Once heroes, India’s ex-Gulf workers forge new futures

In the biggest reverse migration in more than 50 years, workers from the Gulf have streamed back to Kerala, propelled by a pandemic that deflated dreams of overseas riches.

gulf workers
Labourers wear protective face masks as they wait in line to get temperature checked before entering construction worksite, following the outbreak of Covid-19 in Ahmadi, Kuwait. Image: Reuters/ Stephanie McGhee

It is not yet dawn but Yeroor village is long awake, the hum of productivity floating over ‘Gulf Street’, a lush green boulevard named for the thousands of workers who leave the southern Indian state of Kerala every year for jobs in the Middle East.

But now the workers are back, from machine operator Sudheesh Kumar, who has been forced back into manual labour in Yeroor to make ends meet, to former banker Binoj Kuttappan, who has taken up dog breeding in the state capital Thiruvananthapuram.

In the single biggest reverse migration in more than 50 years, workers from the Gulf have streamed back to the coastal state of Kerala in the past year, propelled by a pandemic that deflated dreams of overseas riches and changing family fortunes.

Whilst once they came home wealthy and revered, bearing gold, sunglasses, clothes and funds to buy homes, now they have returned sheepish and penniless.

“Prior to Covid, they were celebrated as heroes. Now they have nothing,” said Irudaya Rajan, a professor who has studied migration patterns in Kerala, India’s southernmost state.

“This is the first time they have returned empty-handed and will end up borrowing and selling assets,” said Rajan, professor at the Centre for Development Studies in Kerala.

I had planned my life when I left 22 years ago. I had any ordinary man’s dreams—a house, good education for my children. I have no shame in doing hard labour, but how did I land here? Where did I go wrong?

Kumar, former machine operator, Jeddah airport

Kerala is one of the states that sends the most workers to the Gulf, accounting for about 2.5 million of 6 million Indians there. Kerala received about 19 per cent of $78.6 billion transferred to India from overseas workers in 2018, the highest state tally in the country that is the world’s top recipient of remittances.

But more than 1.1 million people have returned in the last 10 months, 70 per cent having lost their jobs as domestic workers, builders, waiters, chefs and more, official data shows.

This has upended workers and their families’ lives, and destroyed businesses dependent on the India-Gulf migration.

Kumar, 50, spent 22 years in the Middle East, with his final job in Saudi Arabia operating machines at Jeddah airport’s waste water treatment where he earned triple the average Kerala wage.

In March 2020, he flew home - briefly, he thought - but flights were grounded in a bid to contain the new coronavirus.

Now the father of two splits his time between farm labour and working in a stone quarry in the village of 13,000 people.

“I had planned my life when I left 22 years ago. I had any ordinary man’s dreams - a house, good education for my children,” a deflated Kumar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation outside his house, sweat beading his brow.

Kumar has been forced to sell his car and farmland to pay off a loan for his four-bedroom home in Gulf Street.

Now he is earning 400 rupees ($5.50) a day compared to a fixed monthly 20,000 rupees in Jeddah with overtime on top.

“I have no shame in doing hard labour, but how did I land here? Where did I go wrong?” Kumar said.

From mall to quarry 

During the Gulf War 30 years ago and the 2008 financial crisis many workers were forced back to Kerala, but this time the numbers are far higher number and the job market tighter.

A nationwide initiative linking returnees with jobs has notched up more than 30,000 registrants, about 80 per cent of them from the Gulf States of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Oman, according to a government release.

Shamna Khan, 30, whose right leg is badly swollen by lymphoedema, never needed to work because her husband Shafir sent enough money home from his job in a glitzy Qatar mall.

The couple turned their mud and clay house to concrete, laid tiles, built an indoor bathroom and got help for Shamna’s leg.

But after Shafir returned jobless last March, Shamna registered for India’s rural job scheme for about 300 rupees a day that guarantees a minimum 100 days of work in their village such as building roads, digging wells and trenches at farms.

“I am happy to work as I can support my family, but my leg is prone to infections,” said Shamna as she dug a trench at the village’s rubber plantation.

Sharif, who works at the quarry, worries about the looming uncertainty, his unpaid loans - and Shamna’s health.

“There is no other work here,” Sharif said.

Passion, plan 

More than 90 per cent of Indian migrant workers, most of whom are low- and semi-skilled workers, work in the Gulf region and South-East Asia, according to the United Nations.

Connecting them with jobs are recruitment agencies and travel firms which match workers with employers and book them on flights - a hectic business that Ajimon Mak, 45, nurtured for 14 years in Kerala’s capital Thiruvananthapuram.

“Ticketing was my main business, it was a passion and I was always busy. During the lockdown I saw it all go down to zero,” said Mak, who moved into fishmongering and recently opened a fish shop in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital.

Former banker Binoj Kuttappan, 40, also forged a new path after returning from Abu Dhabi last year following layoffs at his financial service company and decided to turn his passion for dogs into a breeding business.

“I would have never done this if not for the pandemic,” said Kuttappan, showing off seven dogs he bought for 150,000 rupees.

With plans for a pet accessories shop, a garden for dogs and air-conditioned kennels, he has no plans to return to the Gulf - but others are counting the days until they can go back.

Kumar has started calling agencies seeking work in the Gulf.

“My savings for our future are gone and now our future looks bleak,” said Kumar. “I no longer think of making a profit. I only think of surviving the day.” 

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