R. Suresh earned INR 10,000 (USD 136) per month working as a peon cleaning offices and serving coffee in Kuwait. But in May this year, he paid five times that amount to get a seat on an Air India flight and a bed for 15 days in a government quarantine facility when he landed in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad. He was part of the early repatriates from the Gulf and he hadn’t been paid in three months.
Now, in his village, Hasakothur, in the southern Indian state of Telangana, he is waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine that will allow him to travel back to the Gulf. The pandemic was the reason for his premature departure. “I will return once there is a vaccine and if I get a job in a good company,” Suresh told VICE News. “There is absolutely no work here.”
In mid-April, Suresh crossed multiple hurdles to return home. The Indian government and his state government, he said, were entirely “unhelpful.” First, he registered his name on a government portal set up by the Indian Embassy and was assigned a token. Ten days later, he received a call asking if he had the money to buy the ticket, and if he was traveling alone or with family. On another call, Air India, which operated the Indian government’s repatriation flights, called Vande Bharat Mission, gave him instructions on when to show up at the airport. “We took a taxi to the airport,” he said.
In early May, when the Indian government announced the first set of repatriation flights, 300,000 people registered in the Gulf alone. While the government has so far not disclosed the exact figures, an estimated 20-30,000 migrants have arrived at Hyderabad airport from Gulf countries.
For three decades, Indians working abroad have been the world’s top remitters. The country received the largest remittances of nearly USD 76 billion last financial year with Gulf nations, along with the US, driving most of the remittances.
There are around 1.5 million migrant workers from Telangana in the Gulf region. While the Telangana government provided free quarantine facilities to about 5500 returnees, some were handed over INR 8,000 (USD 110) per person as hotel quarantine stipends, activists told VICE News.
Suresh said that he did not receive any cash assistance from the government. On his 12th day of quarantine, he phoned his family and asked them to send him money so he could pay the authorities and make his way back home. His family lived in a village, four hours away from Hyderabad. They scrambled up the funds and wired it to him.
On the same flight back was 29-year-old Abba Rakesh, who also worked odd jobs in Kuwait. The two men were acquaintances since they were hired by the same labour contractor. Like Suresh and several other migrants, Rakesh did not have the money for the quarantine facility. “I landed at Hyderabad airport at 11 a.m. but since I didn’t have the money to pay up immediately, I was made to sit at the airport till 4 p.m. with other migrants who couldn’t organise funds. We waited without any food or water,” Rakesh told VICE News.
A group of migrants chatting over tea on July 15, 2008 on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, UAE. Photo by Ghaith Abdul Ahad/Getty Images
Activists point out that labour contractors in the Gulf have used the pandemic as an excuse to entirely terminate employment for hundreds of migrant workers without paying them their dues. “During the pandemic, it was really difficult for us to manage. The contractor returned our passports and cancelled all arrears on wages,” Rakesh said. He migrated to the Gulf for work in 2014 and said that he is owed lakhs of Indian rupees in bonus amounts promised to him by his employer.
Rakesh’s testimony found resonance in multiple other accounts that activist Swadesh Parkipandla, a coordinator with the Emigrants Welfare Forum, an NGO working with migrants and their families, heard from Gulf returnees.
Migrants were told that their services and benefits had been “settled” and they were no longer needed at work, Parkipandla found through a sample phone survey. “Many of them felt instead of waiting there, why not just come back home,” Parkipandla told VICE News. “Some even said there was a business opportunity in ferrying migrants back. Travel agents charged 1200 UAE dirham (USD 320) for a ticket that normally costs UAE 900 dirham (USD 245).
Amongst the testimonies that Parkipandla collected was one from a migrant whose woes predated the pandemic. “The migrant had asked the company manager about the salary pending for ten months. Neither did the manager pay the wages, nor did he accept the leave request from the migrant. The migrant cancelled his valid visa and returned to Telangana, but he is still owed wages,” said Parkipandla.
Last year, the state chief minister urged migrants, specifically construction workers, to return to the state and promised re-skilling and training at the National Academy of Construction (NAC).
In May 2020, amidst the pandemic, the NAC advertised a portal urging migrants to register themselves.
Out of the 19,000 who have registered so far, only 3,000 are Gulf returnees. The remaining are interstate migrants and even they are unwilling to show up to work in fear of the virus. “Of those who are registered on our portal, only 4000 are willing to take up placements in our state,” NAC Director Training and Placements, Shanti Sree told VICE News.
“For Gulf returnees, it is harder. They are used to earn INR 30,000 (USD 400) per month. Here, construction companies are hesitant to pay that amount,” said Sree.
Even though wages are higher in the Gulf compared to India, some migrant workers say they do not wish to return. “I hate living there. The facilities were horrible. We were packed, ten men in a room, and the heat was punishing,” Raju Baireddy, a 35-year-old construction worker, who used to work in Dubai, told VICE News.
Follow Sowmiya Ashok on Twitter