Death brings home re­al­ity of Gulf work­ers

Kuwait Times - - Front Page -

JAGTIAL, In­dia: On a hot, sleepy af­ter­noon at Kalleda vil­lage in the south­ern In­dian state of Te­lan­gana, Laxmi Malaya sat on the porch of her house where the body of her hus­band Chit­tam - a daily wage la­borer in Dubai - was to be brought the next day. Chit­tam, 45, was the sec­ond mi­grant worker from the vil­lage to have died in Dubai in Septem­ber and among the nearly 450 In­dian mi­grant work­ers shipped home in body bags since 2014.

“There were three deaths (of work­ers from the vil­lage) last year as well. We were told Chit­tam died of a stroke, but he was healthy when he came home for a visit last month,” said Ankathi Gan­gad­har, the for­mer vil­lage head of Kalleda. An­other lo­cal man, aged 24, died in Dubai last month after suf­fer­ing a heart at­tack, vil­lagers said. Of­fi­cials of the Te­lan­gana state gov­ern­ment cite stress, ill health and work­ing in sear­ing tem­per­a­tures as the most com­mon causes of death and say fa­tal­ity num­bers among mi­grants who travel to the Gulf from the state have re­mained sta­ble.

“Peo­ple dis­cuss th­ese deaths for a week, but then there is no ini­tia­tive (to of­fer jobs here) so they keep leav­ing,” Gan­gad­har told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion. For decades, peo­ple have mi­grated from Te­lan­gana - a largely ru­ral re­gion with the tech hub of Hy­der­abad as its cap­i­tal - to In­dian cities such as Mumbai and to the Gulf, un­able to make a liv­ing from farm­ing, mainly due to wa­ter scarcity. About 10,000 peo­ple mi­grate to the Gulf states ev­ery year from Te­lan­gana, and about 200 on av­er­age from Kalleda, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment fig­ures.

Most mi­grants be­lieve they will be able to make good money in Dubai in just a few years - an il­lu­sion un­scrupu­lous agents cre­ate. “When peo­ple started leav­ing for Gulf states (in the 1980s), this re­gion was reel­ing from years of drought. They had no op­tion but to mi­grate,” said Suresh Reddy, a politi­cian from Te­lan­gana who has worked on the mi­gra­tion is­sue. “When they left, there were some eco­nomic gains but they paid a heavy price for it - work­ing in in­hu­man con­di­tions and leav­ing their fam­i­lies be­hind.”

Chit­tam’s an­nual sav­ings rarely ex­ceeded 12,000 In­dian ru­pees ($185) and he sent home 4,000 to 5,000 ru­pees ev­ery few months. He worked in Dubai for 13 years and vis­ited his wife and two chil­dren just five times dur­ing that pe­riod. “He was plan­ning to re­turn for good next year after mak­ing a lit­tle more money,” Gan­gad­har said, as Chit­tam’s wife Laxmi looked on, numb and im­pas­sive.

Ra­manna Chitla had worked in Dubai for 16 years when he re­turned to Jagtial, a town in Te­lan­gana, last year, de­ter­mined to work to stop oth­ers from be­ing tricked by agents. “I saw a lot of mis­ery there. Work­ers were un­der­paid and poorly treated. They were cheated by their agents with false prom­ises so I thought I would come back and bring a change,” Chitla said.

Over the years, the In­dian gov­ern­ment and non­govern­men­tal groups have re­ceived a steady stream of com­plaints from mi­grant work­ers, rang­ing from non-pay­ment of wages to tor­ture and abuse. Work­ers of­ten take loans of 50,000 to 100,000 In­dian ru­pees ($750 to $1,500) to pay agents, hop­ing to earn enough from work­ing as clean­ers and as labour­ers on con­struc­tion sites to repay the loan, but their salar­ies rarely match prom­ises. “They don’t visit doc­tors when they are un­well to save money,” Chitla said, adding that deaths at­trib­uted to ill health are of­ten due to ex­ploita­tive work con­di­tions.

Gov­ern­ment fig­ures show there are some 6 mil­lion In­dian mi­grants in the six Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Ara­bia, United Arab Emi­rates (UAE) and Oman. Ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial data, more than 30,000 In­dian na­tion­als died in the Gulf states be­tween 2005 and 2015. The UAE em­bassy in New Delhi said in an emailed state­ment the Gulf state had in­tro­duced a num­ber of re­forms over the last few years to com­bat abu­sive la­bor prac­tices in­clud­ing im­prov­ing trans­parency of con­tracts, a wage pro­tec­tion sys­tem for for­eign work­ers and a “Know Your Rights” cam­paign in five lan­guages.

As a gov­ern­ment-au­tho­rized agent, Chitla’s job is to en­sure mi­grants un­der­stand their job con­tracts, the em­ployer does not al­ter the terms of em­ploy­ment later, and that all the pa­per­work of the ap­pli­cant is fair and com­plete. But he fails to at­tract the same num­ber of work­ers as il­le­gal agents. “There are at least 50 un­li­censed agents who are send­ing hun­dreds of work­ers. I have sent 48 so far,” Chitla said. In­dia’s for­eign min­istry has made at­tempts to stream­line the re­cruit­ment process and help work­ers in need. Jin­gles ask­ing work­ers to go through only au­tho­rized agents play on ra­dio ev­ery day but many are lured by the prom­ises unau­tho­rized agents make.

Chan­drasekhar Bor­a­galla, 26, a fa­ther of two, stepped out of Jagtial for the first time two years ago when he sat on a bus to Mumbai about 800 km away and had an in­ter­view in a seafront of­fice for a cleaner’s job in Dubai. “I paid 70,000 ru­pees to the agent for this job. When I reached there, they made me sign a two-year bond for a salary much lower than what was promised. I wasn’t even paid for three months. I was asked to pay 85,000 ru­pees for leave to go home,” he said. Bor­a­galla re­turned pen­ni­less to Jagtial three months ago. He now works as a welder and is still re­pay­ing the loan he took to pay the agent from the 400 ru­pees he earns as daily wages. “It’s not enough. Dubai is dan­ger. I will not go back,” he said.

Kalleda could eas­ily be mis­taken for a pros­per­ous vil­lage with lush farm­lands and maize fields lin­ing its roads. But earn­ings from farm­ing are rarely enough to feed fam­i­lies. “They are mar­ginal farm­ers and own less than 5 acre (2 hectares) of land which does not support their fam­i­lies. Wa­ter is scarce as this is a rain fed re­gion,” said land rights lawyer Su­nil Reddy, who takes up cases of the ru­ral poor. “When Te­lan­gana was cre­ated as a sep­a­rate state in 2014, two prom­ises were made - more jobs and more ir­ri­ga­tion wa­ter. But the sit­u­a­tion is the same,” Reddy said.

Laxmi Malaya, now a widow, has a small piece of land on which she grows maize, turmeric and rice. Two har­vests yielded an an­nual in­come of about 60,000 In­dian ru­pees ($925), which sup­ple­mented the money her hus­band sent home. Mi­grant rights cam­paign­ers are seek­ing a com­pen­sa­tion for the wid­ows of Gulf mi­grants. “Com­pen­sa­tion is their right. The money work­ers send back is pumped into the state’s econ­omy,” said ac­tivist Bheem Reddy. Jayesh Ran­jan, prin­ci­pal sec­re­tary with the Te­lan­gana gov­ern­ment said fi­nan­cial com­pen­sa­tion for wid­ows has been pro­posed as part of the state’s Non Res­i­dent In­dian pol­icy. For now, all that’s on of­fer is the free trans­porta­tion of bod­ies of work­ers like Chit­tam from Hy­der­abad air­port back to their home vil­lages. — Reuters

— Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat

KUWAIT: A worker is seen at a con­struc­tion site yes­ter­day.

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