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The gloomy reality of Gulf returnees

Kerala residents who returned via a flight from Abu Dhabi being taken to a quarantine centre by bus. The state government has offered a hand-out of  ₹5,000 to returnees who have lost their jobs, apart from a clutch of sops.Premium
Kerala residents who returned via a flight from Abu Dhabi being taken to a quarantine centre by bus. The state government has offered a hand-out of 5,000 to returnees who have lost their jobs, apart from a clutch of sops.

  • Emigrants have been Kerala’s economic pillar. Now, many have returned and are desperately looking for local jobs
  • The ensuing social flux may have only just begun to unfold since Kerala’s emigration corridor has been fuelled, for decades, primarily by the desire to acquire 'status'

KOZHIKODE : One day in July, nearly four months after the cruise ship MS Caribbean Princess suspended operations at a port in Miami, Florida, its chef Arun Dev was in a showroom that was being erected in Kerala’s Malappuram. He was busy driving nails into the new wooden shelves.

By the time his 12-hour workday is over, Dev usually has a thick layer of dust all over his body—a sharp contrast to his cruise ship days. Despite longer hours, he earns far less—with a monthly income that hovers around 10% of the regular salary he used to clock while on-board the Caribbean Princess, which abruptly went out of action following the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Since then, Dev has been doing odd jobs back home in Kerala. Erstwhile foreign emigrants like him suddenly populate a broad spectrum of the blue-collar workforce in Kerala’s cities and towns. It’s an eerie reality for the locals. Many types of jobs that had been entirely taken over by migrant out-of-state workers—from street vendors to carpentry work—has a new crop of native faces. And the ensuing social flux may have only just begun to unfold, since Kerala’s emigration corridor has been fuelled, for decades, primarily by a drive to acquire “status".

Dev, for instance, finds his new line of work foreign and frustrating. But for many like him, such jobs have become part of a quest to survive. Even a minimum wage job is better than no job.

“I couldn’t adjust at first," said Dev, in Malayalam. “I used to earn nearly 1 lakh on-board the ship. In Kerala, for carpenter jobs, I’m getting 700-750 per day (that is the minimum wage, among the highest in India). It is not even a quarter of what I am used to. Still, my fate is better than many of my friends. They are jobless."

At the cusp of the first few phases of unlock back in May, Mint dove into how Kerala may be at the vanguard of change. A sea of people, who have lived in overseas locations for a while, especially in West Asia, were choosing to return home. This reverse globalisation—the story pointed out—could hit the economy of states like Kerala, which is bolstered annually by the remittances that millions of emigrants send back home.

Now that many are back, how has life been since the return? What kind of jobs do they manage to get? How have they dealt with the sweeping changes in their life and lifestyle? In interviews, many who have lost their jobs—some of whom were former employees in the world’s largest companies—spoke about the desperation of finding new work, and cash for immediate needs.

The impact on the economy and wider society is harder to quantify and may take months to unfold. Kerala’s 3.5 million-strong diaspora population, cultivated through a 50-year long emigration history, was among the strongest economic pillars that funded the state’s broad welfarist policies. Now, many of them are at the state’s doorsteps seeking help.

Bitter homecoming

For someone who is 35 years old, it is striking that Dev has never worked in Kerala. Until now, of course. He had gone to a Gulf country at a very early age with dreams of a better life.

The network that he managed to develop in the Gulf led him on to the cruise ship, which belonged to Carnival Corporation & plc, a British-American cruise operator, currently the world’s largest travel leisure company. He worked on a hefty salary and bonus. These days, hourly wage work is Dev’s only option.

Historically, Kerala has seen waves of return migration several times—from the Kuwait war to the Nitaqat movement, and even during the Arab Spring. But the current crisis, which rides on a lot more uncertainty than any other prior instance, is rupturing diaspora families. The first casualty for a Gulf worker who opts for a blue-collar job back in Kerala is his status symbol.

From access to a bank loan to finding a spouse , working in the Gulf was a brand image that sold in Kerala. The social status went up as and when a person migrated overseas. Hardly anyone asks a Gulf worker what exactly they do. The profile itself was a sufficient enough status symbol—usually paraded in neighbourhoods by building large, swanky houses, and luxury consumption.

The pandemic has changed it all. A well-off returnee Gulf worker was typically welcomed by a row of cars and dozens of visitors at the airport. Now, due to quarantine regulations, they are finding it tough to even find friends to ferry them back home. Settling down is even harder.

Dev, for instance, first searched for a job that suited his skill set: Cooking. It turned out to be a futile attempt. “There are no good jobs for chefs in Kerala at the moment," he said. “Most of the five-star hotels are quarantine centres. The ones that are operations are operating with only 50% staff."

So, he started looking for other jobs. “A close friend called me for carpentry work. He did not expect me to come along. Even many of my family members asked me why I want to go work as a daily wager. I replied that there will be hundreds of people to give advice, but nobody will bring even 10 and give it to my children."

He couldn’t help but reminisce about the luxurious life the overseas job offered. “Ship job was another level," he said. “We had rooms with only two members (he now stays with six others in one room). My expenses, right from when we stepped out of the house in Kerala, were borne by the company," he said. He tries to not lose sleep over it. “Such is life, we have to adjust."

But Dev may be one of the luckier returnees. His friend, KB Bibosh, who was also a chef on the same ship, remains jobless despite trying to open a street-side food stall operated from inside a van.

For Bibosh, who used to specialise in Italian dishes like Ossobuco, making parottas for the neighbourhood was as big a status change as his friend turning into a carpenter. However, he had to shut down the new business within ten days due to the rise in virus cases. His neighbourhood was demarcated as a containment zone by the state.

“My father is an auto-rickshaw driver. My mother and my sister do not work. When I opened the roadside eatery, my mother asked me to rethink it. But I had no other option. Since it is also shut, I am now cutting my spending a lot. I had some savings, which is also fast evaporating," Bibosh said.

The deepening crisis

For those who have returned, each day is filled with several anxieties. Most of them want to go back to their overseas jobs since the wide gulf in income simply cannot be bridged. How long will families, who are used to a certain standard of living, adjust to a new, low-profile lifestyle?

And then there are the larger ripple effects beyond the families themselves. The Kerala government has estimated a fall of at least 10,000 crore in annual remittance flows. Local consumption is heavily reliant on these steady monetary flows. It could have an impact on everything from retail footfalls to the health of banks.

Dev and Bibosh, for instance, spoke about the pressure due to their monthly EMIs from housing loans. Both have opted for a moratorium on such loans, which is risky, as they will eventually have to meet additional interest expense.

Already, a diminished spending pattern has become a common factor within the families. “My brother’s wedding was downsized," said Dev. “I postponed some work on my house," said Bibosh. As they expect their salaries to be low or nil for a year or more, they see cutting back on spending as the only way to climb out of the crisis.

Such drastic changes in consumption patterns could affect a lot of people apart from the families themselves, said S. Irudaya Rajan, a migration expert at the Center for Development Studies. It is still too early to quantify the impact, he said.

“The situation is very fluid. Contrary to perception, not so many have returned as was expected… (And) we still do not know when the last man coming from the Gulf, who has lost his job, would arrive," he said.

According to the state government’s task force, of which Rajan is a part of, only about 254,000 expats have returned so far, out of some 500,000 who had originally registered for repatriation. The state estimates that some 50,000 of them may have returned after losing their jobs.

With the Gulf economies reopening at a faster rate than many Indian states, and with Kerala witnessing a resurgence in cases recently, the flow of returnees has reduced to a trickle over the last few weeks. On 9 August, after the crash landing of a repatriation flight which resulted in the death of 17 people, India has also suspended the operation of wide-bodied aircraft at the Calicut International Airport, a major destination for returnees.

Two things could happen next, said Rajan. Many who returned shall adjust without work; living primarily on their savings and hoping that they could return back abroad someday. Only the very poor, for their survival, will enter the job market, he said. “They are becoming delivery boys, drivers, daily wagers... something, just to pass the day."

The crisis has also brought up a lot of new issues that policy-makers had not addressed, or even thought about before. Many returned as if they were getting out of a building on fire, without getting their salary and other dues, said Rajan.

“In the rush, they did not collect what was due to them from the company. This is going to be the hardest part. We have a 50-year long migration pattern, but there is no mechanism to collect their wages. What if these people protest about it tomorrow?" asked Rajan.

The road ahead

Abdul Wahid Mayyeri, a Gulf migrant himself and secretary of the Oruma Kalpakanchery, a collective of around 4,000 expats in the UAE from a single village in Malappuram—Kalpakanchery panchayat—points to some innovative ongoing experiments. The collective was in the news recently for repatriating 183 migrants in a special chartered flight.

The collective is mapping the skill sets of all those who’ve returned and flexing their local contacts to land them jobs. “Many of them were blue-collar workers in the Gulf, so it will be hard to match their salaries back in Kerala. But our first priority is to get them jobs," said Wahid. “Only a thorough rehabilitation exercise can solve this crisis," he said.

On its part, the Kerala government has offered a hand-out of 5000 to returnees who have lost their job apart from and a clutch of other sops—free 5kg rice, loans and subsidies for starting their own ventures back home, and so on. A larger programme with further incentives and subsidies for the returnees, called ‘Dream Kerala’, is in the works.

“We have been getting a lot of calls for rehabilitation," said N. Harikrishnan, chief executive officer of NORKA Roots, the nodal agency for helping the diaspora population in the state. “These returnees are multi-generation. Their skill mapping is essential for comprehensive rehabilitation. We are focusing on a multilayer approach. One is financial assistance. Second is for livelihood assistance, and third for wage assistance," he said.

The state is also facing unlucky hurdles in its attempt to find all of them new jobs, he said. Issues with mobility, as the lockdown is still in place in many towns due to daily increases in the viral cases, is one such, he said.

Meanwhile, increasingly, things have returned to normal in many Gulf nations and beyond, boosting hopes of a return for many. On 12 August, the union government lifted the pandemic-induced curbs on visas for travel to the United Arab Emirates (UAE)., making it possible for Indian nationals holding any type of valid UAE visa to emigrate. Earlier, it was restricted only to certain kinds of visas.

Najeeb K from Kerala’s Kozhikode district could not have been happier. He was checking every other day for the last six months for this news. Returning to the state in February after a 13-year long stint as an office admin in a Dubai-based company, he had turned to buffalo rearing out of desperation. It came nowhere close to matching his former salary of around 1 lakh.

“Since returning to the Gulf had become a big question mark, I was thinking of doing this full-time," said Najeeb. “But if you ask me, honestly, I wish to return. I had a good job in the Gulf. I check with my UAE friends every day to see if there is any chance to return."

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