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Caught between the virus and the blue sea

Indian blue-collar workers in the Middle East tend to live in close proximity in congested clusters, which is why the requirement of self-isolation creates a piquant situation  

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected people of all social classes but more disproportionally the lower income groups, labourers and migrants. This is not just the case in India – where people are losing their lives out of hunger, left jobless with no remittance, or in danger of being infected due to the close proximity with which they live in, like Mumbai’s Dharavi – it can be seen also in America where more African Americans are infected and dying from the virus.

The Gulf countries see a major influx of migrants for blue-collar jobs; especially those from South India; a lot of Indians. But the pandemic has shown itself to be a bigger threat when such migrant workers are jammed into an area to contain the virus. They are not able to get themselves proper healthcare, and are unprotected by labour laws — which have got them fired, leaving them penniless.

Jose Abraham, counsel of Pravasi legal cell, approached the Supreme Court with a petition for repatriation of Indians from the Gulf countries. One of the main points flagged in the petition is Qatar admitting that migrant workers had been disproportionately infected by Covid-19. The total number of people infected in the country stands at 3,711. With migrant workers sharing tiny living quarters, an explosion of  the virus seems more than possible. The petition says labour camps are virtual prisons, with the areas being cordoned off.

Director of Centre for Indian Migrant Studies Rafeek Ravuther believes that in Qatar’s case, stopping mobility in sectors 1 to 32 in the industrial area, sectioning them off for a complete lockdown was a good step. However, while this may mean the virus does not leave that area, what it also could do is create a safe space for it to expand its grip, infecting everyone in its path. Ravuther thinks there is still hope as Qatar has created a quarantine area with 3,000 beds, and also provides health checks without documentation. Most importantly, healthcare is free, unlike in the UAE. There are reports that Qatar continues to make its migrant workers labour in the construction sites for infrastructure related to the FIFA World Cup 2022.

Abraham says they have received a lot of complaints from Gulf countries, “People have complained that even those infected by Covid-19 are not getting proper treatment”. But not just that, the petition claims that migrant workers despite being found positive are told to go back to their living quarters, a lethal step for all the workers there.

When Pravasi legal cells do hear about such cases or of workers who have been terminated or asked to take leave without pay, they ask their counterparts in those countries to provide the needed help. Two to three pregnant women in Saudi Arabia, Abraham claims, were told by their employers to “vacate at the earliest”. It is the Indian organisations there who are providing them with essentials. “They were in fact working with the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia and while Indian embassies have helplines — these are neither effective nor sufficient. Three to four offices are managing all the helplines during office hours but there are lakhs and lakhs of people affected.”

The Supreme Court considered the matter on April 13 but there was no interim direction. “The SC merely said to list this matter after four weeks and said that the Union of India needs to in that time see that the natives are protected. They should file a status report before the next date of hearing.”

The lawyer explains the court’s decision with the fact that there were more than a few petitions being heard around repatriation. One, he says, was to bring back around 6,000 fishermen from Iran; second was seeking evacuation of all Indians from the US and another seeking repatriation of about 50,000 students from the UK. The others are about repatriation of migrant labourers, “so the court said how can all these people be brought back all of a sudden, it’s not practical nor possible, so a common stand was taken.”

But while they take the SC’s decision positively, with their petition alternately requesting that workers be provided immediate relief with necessities of food and medicine, the one question still in his mind is how it would be implemented by India. The reality, Abraham says, is the condition at the ground level is “very pathetic…we keep thinking that the situation may improve. But in Saudi Arabia and UAE there are at least a few thousand labourers who are infected and even in that case the official numbers released by the governments may be less compared to the actual amount. In all Gulf countries, the actual numbers aren’t out”.

According to the think tank Middle East Institute, the population of overseas Indians in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, stood at a total of 85,46,416 in 2018. The country with the greatest number of overseas Indians in its territory is the UAE with 31,04,586 people. This is followed by Saudi Arabia with 28,14,568. Then comes Kuwait with a total of 9,29,903 overseas Indians; Qatar with 6,92,039 followed closely by Oman with 6,89,145 workers and lastly Bahrain with 3,16,175.

The high numbers of workers in Gulf nations is exactly why Ravathur doesn’t believe asking for a repatriation is a good idea. “How can we bring back all the migrant labourers? We can’t just bring back Malayalis, there are Tamilians, Telanganites and other Indians. UAE has workers from 170 countries. If you are taking Indians only, think about his roommate who is perhaps from Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh… it would just create a panic situation. This would not be right”.

Instead he believes the Indian embassies in the host nations should have foreseen such a situation. “We can’t blame all of them but everybody knows that the labour camps are functioning, people are staying together. So the major drawback is that actions were not taken by our embassies, our missions there did not identify these issues early on”.

His major concern is the workers losing jobs and whether or not they would be paid their dues, let alone be compensated. And this is a problem, Ravathur elaborates, not of any one country but “all the GCC countries”, with workers being asked to go on leave without pay.

Abraham believes those affected are more concerned about securing their lives — the conversation about compensation will come later. Labourers have dealt with harsh living and working conditions. A person privy to the efforts being made in the Gulf countries says that the Kuwait Oil Corporation terminated a few people, with many other construction companies doing the same.

As we have seen in inter-state migrants in the country, if the virus doesn’t kill you, hunger would. With numbers only increasing, what the GCC countries decide to do for migrants collectively will protect many lives.

Amongst the GCC nations, the one with the greatest number of Coronavirus cases is Saudi Arabia with 5,862. Bahrain’s total stands at 1,671; Kuwait’s at 1,405; Oman’s at 910; UAE at 4,933 and Qatar at 3,711.