On June 12, 2014, while on board the Parasuram Express traveling from Kozhikode to Kochi, 74-year-old Abdul Kareem, like many others in the compartment, was watching live news coverage of the Kuwait fire on his mobile phone.As reports of confirmed deaths and their details began to emerge, he broke down in uncontrollable sobs. His fellow travellers found it difficult to console him, and...

On June 12, 2014, while on board the Parasuram Express traveling from Kozhikode to Kochi, 74-year-old Abdul Kareem, like many others in the compartment, was watching live news coverage of the Kuwait fire on his mobile phone.

As reports of confirmed deaths and their details began to emerge, he broke down in uncontrollable sobs. His fellow travellers found it difficult to console him, and many assumed that his relatives were involved in the Mangaf fire accident. In fact, none of the victims were personally known to Abdul Kareem, but he felt an invisible bond with all of them. This connection stemmed from the fact that he had been in a similar situation himself for three decades until 2003 when he had to return home after suffering a massive heart attack.

The news of the fire was truly devastating for Kareem, and residing in Kochi with his daughter's family since his wife passed away during the COVID pandemic.

“I had lived in the UAE, Kuwait, and Bahrain for over 30 years, and most of that period was spent in labour camps, which were worse than what we hear about the Mangaf flat," Abdul Kareem told The Federal at the Aluva railway station.

The bodies of the Mangaf fire accident after being brought to India.

The bodies of the Mangaf fire accident after being brought to India.

Every lower-class immigrant worker in the Gulf countries has the same story to tell: of pathetic housing and animal-like living conditions, all to save whatever they earn to provide a decent life for their families back home.

“When I first landed in Abu Dhabi in 1973 on a vessel, I didn’t even have a proper passport. My first job was at a fish market, and we were accommodated in a building with a large hall, a kitchen area, and an outdoor toilet. Initially, there were 12 of us living there comfortably, aside from the lack of privacy. However, within a year, more workers arrived, and our building became an unofficial labour camp, housing over 25 people with the addition of two outdoor latrines,” said Kareem.

The chairman of Kerala Pravasi Welfare Board and former three-time MLA of Guruvayoor, KV Abdulkhader himself was an immigrant labourer in the United Arab Emirates in the early 1980s, before he returned home losing his job towards the latter half of that decade.

“When I arrived in Al Ain, UAE, on October 21, 1981, as an unskilled labourer, my father was already working there. My first job was with a catering company that had a contract to provide morning meals to government schools in Al Ain. We were housed in a villa, which accommodated 20 of us in four rooms with two toilets, with five or six of us sharing each room,” recalled Abdulkhader who also was shaken after visiting the house of Binoy Thomas of Palayoor, who lost his life in the Kuwait fire leaving behind a family of wife and two kids.

“When I arrived in the UAE, the situation was somewhat better because we were employed directly by the local company and received a decent pay. However, towards the late 1980s, there was a shift, and companies began hiring labour contractors to supply workers. This led to a significant reduction in wages as the labour contractors started taking a large cut. And this is how the labour camps began to emerge, as the subcontracting companies sought to make accommodation cheaper for them,” says Abdulkhader.

Gulf Cooperation Council countries use a system known as kafala to monitor migrant labourers through national sponsors. This system ties each labourer to a kafeel (sponsor) in the destination country, who is responsible for arranging the labourer's visa and employment contract. Under this system, all labour migrants must work through contracts, which usually last for two to three years.

This system was introduced to manage the rapid influx of migrant workers needed to meet labour demand. This sponsorship system has been pivotal in the rapid economic development of the GCC states, which include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. While it has enabled the Gulf countries to acquire the resources necessary for both economic and infrastructural development, it has also led to numerous negative consequences that have significantly impacted Gulf society. Operating outside the legal framework of GCC states, the kafala system permits the exploitation of migrant workers' rights.

“This is a part and parcel of globalization worldwide, where workers are no longer the responsibility of the state, and labour contractors or sponsors gain complete control over them. Regular employment has given way to contractual work, where workers' rights are virtually non-existent. This shift has led to severe exploitation of workers,” observes KV Abdulkhader.

In a 2015 research paper titled, Migrant Labor in the Arabian Gulf: A Case Study of Dubai, UAE, Sara Hamza from University of Tennessee, observes that most of these lower-class workers are piled into labour camps on the periphery of the cities, which are segregated from the city centre both geographically and socially. Their distance from the city and from the eyes of nationals allows the companies and government to overlook the uninhabitable ghastly living conditions of migrant workers. One of the most shocking and heart-breaking aspects of the reality of the lives of migrant workers in the Gulf are their living conditions.

“I am not in a position to say anything on record from here, as you know I could lose my job and will even be sent back,” a construction worker from a Gulf country said while talking over phone, on the condition of anonymity.

“During the COVID period, many of us were infected and terribly unwell. We heard news from our hometown in Kerala where the government was actively involved, transporting patients to hospitals as needed and preparing beds. Meanwhile, here we lay suffering from severe fever and suffocation, unsure of the nature of the disease. Some of us cried, fearing we might die here without ever seeing our loved ones back home,” he added.

“When we come home biannually or even after longer periods, we can’t share these experiences. To our relatives back home, we are NRIs earning foreign currency and holding NRI bank accounts. Little do they know that more than half of us live here in abject misery,” he added.

As per some studies conducted by NGO’s like Human Rights Watch, in these camps, the typical dwelling is a small room of 12*9 feet where as many as 8 workers live crammed together. Not only are these camps overcrowded, they also lack sanitary living conditions.

“These so-called labour camps are merely accommodation facilities provided by companies with a large workforce or arranged by labour contractors. Most of the inhabitants have the same work schedule, using these spaces solely to sleep and have dinner, which is commonly cooked with shared expenses. These camps are often overcrowded, with multiple bunk beds and no private space for anyone. Despite the diversity in languages and religious beliefs among the residents, a positive aspect is the unity that develops among these individuals despite their diverse backgrounds,” says Jayaprakash from Palakkad district who had lived in UAE and Bahrain in the mid-1980s to early 1990s.

Workers from the lower strata are the ones forced to opt for this accommodation, as they often have inadequate salaries or bear the burden of supporting a large family back home.

According to Dr S Irudayarajan, the chair of Institute for Migration Studies and Development, the main category of migrant workers consists of both unskilled and skilled construction workers, along with other skilled labourers. Skilled construction workers included carpenters, electricians, fitters, foremen, masons, painters, plumbers, welders, surveyors, and supervisors. Other skilled workers encompassed cooks, drivers, mechanics, machine operators, and tailors. Additionally, engineers and technicians, paramedical staff, and office staff were part of the migration. Nearly 41 per cent of the workers who received emigration clearance in the 1990s were unskilled labourers. According to the Kerala Migration Survey of 2023, 76.9 per cent of Kerala's emigrants are categorised as labour emigrants.

“For me personally, it was a profound learning experience where I gained insights into life that textbooks couldn't provide. Later, I lost my job due to the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war and subsequent events, which compelled me to take up other jobs such as photography. Eventually, I returned home after some years, recalls Abdul Khader who later went on to become a prominent leader of the CPI(M) and eventually became MLA of Guruvayoor from 2006-2016.

“Sitting back home, we face many limitations in intervening in such matters. However, in specific situations, we can persuade our Union government to take proactive steps. A few years ago, a Saudi Arabia-based company was shut down, and over 2,000 workers were expelled. We approached the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), and as a result, they were repatriated back home” says Abdulkhader.

Mangaf reportedly had better facilities than other such camps.

"The situation at the labour camps has significantly improved, especially in Kuwait, according to Hikmath TV, a social activist with the Kuwait Art Lovers Association, adding, “Overcrowding, however, remains an issue. The specific apartment that caught fire in Mangaf had better facilities compared to camps in other GCC countries, but the government has taken action against the company responsible for the overcrowding."

The challenges encountered by Gulf immigrant workers from Kerala have been a recurring theme in Malayalam cinema, with several films exploring this subject.

From Vilkkanundu Swapnangal (Dreams for Sale) in 1980, which follows an illegal immigrant in Dubai, to Aadujeevitham (Goat Life), based on the real-life story of Najeeb enduring a slave-like existence herding goats in the desert, released last month.

The Gulf Malayali holds an iconic status in Malayali society, as they shoulder the economic burden of Kerala, integral to the acclaimed Kerala development model.

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