-SURAJ CHATHLINGATH (CONTRIBUTOR)
Since the “Oil Boom” of the 1970s, the Middle East has gone through some rapid urbanization projects initiated on this planet’s history. The scorching deserts of Arabia, that had witnessed very little development since the time of the Islamic golden age, suddenly got transformed into numerous metropolises feeding and raising the bar for many migrant lives. Talking about these workers who held the chisel for this change, Indians were a considerable chunk at the forefront contributing almost 30% of the entire expatriate workforce in the gulf region.
It all started almost five decades ago with Malayalees from the south Indian state Kerala embarking on an ‘uru’ to cross the Indian Ocean, and reaching the shores of the shiny Arabian sands while brimming with hope. The entire scenario may resemble a movie but in fact this is a true story that later became the premise of many movies including the award-winning ‘Pathemari’. The ‘uru’ used here is a type of large ‘dhow’ made of Malabar teak and manufactured by the craftsmen of Beypore in Calicut. This tradition of boat-making existed in Beypore since the era of ancient Mesopotamia which later became an important link connecting the region with the Gulf coast.
Since 1970s, the gulf economies have progressed along the upward trajectory of increasing oil prices resulting in a need for a migrant workforce to support the rapid urbanization. These same circumstances led to the migration of Malayalees to the Middle East which is still going on even after five decades. Since then, these people from Kerala along with the other Indian migrant groups have made the India-Gulf region the second-largest migration corridor in the world according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). There are an estimated 8.5 million Indians working in the Middle East. Total remittances that they brought back in 2018 accounts for almost $79 billion with an estimated rise of 14 per cent as compared to previous years. Factors that led to this rise include: depreciation of the rupee, increasing white-collar jobs, and the 2018 Kerala floods which forced many migrants to send more economic assistance back to their families.
However, despite this rise, recent studies indicate a decline in overall migration rate, especially in the blue-collar category. Fluctuating oil prices, economic slowdowns and the recent nationalization policies are some of the factors that have led to this negative trend. According to the Economic times on an MEA data, “The overall number of Indian workers going to the Middle East has fallen significantly over the last 10 years — from 7,62,484 2008 to 3,21,721 in 2018”. The unimproved wages in gulf after the global economic crisis is yet another factor that has dimmed the shine of once highly sought after ‘Gulf labour’. The governments of the Middle East are currently pushing for the nationalisation of jobs in the private market sector. The Saudi Arabian government has announced ‘Nitaqat’ or Saudization scheme which aims to fill Saudi nationals in the kingdom’s workforce to a certain level. This policy along with recently introduced family taxes in Saudi Arabia is paving the way for difficulties for migrants in terms of bringing their families. Kerala has retained her top position among the high migration states in India for almost five decades and the impact it has created on the socio-economic front of the state over time is clearly visible today. “The financial contribution of migration to Kerala is unimaginable,” says Irudaya Rajan, author and expert in Kerala’s Gulf migration. The remittances from the Gulf has greatly helped the state in tackling poverty, unemployment and its infrastructure development. There are about 2.1 million Malayalees working in the gulf region and generating remittances worth $12.15 billion from March 2017 to March 2018. Despite these huge numbers, the gulf migration is gradually declining in Kerala with a fall of 11 per cent between 2013 and 2018. The declining population of people belonging to the 19-25 age-group and stagnant wages in the Gulf countries could be some of the numerous reasons here. An Economic times report says, “Over the last 10 years, the number of blue-collar workers migrating to the Gulf countries from Kerala fell by over 90% — from 1,63,737 in 2008 to 14,496 in 2018”. Now it’s the migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who are replacing Kerala in the blue-collar job market. “We understand that due to our demographic advantage, Uttar Pradesh now has the highest number of workers going to the Gulf countries,” says Swati Singh, UP NRI minister, thereby confirming this trend. The 2018 data from the Ministry of External Affairs suggests that the majority of Indian blue-collar workers in the Middle East belong to 4 states: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Tamilnadu which together accounts for almost 60 per cent of the Indian-Gulf workforce.Emigration data of India-gulf migration during 2015, 2016 and 2017 | Source : Times of India
Unlike the white–collar migrants, these labour workers in Middle East are reportedly facing discrimination and other challenges. The Organisation for World Peace in an article has criticized the ‘Kafala system’ of foreign labour sponsorship in Middle East as akin to ‘modern-day-slavery’. The migrant labourers in Qatar face ‘abuse’ and ‘exploitation’ on a brutal scale, according to The Guardian. In the wake of such discrimination, Indian government has established Indian Workers Resource Centre (IWRC) in Dubai with a 24-hour helpline number to assist those who may be at a risk of exploitation.
Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns are likely to become the final nail to the coffin. Several Gulf countries after realizing their lack of facilities to cater to the needs of such a huge workforce are calling for the repatriation of Indian workers back to India. Among the Gulf countries, there is also a concern of growing Muslim intolerance in India. Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission (IPHRC) of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in a tweet says “the unrelenting vicious Islamophobic campaign in India maligning Muslims for spread of Covid-19 as well as their negative profiling in media subjecting them to discrimination and violence with impunity.” They have further asked Indian government to take “urgent steps to stop the growing tide of Islamophobia in India and protect the rights of its persecuted Muslim minority.” Such clashes in diplomatic relations between India and the Gulf countries in the midst of a global pandemic is undoubtedly a question of concern especially in the context of what grave repercussions this fear can bring to the table. A typical Middle East employee used to have a certain charm in the Indian society. But as the migrations are declining now, it seems that the Arabian sands are no longer shiny and welcoming for an average Indian. “The Gulf dream is fading away,” marks Irudaya Rajan, validating the above claim.
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