JITeNDer Singh Khalsa always rang his daughter before a trip home from the Gulf to ask how many toys and chocolates she wanted.
But in November, the phone call that came was from his latest employer, Qcon, a contractor to oil, gas and power companies in Qatar, informing his family that he was dead.
Three months on, Khalsa’s family say they have received no help from the Indian or Qatari authorities in establishing what happened. Instead, they have been pressured to sign a release requesting the return of Khalsa’s body, and offered an insurance settlement from Qcon of £1,800.
According to Surjit Kaur, Khalsa’s mother, an official at the Indian embassy in Doha told them: “We’ve sent 25 bodies back to India this month (Nov 2013) and 29 bodies last month (oct 2013). You should sign the release and get on with it.”
The circumstances of Khalsa’s death are disputed and could not be independently verified, but they underscore the problems facing thousands of migrant workers and their families in Gulf countries, where they enjoy few rights.
Qcon maintains Khalsa was found dead from heart and respiratory failure at Doha international airport on Nov 25. His family questioned why, if he was at the airport, he did not have luggage or his passport.
Khalsa’s family say they have evidence from his colleagues and from a hospital in Doha that he was taken by ambulance from Qcon’s own facilities, and they suspect he may have been poisoned by exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas, a highly toxic compound extracted from natural gas.
“one gentleman who worked with my brother came to our house in Mumbai after his death and gave us the carry bag from the hospital where he was admitted,” Dilip Singh Khalsa, Jitender’s brother, said by phone from their home in Mumbai.
“I also spoke to the hospital myself and a receptionist confirmed he’d been admitted, but then the doctor refused to speak to me about why he died.”
While the facts remain unclear, Dilip Khalsa is refusing to repatriate his brother’s body without a postmortem and a police report. Three months on, the body remains in a Doha hospital mortuary. The family have appealed in vain to Indian authorities in Doha, as well as India’s ministry of external affairs and the office of the prime minister, Manmohan Singh.
“It’s been three months and we’re not getting any response from our government,” said Dilip Khalsa bitterly. “Should we contact the president of America to help us instead?”
PS Sasi Kumar, deputy chief of mission for labour, death cases and community welfare at the Indian embassy in Doha, told the Times of India in December: “We have been giving regular updates to Khalsa’s family and the Indian ministry of external affairs.
“We can’t ask the Qatar government to conduct a postmortem. The death certificate shows it was a natural death.”
Qcon referred the Guardian to the Indian embassy or Indian government.
There are an estimated 500,000 Indian workers in Qatar, according to the Indian embassy. And while remittances from Indian workers globally total a whopping £42bil, according to the World Bank, there is little protection from unscrupulous Indian employment agents, or from exploitation abroad.
India’s protector general of immigrants at the ministry of overseas Indian affairs could not be reached for comment yesterday.
“We have not been officially or unofficially informed,” said KC Behra, an undersecretary in charge of policy for Gulf countries at the ministry, in response to a question about the deaths of Indian workers in Qatar.
“The first priority of the ministry has been to protect the interests of Indian workers in the Gulf,” Vyalar ravi, overseas Indian affairs minister, was quoted as saying in the Deccan Herald newspaper in January. “We have taken several steps. Now the complaint has come down significantly.”
Jitender Singh Khalsa’s story is typical of many migrant workers. He shared a 18.6sqm room with his wife, daughter, brother and parents in central Mumbai, earning less than £100 a month as a clerk at the government-run oil and natural gas company Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited.
When a friend emigrated to the Gulf, he soon followed to pursue salaries that were more than double his Indian earnings. – Guardian News & Media