Coronavirus pandemic puts brakes on Gulf economies; stranded Indian workers fear contracting infection, loss of livelihoods

The coronavirus pandemic is a testing time for Indians who migrated abroad in search of work, particularly in the Gulf.

Rohini Mitra and Chitra Rawat April 13, 2020 12:48:35 IST
Coronavirus pandemic puts brakes on Gulf economies; stranded Indian workers fear contracting infection, loss of livelihoods

Narendra returned to Telangana from Saudi Arabia, just a few days before India went into lockdown. “I work in the hospitality industry in Saudi,” he told us. “Basic sanitation and hygiene are a part of our training, and we have to be certified in order to work. But after the virus began spreading, working hours were reduced, wages were cut, and curfews were imposed in the non-working hours.”

On 23 March, Saudi Arabia announced a dusk to dawn curfew (7 pm-6 am) as well as a fiscal stimulus package for businesses to the tune of $32 billion. By then, the number of cases had already crossed 500 in the country. “My company issued a notice saying that workers leaving quarters during curfew did so at their own risk and would be fired immediately. Wages are also reduced by 25-30 percent,” Narendra said. On 7 April, Saudi Arabia officially gave companies the go-ahead to cut hours and wages, proportionately.

A similar situation prevails in Bahrain, where other members of Narenda’s family work, all of them in the hospitality industry. Some of them have not returned. In both countries, employers are providing food and accommodation, but cramped living quarters and unhygienic surroundings vastly increase the risk of contagion for migrant workers. Among these, undocumented workers are the most vulnerable, because they have no access to healthcare.

Coronavirus pandemic puts brakes on Gulf economies stranded Indian workers fear contracting infection loss of livelihoods

Indian workers in the Gulf fear contagion amidst cramped living conditions

A report by The Lede on 8 April pointed out that in the UAE, the spread has now begun in migrant communities from South Asia. Due to a shortage of beds and health infrastructure, private hospitals have been roped in and the symptomatic or sick asked to self-isolate in flats. Without the money to avail of expensive private facilities, migrants are desperately trying to rent vacant flats for their infected and symptomatic friends. There were also cases of migrants having their identification documents seized when they were unable to pay hefty private facility bills for testing. On 3 April, 24 Indians in Kuwait tested positive for the virus, prompting governments on both sides to jointly take stock of the situation. Kuwait also declared amnesty for undocumented migrants, offering them lodging and transportation back home in an effort to tackle the crisis.

Coronavirus pandemic puts brakes on Gulf economies stranded Indian workers fear contracting infection loss of livelihoods

The situation of Indian workers in the Gulf is a developing one. Early news reports had warned of the increasing vulnerability in the face of a rising case count, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. More recent reports from April underscore the escalating nature of the issue in Qatar and UAE, where many worksites are still operational. Data shows that Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar are key migrant-sending states. On 10 April, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court, by Pravasi Legal Cell (a migrant welfare group) seeking the rescue of vulnerable Indian workers in the Gulf. As of 10 April, COVID-19 cases in the Gulf stand at Saudi Arabia (3,287), United Arab Emirates (2,990), Qatar (2,376), Kuwait (910), Bahrain (887), and Oman (457).

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Conversations with organisations working on the emigrant welfare and return migrants over the past few weeks reveal that anywhere between 20,000-40,000 have already returned to Telangana and are quarantined. We know that many in the Gulf right now are just waiting to come back once this lockdown ends, many of them from rural Telangana. They may be a future source of infection,” said Swadesh Parkipandla, President, Pravasi Mithra Labour Union, Jagtial District, Telangana.

Migrant workers living in urban areas, who mostly work in hospitality services, live about 10-12 to a room, renting bed space (6 feet by 1.5 feet) as flat rents are too high for them to afford. Sometimes, bed space is also rented in shifts, an impossible situation to manage when everybody is under lockdown, according to an Indian return migrant from Bahrain. Bathroom and kitchen facilities are usually common.

Coronavirus pandemic puts brakes on Gulf economies stranded Indian workers fear contracting infection loss of livelihoods

Representational image. Reuters

Workers also live in labour camps which are built by companies for those working outside of cities. These camps are constrained spaces, with six people sleeping in three bunker beds per room and shared sanitation facilities. Food is sometimes provided as well. Social distancing is impossible in both cases, according to Bheem Reddy Mandha, president of Emigrants Welfare Forum in Hyderabad, Telangana. Certainly known hotspots such as Naif in Dubai, UAE and Jaleeb-Al-Shuyokh and Mahboula in Kuwait are densely populated areas, home to mostly migrant workers.

Most companies are now operating at minimal capacity, providing food and lodging but no pay. However, there have also been complaints of no food being provided, according to Donthula Shivaji, the Saudi Arabia head of the Gulf Workers Association for Telugu people.


A few GCC nations give amnesty to undocumented and irregular migrants

Particularly vulnerable are the estimated six million undocumented immigrants, many from India, in the Gulf who are not covered by any kind of health insurance. Due to the stringent kafala system wherein an immigrant’s mobility and activities are necessarily tied to a kafeel or a sponsor in the Gulf, it is very easy for a once-legal immigrant to render himself or herself irregular or undocumented by breaking ties with his/her sponsor.

“Kuwait has now provided amnesty and the government is planning to house and feed the irregular migrants, make arrangements for documentation, and send them home at the state’s expense when airspaces open. We are expecting a major turnout, about 20-25000 Indians are absconders from their sponsors, rendered irregular, who were unable to return before this because they did not have documentation,” an Indian emigrant activist in the Gulf told us. These people will be repatriated and allowed to return to Kuwait at a later date, unless they have criminal charges, according to him.

Similar amnesty policies have been announced in Bahrain, helping irregular migrants regularise their legal status with reduced fees for the self-sponsored Flexi-pass. Oman has announced a royal pardon for 599 prisoners, including 366 migrants. In Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Qatar, however – home to significant Indian populations – the status of irregular migrants and their healthcare is still an open question.

Fears of livelihood loss may spur return migration

Although countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the Emirate of Abu Dhabi have been in contact with the Government of India, about the situation of Indian emigrants, worries about job loss, pay cuts, and survival during lockdown remain.

The biggest fear outside of the health situation now is the economic situation. In my many years there, we saw demographical shifts from South Asian workers to African and South-East Asian workers as well. The increased competition in the post lockdown times will have economic consequences,” a return migrant from Bahrain, who used to be a social worker, told us.

There are chances that smaller companies will not survive a period of economic downturn, so workers are apprehensive about job losses in the aftermath, according to an immigrant activist in the Gulf. He added that while many are trying to return now, they are also aware of the worsening situation in India. Conversations with return migrants reveal that workers were already experiencing pay-cuts, with many not being paid at all during the lockdown period. As fears of an extended global recession in a post-COVID-19 world accelerate, barriers to international labour migration may go up, prompting waves of return migration.

Bheem Reddy Mandha of the Emigrants Welfare Forum in Telangana estimates that roughly 20-30 percent of the Gulf labour force may be impacted, choosing to return in the coming year. There has to be a comprehensive return and re-integration policy for these people – addressing both physical and psycho-social concerns,” he said. According to him, it is also high time that migration is accorded industry status in India so that financial packages can be given for supporting migrants in such crises.

Migrants in other regions

The government has been keeping an eye on immigrant communities, those on student and work visas, and tracking their movements in and out of Singapore closely,” an Indian immigrant in the city-state told us in March. She is on a work visa and has been living in Singapore for six years, first as a student, and then as a worker.

Singapore was one of the earliest to act when it became clear that the virus was spreading beyond China’s border. Singapore’s multi-racial and multi-ethnic community is 76 percent Chinese and 7.5% Indian and was considered high risk for imported cases in the wake of the Lunar New Year when many travelled home to mainland China.

“Most people have been put under a stay-home order by the Singapore government. They’ve also reached out to immigrant communities, checking their health status, asking them to stay at home, monitoring compliance. So far, I haven’t heard of a situation where the hospitals have reached capacity,” she told us in March. As of 10 April, however, 250 Indians have reportedly tested positive, about 50 percent of these cases connected to foreign worker dormitories. Prime Minister Lee has extended reassurances that Singapore’s containment and mitigation plans are inclusive of foreign workers.

In other parts of Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia, Indian immigrants are bracing for the impact of job losses as the lockdown slowly spreads and the number of cases continues to rise. “Employers have been warned to not layoff people, but we have heard of some who are not paying employees. At the moment treatment is free for all, regardless of immigration status, and visas are extended in case of expiry during the lockdown,” said Sumitha Shaanthinni Krishna, a Malaysian lawyer working with Indian immigrants.

In Europe, Germany has seen its case count soar to 118,235 as of 10 April, the fourth highest in the world after the USA, Italy, and Spain. Conversations with Indian students in different parts of Germany reveal that although health status is not an issue, given the government’s regulations about universal health insurance, the lockdown has impacted employment.

My part-time job involves delivery, so it cannot be done from home. But many employers have started firing people, even those with a valid contract. My employer has fired quite a few people as business activities have dropped by 70 percent. At the moment, I’m utilising my savings to keep things going,” an international student in Hamburg told us. Another international student in Berlin said that although the situation has now stabilised, there were instances of panic-buying and stocks running out in the early days. The German government has also announced cash transfers of up to 5000 euros to German residents who are freelancers or have lost jobs.

Italy, which has been at the epicentre of the crisis for weeks now, is an important destination for Indians, many of them from Punjab. Punjabis emigrate to work in the agro-industry, primarily dairy and are concentrated in North Italy, which is also the epicentre of the outbreak. Other immigrants include students and working professionals. Towards the start of the crisis, India airlifted several nationals out from Italy, including 211 students. However, many remain and are battling out this crisis far from home.

“When the crisis started, a lot of people wanted to return. My own family asked me to come home. But I am a health professional, and this is a war for us. It would be unethical of me to go back.” an Indian immigrant working in Milan, told us. A registered nurse, he used to work in the surgical department till all departments were collapsed into emergency COVID-19 ones. Many of his older colleagues with underlying health issues and children took leave and he felt it was his time to step up. “Our priorities are only humanitarian now,he told us. “When patients come in, we don’t look at race, religion, or nationality. We just give the care they need and take decisions based on health status.”

The picture is a more complicated one in the USA, home to 2.5 million Indian immigrants, which currently has the highest number of cases at 466,033, with 16,690 deaths. Conversations with students and working professionals across the USA reveal uncertainty and differential circumstances.

“I’m in New York City (accounting for 35 percent of all cases as of 10 April), where there is currently testing available at a few testing facilities as well as at city hospitals. One has to make an appointment to get a test, which is only available if one is diagnosed as likely to have contracted it by a medical provider. Testing and treatment are difficult to get since the NYC area is swamped at this point.” said an Indian green card holder, with healthcare access closer to what full citizens can expect.

However, the condition of emigrants is dependent on the kind of health insurance they have, with some emigrants we spoke to unaware of what treatment costs might look like, should they require it. An Indian student in New York told us that her university, like many others, had an extended duration of study by one year. An Indian emigrant worker based in Colorado specified that she would be eligible for 1200 dollars a month of assistance, should she lose her job.

Protection of those who want to return is paramount

The interconnected nature of the world today, particularly for India with an estimated 17.5 million international migrants, must be factored into the fight against COVID-19. Across the world, the affected countries, especially countries just entering Stages 2 and 3 of transmission, are also ones with significant Indian immigrant populations, many with strong connections to their homes here. Imported cases through immigrants were the beginning of the swift developing COVID-19 crisis in India and many millions are currently coping with the situation at the destination, some hoping to return in the aftermath of the lockdown as job opportunities dry up. Their protection and the facilitation of their return is of paramount importance.

Mapping migrants in high-risk areas, opening emergency helplines and utilising existing community networks to identify the most vulnerable are some steps that the Indian government, through its embassies, can take, according to an immigrant activist in the Gulf. The priority now should be to address the fears and apprehensions of vulnerable migrants, particularly in the Gulf, which is home to 8.8 million Indians, nearly half the total emigrant population.

The authors are researchers at Mumbai based migration data, research, and policy organisation, India Migration Now. IMN is a venture of the South East Migration Foundation. Follow their work: Twitter/@nowmigration and Instagram/@indiamigrationnow

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