Covid-19 in GCC: Indian job seekers stare at an uncertain future due to travel ban
Many people’s savings have been exhausted and are struggling to make both ends meet.
Job seekers from India’s western coast have been making a beeline for the Arabian Gulf nations since the region got connected by air in 1956.
“It’s better and easier to go to Dubai than Bengaluru and Mumbai” has been a popular saying that has gained momentum over the years and brought prosperity to people from the region.
The job seekers belonged to people from all walks of life such as semi-skilled workers such as drivers and paramedical workers, and qualified ones like teachers and bankers.
Many evolved into successful entrepreneurs because of the help of benevolent administration.
At present, some of the ignited minds from the region are working in the Arabian Gulf in diverse fields, including niche areas of construction, information technology (IT), hospitality, education and healthcare. India accounts for the maximum number of expatriates to the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations.
Data showed that the Indian remittances from the Arabian Gulf nations stood at $83 billion (Dh305 billion) last year.
The GCC nations are a home away home for 10 million Indians.
However, the onset of Covid-19 last year led to a steady flow of Indians returning home. Many came for a break such as Christmas or to attend weddings but got stuck as the pandemic struck.
Josephine D'Sa had gone to Abu Dhabi to work as a nurse a month before Covid-19 struck last year and came to India after a few months and got stuck following a travel ban for Indians to the UAE that has been in place since April 24.
“Though I had a fairly secure job, I cannot go back because the UAE rule stipulates that I need to have taken both the doses of a Covid-19 vaccine. However, I’m yet to take both the jabs because of a shortage of vaccines. My financial condition has also worsened since I don’t have an income. I’m living off my savings from the money I made in Abu Dhabi,” she said.
Fortunately, she said, she has been promised to get her job back as and when she could fly back to Abu Dhabi.
Kerala and coastal Karnataka make up the maximum number of nurses in the GCC nations.
Similarly, Joel Fernandes is a civil engineer in Mangaluru, whose family is into the real estate and construction business. “My family invested a fortune in the realty sector in Mangaluru and Bengaluru. I was employed in Dubai with an engineering company that is building infrastructure for the upcoming Dubai Expo 2020. As luck would have it, I had come to India to attend a family wedding when the pandemic struck. There was a slump in the real estate sector and two of our family projects ran up huge losses due to migration of labourers to their native places because of the viral outbreak. I've become insolvent, as I had to pool in money to give occupancy to over 120 buyers. My savings has become depleted. To make matters worse, I don’t have a job to go back to Dubai,” he said.
D’Sa and Fernandes are part of a growing pack of returnees, whose Gulf dream has gone from boom to bust overnight because of the pandemic.
Many are struggling to make their both ends meet as they stare at an uncertain future. Some have opened supermarkets and car accessory businesses in Kasargod and Kannur in northern Kerala, the southernmost Indian state, which is the epicentre of the Gulf dream through the decades.
Ayub and his son Iqbal from Kasargod ran a chain of car accessory shops in Kochi, Kannur, and Kasargod.
They invested Dh74,22,702 in their business and have an equal amount of outstanding sum with the suppliers in the US.
Iqbal is a non-resident Indian (NRI) and has worked in Qatar as a human resource manager. He holds a master's degree in business administration (MBA) from a reputed institution in Mangaluru.
“We’re about to set up a car accessory business in Kochi for my sister and brother-in-law, when the market came crashing down. Elections, pandemic, and the economic slowdown ruined my family’s fortunes in no time,” Iqbal said.
Usman Farooq, a survivor of the 2010 Mangaluru air crash, overcame the trauma of flying to truck his luck in Dubai again. “I had a steady job till March 2020. Besides, I had managed to get a job for my brother Naushad in the Saudi Arabia port city of Dammam. I also placed my friend Rashid in a job in the Holy city of Madinah in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). We all came back in March 2020. We had thought that the pandemic may subside in a month or two. We’re looking forward to having a good time in our native village. However, fate has had other ideas. My savings are gone in a jiffy. I’ve become financially dependent on my family.” Usman said.
Sheikh Karnire, a Gulf veteran, put the disturbing trend in perspective.
“Over 2.5 million people from Kerala account for more than 30 per cent of Indian expatriates in the Gulf. Indian expatriate population in the Middle East is estimated at around 6.1 million.
"Kerala received about 20 per cent of $76.8 billion remittances in 2018. In 2019 and 2020, the remittances to Kerala had dipped by 50 per cent and it is likely to slide further this year,” he said.
Altogether, 4,897 Gulf returnees have formed a peer group in Kochi and will start a series of business and manufacturing units with the help of the Non-Resident Keralites Affairs (NORKA) department.
“The Kerala government has facilitated a single-window clearance system,” said Abdullah Chervthoor, a NORKA member.
Indians comprise sizeable number of the expatriate population in the GCC countries. According to estimates by the country’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), as of 2019-2020, 8.5 million Indians were residing in the six GCC countries.
They constituted 15.17 per cent of the total residents and 29.20 per cent of the total expatriate population in the GCC. While greater numbers of Indian professionals and entrepreneurs have joined the GCC labour market, a majority, estimated at 87 per cent, continue to be employed in unskilled and low-skilled work, according to a report authored by Lakshmi Priya, a researcher at Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in Delhi.
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