Once heroes, ex-Gulf Indian workers forge a new future

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YEROOR, India (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 lush green boulevard named in honor the thousands of workers who leave the state of Kerala in southern India each 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 started herding dogs 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 shattered dreams of wealth abroad and change of family fortune.

While once they returned home rich and revered, wearing gold, sunglasses, clothing, and funds to buy houses, they have now returned sheepish and penniless.

“Before COVID, they were celebrated as heroes. Now they have nothing, ”said Irudaya Rajan, a professor who has studied migration patterns in Kerala, India’s southernmost state.

“This is the first time they have come home 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, accounting for around 2.5 million out of the 6 million Indians there. Kerala received around 19% of the $ 78.6 billion transferred to India from foreign workers in 2018, the highest tally for the country which is the largest recipient of remittances in the world.

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 wastewater treatment machines at Jeddah Airport, where he earned three times the average Kerala salary.

In March 2020, he returned home – briefly, he thought – but flights were blocked 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 dreams – a house, a good education for my children, ”a deflated Kumar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation outside his house, sweat beading his forehead.

Kumar was forced to sell his car and farmland to pay off 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 MALL TO 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 connecting returnees with jobs has enabled 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 signed up for India’s rural employment program for around Rs.300 per day, which guarantees a minimum of 100 days of work in their village, like building roads. , digging 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 while digging 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.

PASSION, PLAN

More than 90% of Indian migrant workers, most of whom are low or semi-skilled workers, work in the Gulf region and Southeast Asia, according to the United Nations.

Recruitment agencies and travel agencies that match workers with employers and book them on flights – a fast-paced business Ajimon Mak, 45, has nurtured for 14 years in Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram.

“Ticketing 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 started a fishmonger 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 a business. breeding.

“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 supply store, dog yard, 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 started 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 only think about surviving the day.

($ 1 = 72.9580 Indian rupees)

Report by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Edited by Lyndsay Griffiths and Belinda Goldsmith. Please mention 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 news.trust.org

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