 2020, the Indian government operated flights to Japan, Iran, Italy and China to bring back its citizens. During that period, it did not operate an aircraft to any of the six Gulf states, some of which wanted migrant workers to go home.
On 23 March, Arab Times, a Kuwaiti newspaper, reported that the Kuwait government had failed to deport 340 Indian and Fillipino workers after both countries refused to receive their nationals without valid health certificates. In mid-April, a labour ministry spokesperson of the United Arab Emirates said the Emirates would review labour ties with countries that “have not been responsive” about repatriating their nationals and threatened to reduce future work-visa quotas.
Although the official did not mention which countries, his comments followed a statement by the UAE Ambassador to India, Dr Ahmed Al Banna, that UAE had offered to repatriate Indian nationals testing negative for Covid-19. By the end of March, the six Gulf countries reported 4,465 coronavirus cases and 31 deaths.
Promise To Protect Salaries Excludes Migrant Workers
By early April, Gulf governments were promising to shore up local businesses and guarantee salaries—but only for citizens.
Bahrain said it would pay the salaries of over 100,000 citizens, employed in its private sector, from April to June but excluded foreign workers from claiming benefits. Saudi Arabia promised to pay medical bills of anyone testing positive for the Coronavirus but a $2.4 billion fund to at least partially guarantee private-sector salaries covered only Saudi nationals. A new UAE labour ministry regulation effectively empowered businesses (even though these provisions could only be enforced through mutual consent) to grant paid and unpaid leave and reduce wages permanently or temporarily for foreign workers. Only Qatar’s $824 million wage-allocation budget promised to cover migrant worker salaries.
On 10 April, the Pravasi Legal Cell filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court calling on the Indian government to repatriate vulnerable Indian workers in the Gulf. The petition noted that India had chartered flights to repatriate individuals from various foreign countries but not a single aircraft had been sent to the Gulf to “bring back stranded and poor migrants”.
On 13 April, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi to repatriate vulnerable Indian nationals employed in the Gulf. In a letter, the chief minister pointed to certain vulnerable groups, including unemployed workers and individuals employed on tourist visas. Vijayan offered to take charge of testing and quarantine for Kerala migrants returning home.
On the same day, responding to a batch of petitions (including the Pravasi Legal Cell petition) to repatriate Indians abroad, the MEA told the Supreme Court: “Given the present situation of the coronavirus outbreak in India and the available limited resources, it is not feasible to selectively evacuate Indian citizens from abroad when a large number of them from a number of countries want to return back due to various reasons.”
‘The Doctor Said That He Had Likely Contracted The Coronavirus’
Meanwhile in the Gulf, workers were facing the brunt of the pandemic. Ashok Kumar, a 47-year old foreman in Jebel-Ali, Dubai, started a fever and cough on 10 April. As his illness progressed, Ashok told his colleagues that he could not bear the air-conditioning in their dorm and wanted to self-isolate and sleep in a different room.
“In self-isolation, as he was on his own, he became more tense,” Archana, Ashok’s sister-in-law told me over the phone. After six days of coughing, fever and the chills, he called a private hospital to ask if he could be admitted. The attendant told Ashok that there were no free beds and that the hospital was only admitting patients with severe respiratory issues.
On the morning of 16 April, Ashok Kumar went to a private hospital to get a coronavirus test. “Ashok told us that the doctor looked at his x-ray and said that he had likely contracted coronavirus,” Archana said. “The doctor told him to go back home and said that his results would be available the next day.”
That night, Ashok who had wrapped himself in two blankets to control the chills, told his wife on Whatsapp, that he might feel better if he slept a little. At around 2.30 am on 17 April, the Kumar family received a phone call from Ashok’s colleague that Ashok had committed suicide. “He jumped to his death,” the caller said. The coronavirus tests came back the same day. Ashok tested negative.
During the course of the pandemic, Gulf governments issued new guidelines to employers to enforce social distancing in dormitories, convert schools and build camps to house workers. But many workers who tested positive for the coronavirus were not admitted to a hospital. On 24 April, the website The News Minute, reported that a group of 50 labourers from Telangana—at least 10 of whom had tested positive for the Coronavirus—were stuck in a cramped labour camp with shared toilets and common areas. Five of the 10 men who tested positive complained of worsening coughs for which they had not been given any medicine.
‘If Someone Gives Him A Mobile, He’ll Call Home’
As April progressed, Neelam found it harder to reach her husband in the Emirates. “He has only been there for about five months, so he has not been able to save up to buy a mobile phone,” she said. Neelam’s husband Dinesh relied on his colleagues to give him their cellphones to call home. “If somebody gives him a mobile, he’ll call once in two days or, otherwise once in three days,” she said. “It has been difficult.”
Meanwhile, a money lender from whom Dinesh had borrowed money to pay for his journey to the Gulf had been calling Neelam on the phone. “The money lender is asking us to pay the interest,” she said. “He said, ‘when the lockdown ends, you must pay me’.” In a practice common among Gulf migrants: prospective migrant workers are forced to pay for their jobs and borrow money to pay recruitment agencies and illegal brokers, sometimes $10,000. Poorer workers’ pay proportionately larger recruitment fees.
In March, as Kuwait locked down, the homeless domestic worker who fled his employer, went to the Indian embassy in Kuwait to look for a place to sleep. “The embassy officer told me that the embassy-run shelter was only for female workers and asked me to adjust somewhere outside,” the driver said. “They asked me to come back in April.”
Meanwhile, two Indian workers who found him standing on the road with nowhere to go, invited him to come share their dorm. “When I went to the embassy in April, an embassy officer told me, ‘why have you come here? We’ll call you on the phone.”
The Tamil Nadu resident has now spent the last of his savings. “For now, even one meal a day is tough,” the 24-year old told me, “So we eat lunch and that’s about it.” When I spoke to him in May, the domestic worker told me he had been issued an emergency certificate by the Indian mission, a substitute travel document for citizens in a crisis whose passports have either been lost, damaged, or confiscated. But, the 24-year old says he doesn’t have the money to pay for a flight back to India.
With Nowhere To Go, Thousands Sleep Rough
As April progressed, many unemployed and homeless migrant workers slept under the open sky in parking lots, on footpaths and under trees. A migrant worker in Kuwait sent me a video of scores of migrants sleeping in a parking lot in a school campus.
The men used their bags as a pillow and slept on the tar road, a few feet apart from each other. Irregular workers have been impacted severely,” the community worker who was aware of the video I had been sent told me, “When they heard about Kuwait’s amnesty programme for workers, they left their rooms to come and register with the embassy. Now they don’t have a place to sleep.” In late April, Kuwait offered to repatriate Indian migrants without valid residence documents free of charge. But that was not possible because India closed its airports.
At the end of April, the Bakery in Oman had yet to clear Raju’s wages or pay him a living stipend. “I am owed nine months of wages,” Raju told me. What irks him most is that his employer did not pay workers a living allowance during the pandemic. “My employer didn’t have the decency to pay us an allowance,” he said, explaining how he lives off two meals from a charity soup kitchen. “It has been a month and a half since my medicines ran out.”
When his headache becomes unbearable, the mechanic begs a neighbourhood pharmacy attendant to give him a tablet. If he is able to borrow a couple of riyals from other workers, he pays the attendant for the medicine. “If we get infected, I am sure we will die here,” the mechanic told me. “My biggest fear is that my children will not see my body.”
‘I have not been paid in 52 days’
The Lucknow painter in Doha, Qatar, despite working six-hour shifts for six days a week had still not been paid. “The area where I live at the moment has a lockdown. Many people have been suffering from cough, cold and fever since a few days,” he said. “If we have to buy medicine, we have to do so with our own money.”
But his cash had run out. “Just before I got on the flight to Doha, I borrowed some money for the journey,” said the painter. “I have worked for 52 days since I got here, but I have not been paid.” His supervisor has said he would only be paid after the lockdown is lifted.
Kkayyil has been living in Kish since 22 February. Soon after she arrived, she contacted the Indian embassy in Iran to explain her situation and submitted copies of her passport via email. “The embassy official in Tehran told me they couldn’t do anything, and asked me to speak to my employer,” Valsala said.
Since February, Valsala’s employer has paid for her food and room rent. When her blood pressure increased, two locals took her to the doctor. “I am blessed to have people who support me,” Valsala told me, crying over the phone. “But I haven’t seen or spoken to anybody in two months. I just want to go home.”
(Nikhil Eapen is a freelance journalist and a researcher at Equidem, a labour-rights organisation.)