Behind the glitz and glamour of opulent malls, glamorous hotels and ornate promenades in the Middle East is a gritty world of South Asian migrant laborers, who toil in near-slavery conditions.
On May 7, an Indian social worker Vasudevan Sugathan, a 71-year-old X-Ray technician at the Ministry of Health in Sharjah for the past 37 years, hanged himself to death at a construction site in Massafi in Fujairah, UAE.
Before ending his life, according to a source quoted in the Gulf News, "He spoke to his children and asked them to take care of their mother. He also asked for their forgiveness, before switching off his mobile phone."
One month later, Shyam Kumar, 47 from Kallampalam near Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, ended his life by hanging himself from the ceiling fan of his house in Al Musalla area of Sharjah on June 14, 2012.
The two incidents are symptomatic of a deep malaise in the Indian community in Dubai. According to news agency reports, 33 Indians committed suicide in the northern emirates this year, including one sensational case on Jan. 15, in which Rijesh Nambiar, killed his 6-year-old daughter, slashed the wrist of his wife and committed suicide in his single bedroom apartment in Bur Dubai, writing in his suicide note that he was being threatened by his employer.
According to Indian Consulate data, 110 Indians committed suicide in Dubai and the northern emirates in 2010 -one every three days. Dr Tara Wyne, a clinical psychologist, told Gulf News, "The majority of suicide victims were male, older than 30 years, expatriate, single and employed, with an education of secondary school level and below."
Researchers at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the United Arab Emirates University reported in a paper in the Internal Journal of Social Psychiatry that suicide rates among expatriates was seven times the rate among nationals and that nearly three in four expatriate suicides were committed by Indians.
Rattled by the spate of suicides, Indian diplomatic missions in the UAE established the Indian Workers Resource Centre (IWRC) in Dubai last November and launched a 24-hour hotline to help expatriates in need. According to the consulate, most victims are from the South Indian states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.
The extraordinary high number of suicides in the Indian community in the UAE is the tip of the proverbial iceberg of wretchedness and squalor in which the millions of Indian laborers lured by the opulence and glamor of the Gulf live. Every year thousands of them go missing. Some land up in jails, some go into hiding to dodge the police after their sponsors file charges Ñ real or trumped up Ñagainst them, while others die from neglect or lack of medical treatment.
These missing Indians prompted television producer Rafeek Revuther to launch a special program Pravasalokam on Kairali TV, a Malayalam-language station based in Kerala, after his cousin committed suicide just two days after starting a new job in Oman.
Pravasalokam is part reality show, part investigative journalism and part social activism. It strives to help families in Kerala find their missing relatives, most of who went to work in the Gulf. The program has struck a cord among Keralites and expatriates in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE and Oman.
Revuther rues the "oppressive and exploitative working conditions, racial discrimination, human right abuse and harassment at the hands of authorities," which, he says, "are primarily responsible for people committing suicide or go missing."
According to Revuther, many expatriates make a beeline to the Middle East countries with false notions of lifestyle after paying hefty sums to agents for securing their visas. But upon entering the host country they find their dreams shattered because of the stark realities of low pay or even non-payment of salaries as well as the high costs and the demands and expectations from back home. But the worst problem, he says, is the harassment and torture many laborers, especially domestic, agricultural and construction workers, have to endure.
The problem is endemic among all migrant laborers from Asia in the Middle East countries. In one bizarre incident in August 2010, doctors in Sri Lank operated on Lahadapurage Daneris Ariyawathie, 49, a domestic worker, to remove nails and metal objects she said her Saudi employers in Riyadh hammered into her body after she complained of being overworked.
Even the Government of Kerala admits that exploitation of the Indians in the Middle East is a big problem. The Chief Minister of Kerala Oommen Chandy expressed his distress over "the issues of lack of job security, reasonable living conditions and legal protection for the unskilled and semi-skilled workers at the 10th Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in Jaipur on Jan. 9. Chandy said that "even though the Government of Kerala was implementing many welfare schemes for the Non Resident Keralites, there are many issues of concern still existing in their countries of destination which needs to be addressed by the Union Government."
According to Chandy, "The issues of lack of job security, reasonable living conditions and legal protection for the unskilled and semi-skilled workers are a major area of concern which needs to be addressed."
An estimated five million Indians work in the Gulf, predominantly in the UAE (1.75 million) and Saudi Arabia (1.5 million). According to government estimates, annually half a million workers migrate abroad (after adjusting for returnees). Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh are the leading sourcing states. Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi says he is aware of the gravity of the conditions of laborers in the Middle East: "The vast majority of these workers are temporary contractual workers in the informal sectors. They often do not have the protection of labor laws in the host country. A significant number of them are women. This makes them especially vulnerable to economic downturns and sometimes to exploitation.
Ravi speaks frequently about the appalling work conditions of Gulf laborers and the absence of social protections for women domestic workers, and has called for strong governmental interventions.
The oil boom of the 1970s and 1980s attracted millions of Indian laborers to the Gulf. Hundreds of thousands of Malayalis from Kerala made a beeline to the Middle East for salaries envious neighbors could scarcely imagine. Gulf NRIs conjured up image of Indians returning from Dubai laden with expensive cigarettes, cameras, tape recorders, costly perfumes and occasionally even expensive cars.
But not all that glitters is gold.
Ask Dalbinder Singh Bajwa from Mumbai, who was seduced by the promises of Dubai after an agent painted a rosy picture of how his lifestyle would transform after he spent a few years in the city of skyscrappers. Packing his bags he left India in 2006 to join a construction company in Dubai, only to return in few a months in the face of severe exploitation and harassment.
Indians, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans are lured by the agents to Dubai usually on three years contract, which promises good accommodation, food, one return ticket to India per year with an extra salary and good working conditions. But the moment one lands in Dubai, he realizes that the reality is starkly different. There is nothing but sheer exploitation. The worst sufferers are the Indian labor class who are forced to live on horrible accommodations where 12-15 persons are herded together in one dilapidated room. The workers used to come to me complaining about the inhospitable living conditions, terrible food and oppressive heat of more than 50 degree Celcius where they were forced to stay. Every morning at around 6 a.m. a bus comes to ferry the workers who are transported to the construction site that is 25 kms away in a hot desert. When they are recruited by agents, they are promised lofty salaries, double wages if they work on Fridays and many other perks. But once they set their foot in Dubai, they realize that they have been duped. They can return only at 7.30 pm and when I tried to raise my voice for them I was asked to keep my mouth shut."
Bajwa said after a Nepali crane operator fell sick and his condition became serious, because of the oppressive heat, overwork and lack of sleep, he protested: "When I rebelled against this victimization they tried to slap a false case against me. I left the city in disgust never to go back. There is a murky side to the glitz and glamour of Dubai where the immigrant class are terribly exploited. Besides living in terrible conditions, they are underfed and there is no one to look after them if they fall sick. There life is nothing but indentured servitude to the masters."
He says he knows of women brought to Dubai from India as nurses to join hospitals, but who were sent to nurse Arab Sheiks in their homes. "The worst thing is that the workers cannot do anything, because their passports are taken away by the employment agencies and therefore even if they want they cannot return to their homeland,"he says.
The "sponsorship"system contributes to slavery-like conditions by giving employers control over domestic workers' lives. The workers' visas are tied to the individual employer who sponsored them. As a result, workers can neither change employers nor leave the country without their consent. Social agencies and human rights groups have documented scores of cases of maids who have been beaten up or sexually abused, who have been implicated in trumped up charges of theft or immorality when they tried to file complaints. Laborers have also been assaulted or mistreated while in detention, against which there is little accountability.
Recently the Indian Embassy in Bahrain reached an agreement with a construction company allowing 100 Indian workers stranded in the country for six years to return home. Nass Corporation had filed charges against the workers in 2006 for "absconding from work"after they left the company to protest low wages. The company agreed to drop the cases only after a public uproar and an international online petition after one of the workers, Pasupathi Mariappan, hanged himself in a public garden in Bahrain in June.
Joy Raphael a veteran journalist who has been working in Middle East for the past 25 years says: "I have come across a number of problems that NRIs face. The main one of course is ill treatment, which includes non-payment of salaries and a kind of racial discrimination. I think there are more than four million Indians in the six Gulf Cooperation Countries and overall, more than 70 per cent of them are perhaps low wage earners, laborers, etc. I think many of them live the life of dogs in camps that are unsanitary, unhygienic."
Exploitation of NRIs
Raphael, who authored a book, titled The Muthawas, about the Saudi Arabia's dreaded religious police says: "A lot of laborers don't get paid on time. Many don't get their salaries for months and depend on basic things, like food, on friends or relations. In countries like Saudi Arabia, there are workers who have not seen their wife and children for years, as employers, besides denying them salaries, refuse to give them air tickets, which they have to provide according to the contract. Then there are people who are promised a high salary back home by the recruitment agents and when they come here are given much lesser wages. You see even then most stay on without complaining as they take huge loans on interest to pay for job visas. They hope to pay off these loans and dream of having enough in their bank accounts. But for many these hopes and dreams remain just that, nothing more."
Raphel says laborers are often trapped from the start: "I think recruitment agents, who make a lot of money by cheating the job-seekers, must be blamed for this malaise. Going to labor courts is impossible for these hapless people. Where can they get the money for lawyers, etc.? Moreover, in many countries, the courts favor the locals. Going to the Indian embassies can also be futile exercises as most of them do not have the staff to deal with scores of complaints every day."
Riyaz Ahmed, an Indian contract administrator in Ahmedi, Kuwait, say the two biggest problems Indians face to relate residency permits and leave and salary indemnities. Under Kuwait labor law an employee is entitled to 30 days paid leave after one year and indemnity of 14 days, which employers frequently flout.
He recalls: "Earlier I was working in an engineering company and when I asked for my dues, they started harassing me. They even put me on an absconders' list."
Even professional Indians are not immune. Suresh Warrier, a Bangalore based entrepreneur, says: "Affluent Indians may not face exploitation, but they do face clear discrimination. I have worked for six years in Abu Dhabi and six years in Dubai. I have found that there is a clearcut classification of the people, which is discriminatory.
"The pampered ones are the UAE nationals, the second ones are the goras (whites), which includes citizen of US, UK, Germany and France. Third on the list are the other goras, which include the Russians and the people from Third Block countries. Fourth on the rung of classification are people from GCC countries including Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia. Then come the Pakistanis, Indians, Filipinos, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans, who are treated worst."
Warrier says: "I vividly remember an instance when I had gone to take a driving test. Nearly 40 people from different countries were taken by the traffic inspector and the policeman. During the driving test, the UAE nationals were clearly given preference while the Indians were the last choice. In these countries, you are always made to feel that you are an alien. You may stay a long time in that country, but you can never belong to them because your visa is linked to your job."
Lifting the Veil
For the past 12 years, Rafeek Ravuther has been turning the spotlight on the ordeals of Indians from Kerala, who have gone to the Gulf in the hope of making a good living, but ended up instead in sordid jails, missing or even commiting suicide. On his weekly program, titled Pravasi Lokam or “Migrants World,” on Kairali TV, a Malayalam-language network based in Kerala, he unwraps the scabs of Indian workers in Arab countries and sometimes helps families find their missing relatives.
What motivated you to produce Pravasi Lokam, ( Migrant World)?
One of my cousin who had been to Muscat in Oman committed suicide, because of suffering and harassment at the hands of the authorities within days of landing in that country. After landing in Muscat my cousin, who was an engineer, realized that he was duped by the travel agent. Another relative who was working in a cattle feed factory ran away from his worksite because of harassment. We somehow managed to trace him with the help of some journalists in Emirates. I realized that there were thousands of people who were being duped and were facing harassment. I wanted to create awareness about the stark realities of the Arab world.
What has been the response?
The response has been very encouraging. The popularity can be gauged by the fact that the program has aired more than 1,300 cases since it began and we have been able to reunite more than 300 families. Because of its large viewership, this program has become one of the most popular programs among our four channels, which is avidly watched not only by the Gulf Malayalees but also their close acquaintances.... In many cases we get clues about the missing persons within minutes of airing the program. The show has become popular with the millions of Keralite migrants living in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE and Oman.
How serious is the exploitation of Indian workers in the Arab countries?
Exploitation is enormous. Most of those who suffer are labor class people with little education and contacts. Some of them have been languishing in prisons for years together because the employers have filed trumped up charges against them. Every year thousands of Indians go missing in the Gulf countries.
Poor and middle class Indians often go to the gulf countries in search of pot of gold. How do they become slaves?
Many have been duped by their agents and have no way of returning because their passports are being taken away either by their employers or by the recruiting agents. Without passports they are fullly at the mercy of their employers who subject them to physical and mental abuse.
What is the condition of the Indian women in the Gulf countries? How serious is their exploitation.
Their condition is equally pitiable. In fact they are the worst sufferers as they are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse then men. There have been many suicides among housemaids. These hardly get reported in the media there and neither is there outrage nor remorse.
How accessible is the criminal justice system to Indian migrant workers?
The law there is one sided. It favors the Arabs. The sponsorship visas is mostly misused. One can only work for the employer who brings an immigrant into the country. If one wants to seek a job elsewhere in the host country, he has to leave the country and return on a differen visa. This gives ample scope for the sponsor to misuse.
What are the Ministry of Overseas Affairs and the Kerala government doing about it?It is a pity that neither the central nor the state government are doing anything tangible to tackle this issue seriously. Everyone is only giving lip service.