By Muskan Mustaqeem
The vicious cycle of an unprecedented health crisis and a plunge in oil prices has underlined the vulnerability and challenges of Gulf migrant workers, compromising their social protection and the social security of their families in their home country.
The COVID-19, besides wreaking havoc, got more vulnerabilities along. For the world, it was a deadly pandemic that killed thousands, and for some, it was a devastating storm that snatched lives and livelihood. The Corona crisis had an adverse impact on low-skilled and semi-skilled migrant workers that swiftly reached their left-behind families compromising their social security. Besides living in overcrowded labour camps with inadequate health facilities, the current pandemic has added to the vulnerabilities of Migrant Workers through reductions in work hours and pay, the closure of small-scale companies, job losses, and a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 infection. Concurrently, migrant workers have been locked out of the social protection systems, warding off workers who lose their jobs and income due to lockdowns. In addition, they are frequently denied guaranteed income and unemployment assistance. As a result, they have restricted alternatives for finding new occupations, limited mobility within or across borders, and inadequate funds to deal with hardship. India has got a reasonable share of the workforce across West Asia. The region has been a centre of attraction for Indian labourers who wish to go outside the country. The numbers were growing until the COVID 19 broke out.
It is estimated that nearly 6.5 million Indians (20% of the total Indian diaspora worldwide) work in the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). Gulf countries like the UAE (3.4 million), Saudi Arabia (2.5 million) and Kuwait (1 million) attract the highest workforce surplus from India. Most of them work as labourers (low skilled and Semi-Skilled) from rural areas of states like Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and West Bengal, where they largely belong to the lower strata of society. These young and married men often leave their families (including wives, children, and older parents) behind due to the nature of their temporary employment. The migrant-sending families rely significantly on their overseas worker’s remittances account for approximately 70% to 80% income of these households. These remittances finance these families’ overall welfare, such as access to quality food and medical care, improving their socio-economic status, and providing better education to their children. They, therefore, represent a total dependence of each member of a left-behind family.
The current COVID-19 crisis, the drop in oil prices, and the economic recession have accelerated efforts to nationalise the workforce. As a result, some Gulf firms have tried to shift the burden of the COVID-19-induced slump on vulnerable workers by imposing unilateral wage cuts and replacing migrants with locals — a practice seen in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, and Kuwait.
Towards more financial hardship
Remittances have paramount importance for left-behind families in particular and the country’s economy in general. A sharp twenty-per cent decline in remittances for the year 2020 was estimated by World Bank due to the double-trouble crisis of COVID-19 and the drop in crude oil prices, exposing millions of migrant workers in Gulf nations to financial hardship. There is a decline in remittances for India as well. Remittances have shown a 0.02 per cent reduction in the previous year. The fall is due to job loss and ‘wage theft’, particularly in informal sectors, such as the construction sector, retail and transportation sectors, and the healthcare industry. The majority of workers did not receive their end-of-service benefits after being laid off in 2020. In other words, these workers were subjected to wage theft. During the interview with returnees, most migrants agreed to be the victims of wage theft in one form or another. Since many small companies and businesses have become more financially fragile due to the COVID-19 lockdown, it has also trickled into the expatriates’ situation, resulting in more financial distress for families left behind. One respondent from Uttar Pradesh stated I worked without salary for 4 months, I resigned and returned.
These migrant workers suffer because they have little or no safety net when they lose their jobs, wages or even get stranded in destination countries. Low-income migrants are already engaged in precarious and temporary employment. Those who lose their jobs seldom have access to social assistance systems, and given the harsh economic climate produced by COVID-19, they face difficulty in obtaining new work, leaving them subject to exploitation and financial distress. These factors of economic distress directly impact remittance-dependent households in rural India, which has become even more worrying for women who manage the finances of such families. A mother of a migrant worker said -My elder son works in Oman; he did manage to find a new company to work with during Covid, but the new company never pays him on time; we wait for 3-4 months to get some money. This seriousness can be expedited by the interview with a migrant worker from Bihar working as an electrician in one of the Gulf countries. He said, “For the last four years, my company terminated many workers, and many are still facing salary reduction. I have lost my job and can’t even send a thousand rupees to my family for medical emergencies and food. I am hopeless and more worried about my children and parents”.
The effect of job losses and wage reductions on family well-being
It has been a long-established reality that in health or economic crisis, Migrant Workers in the destination countries are used as safety valves to mitigate the negative consequences of the crisis. For example, during the oil crisis of 1973 and other financial crises of 1997, 1999, and 2009–10, migrants bore the brunt more than the native populations as they were subjected to either wage cuts or termination and deportation. Similarly, as one of the measures to address COVID-19, most destination countries encouraged and pressured migrants and the governments of sending countries to return and repatriate their citizens. India evacuated Over 60 lakh migrants under the Vande Bharat Mission worldwide till April 30, 2021. Of that, 66.05 per cent (4024513) were migrants from six Gulf countries, Saudi Arabia and the UAE alone repatriated 470,103 and 2,544,288 migrant workers. Kerala Alone received 14 lakh returnees, followed by Tamil Nadu with 5 lakhs, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar received over 4 lakh. The Department of Non-Residential Kerala Affairs (NORKA) data indicated that more than 5.52 lakh Keralites specified job loss as their reason for return, and another 2.8 lakhs stated the expiry of Visas as the reason for their return (between May 2020 and January 4, 2021). At the same time, many Indian migrant returnees complained about the non-payment of their salaries, forceful or wrongfully fixed termination of their employment and the false promise of re-payment of wages and other benefits for the pandemic period as the reason for their return. One of the respondents said, – I applied for annual vacation, but my company told me to resign and leave. Another migrant returnee from Saudi Arabia to Siwan (Bihar) shared, “I joined a company 15 months ago. Our company started terminating workers without formal procedure or prior notice during lockdown. I was one of them.” For some, wage theft was among the main reason for their return. “I was forced to return empty-handed as my employer stopped giving me salary”.
Along with migrants, left-behind families face difficulties during the crisis as they rely entirely or partially on remittances to meet their daily requirements. Even though these families have other income-generating activities like agriculture, they still depend on remittances as the capital. If remittances are not available, education for their children and healthcare services for their family members suffers. During an interview, a returnee from Kerala explained, “I returned to the UAE with the promise of receiving my unpaid salary from the company; since then, I have been waiting for atleast an assurance of getting my unpaid salary”. The migrant worker also highlighted that “I had to sell my piece of land back home to arrange the necessary documentation for my return to the Gulf, but the place where I worked did not return my hard-earned money. My family and I are still waiting to receive some amount of money so that we can make some progress”.
Psychological impact on LBF
When the migrant is not able to transfer money regularly, this causes economic distress and psychological impact on the family’s well-being, forcing them to employ a variety of coping strategies to overcome the challenges posed by COVID-19. Lack of income forces most migrant households to mitigate their daily needs through some methods- borrowing and the consumption cut or by exhausting their savings to meet their immediate needs. Borrowing is a common approach for left-behind homes; while it provides short-term relief, it also puts the migrant family under a lot of debt and insecurity. Reduction in consumptions (consumption cut) means restricted access to quality food and living, including child’s access to better education or in some cases they forced to spend money from their personal savings to avoid the major distruption.Therefore, the compromises from the families side increase the pressure and demand on migrant workers, causing anxiety and resulting in physical and mental health issues like depression. For example, speaking to a 38-year-old migrant wife who lives with her four children. My husband could not go outside to transfer money because his iqama (work permit) had expired, and the company refused to renew it. As a result, I had to stop sending my two children to school because we could not pay the school fee. The fear of getting caught by the virus was another psychological trauma for left-behind wives who were more anxious and frightened as their migrant husbands lived in poor and cramped conditions. While interviewing the wife of a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh, she stated that “my husband works as a labourer in Kuwait. He caught corona while working on site. As a result, he was not working for 2-3 months and could not send any money; I had to borrow money from relatives and neighbours to feed my in-laws and young children.” Another migrant wife from Bihar recounted, “My mother-in-law got sick and died due to corona, to cover medical bills and expenses, I had to spend our savings.
The current situation has created many problems for left-behind families, such as their husbands’ job security in the host country. It has also made them worried about what their future holds. Anxiety and helplessness are evident in the everyday lives of these women. “My husband told me he is struggling to make enough money.” Whenever I hear him talk about his work fear, I get more anxious. After the covid restrictions were eased, those who returned to the Gulf struggled to find new work. Their future is uncertain as many of them earn meagre amounts or return empty-handed. Voluntary and involuntary returns of Gulf migrants have made them and their left-behind families experience a great deal of trauma and anxiety.
Muskan Mustaqeem is currently pursuing PhD from Centre of West Asian Studies, JMI.She can be reached at Email: firstname.lastname@example.org