Does a migrant life mean anything in the Gulf?

Unless GCC nations are made to answer for the exploitation of migrant workers, tragedies such as the Kuwait fire will keep happening

Remains of the day. Bodies arrive in Kerala (photo: PTI)
Remains of the day. Bodies arrive in Kerala (photo: PTI)

Akanksha Biradar

“Other days he walked down the road. Past the new, freshly baked, iced, Gulf-money houses built by nurses, masons, wire-benders and bank clerks who worked hard and unhappily in faraway places.”

~ Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

In her 1997 Booker Prize-winning debut novel, Arundhati Roy wrote about the 'foreign returnees', who came back home “in wash’n’wear suits and rainbow sunglasses". These foreign returnees had left home for job opportunities presented by countries surrounding the Persian Gulf, and played an uncredited yet significant role in turning these oil-rich kingdoms into thriving economies.

From driving trash pick-up trucks, cleaning government offices, and working on construction sites in the punishing heat and humidity to working as domestic house help, nannies and support staff, immigrants have done it all. The GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries — closer to home and offering handsome pay — compensate fairly well for the American Dream, a little too out of reach for many. 

Migrants from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Philippines work odd jobs and live in cramped labour accommodations in neglected quarters of cities, leased by the companies they work in. 

On 12 June, it was in one such accommodation that 49 Indians were killed and 50 injured as a devastating fire broke out at dawn in southern Kuwait's Mangaf area, in a building housing around 195 migrant workers.

The mortal remains of those killed were brought back to their native homes in Kerala, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, and West Bengal this week. Many of them had been identified with great difficulty, some were charred beyond recognition.

Kuwait's interior minister Sheikh Fahad Al-Yousuf Al-Sabah ordered an investigation into the fire and issued directions to apprehend the owner and janitor of Al-Mangaf building. "What happened today is a result of the greed of the company and building owners," Al-Sabah was quoted as saying by the Kuwait Times.

In the wake of this tragedy, several prominent voices, among them Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, once again drew attention to the appalling conditions in which migrant workers are often forced to live in Gulf nations. It is a problem old enough for someone to have done something about it by now, but nobody seems inclined to.

The Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf (Gulf Cooperation Council for short) consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A staggering 52 per cent of the region's total population comprises immigrants. In fact, the UAE's 'native' population accounts for a mere 13.1 per cent of the total, while the remaining 86.9 per cent comes from abroad. Needless to add, 'locals' are almost entirely dependent on 'foreign' help.

And yet, the statistics tell a brutal story. According to the Guardian, more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have died in Qatar since it won the right to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022.

Data from India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka reveals that there were 5,927 deaths of migrant workers in the period 2011-20. Data from the Pakistan embassy in Qatar reported a further 824 deaths of Pakistani workers between 2010 and 2020. 

Many workers accused Qatar of unlawful recruitment charges, false promises, excessive working hours, and no rest days. Days before their contracts expired in 2020, hundreds of marshals staged a protest demanding their dues, including unpaid overtime and a bonus they said had been promised on completion of their duties. Amnesty International reported hundreds of migrant workers being denied justice for abuse. 

However, despite their protests, hundreds had to leave Qatar without compensation. Of the lives lost in Qatar, the commonest by far are so-called “natural deaths”, often attributed to acute heart or respiratory failure. These were lives that were denied labour laws, protection under civil law, and adequate medical facilities. 

“More than 12,000 people worked on-site at any given time during the building of Burj Khalifa,” says the official website of the iconic building in Dubai, the world's tallest human-made structure. The construction resulted in numerous accidents, including a crane collapse that killed seven workers in 2007. Many more were left with severe health problems owing to the extreme heat and poor working conditions.

Noted Sudanese journalist and author Nesrine Malik once wrote that Dubai is a place where the worst of Western capitalism and the worst of Gulf Arab racism meet in a horrible vortex. The most pervasive feeling is of a lack of compassion, where the commodification of everything and the disdain for certain nationalities blunts the mind to the tragic plight of fellow human beings.

During the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic, many workers succumbed to the virus due to negligence from the government and the rampaging infection rate in cramped living spaces shared with hundreds of others.

Some claimed they neither had food to eat for days, nor had anyone checked up on them. These workers are isolated and alienated from the posh projects they work on, trapped in the vicious GCC sponsorship system known as the kafala, which ties a worker’s legal right to be in the country to their contracts. This means people risk being imprisoned or deported if they leave their jobs without an employer’s permission. 

Domestic support staff such as nannies and caretakers, employees in beauty salons and house helps primarily consist of women from the Philippines, who are made to live in quarters provided directly by their employers, and prohibited from leaving the country to visit their homes. 

The Goat Life, a 2024 Malayalam-language survival drama film adapted from the 2008 best-selling Malayalam novel Aadujeevitham by Benyamin, is based on the real-life story of Najeeb, a Malayali immigrant labourer, one among thousands of Indians forced into slavery in Saudi Arabia as goatherds on secluded desert farms. 

Like the novel, the film was initially banned in GCC nations except the UAE, though the ban was later lifted in all the countries except Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. 

In God of Small Things, Roy wrote that these foreign returnees come back home with “an end to grinding poverty in their Aristocrat suitcases. With cement roofs for their thatched houses, and geysers for their parents’ bathrooms”.

One might ask, do they also come back with pride in having built some of the shiniest, tallest, largest buildings in the world? Even if they had to polish them with their blood. 

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