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Feeling the Gulf: Meet the men who returned from Saudi Arabia in wake of its ‘nitaqat’ law

Unable to find valid work permits in the wake of law,17000 migrants have returned to Kerala.

Written by Shaju Philip |
December 22, 2013 3:32:28 am

SHAJU PHILIP,HAMZA KHAN & FAISAL FAREED meet eight men who have returned from Saudi Arabia in the wake of the country’s nitaqat law. In the years they spent in the country as unskilled or semi-skilled labour,they shifted jobs,moved secretly,renewed work permits by paying hefty amounts,and lived in bonded labour-like conditions — till one day,the Saudi government fixed a deadline and they had to leave.

With little professional qualification and few prospects at home,these men moved to Saudi Arabia hoping for higher wages,some as recently as four years ago and others more than two decades back. In March this year,their hopes came crashing as the Saudi Arabian government announced the nitaqat law,making a certain percentage of local labour mandatory for its firms. With the deadline to leave ending last month,17,000 Indian immigrants have returned to Kerala and 5,200 to Uttar Pradesh. Unable to regularise their stay or find valid work permits,most had little choice — either to stay in hiding for months or return home to unemployment and debt. From Kerala’s Malappuram and Kozhikode to Uttar Pradesh’s Malihabad and Azamgarh,their stories are similar,both in how they began and how they have ended.

End of the rush

Although the figure of returnees from among the 16.25 lakh people from Kerala living abroad does not indicate a massive exodus,it marks the end of a breed of job seekers who jumped onto the Gulf bandwagon. Saudi Arabia has always been a major destination for Kerala migrants. According to Kerala Migration Survey 2011 — conducted by the Centre for Development Studies and Non-Resident Keralite Affairs Department — 37.5 per cent of Kerala migrants were in Saudi Arabia. Among the 14 districts,Malappuram accounts for 18 per cent of immigrants. Emigration in Kerala has always been dominated by Muslims (44.3 per cent),and of the 17,977 returnees registered with the state government as on November 11,as many as 10,940 hailed from north Kerala.

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Cheeroth Moosa,53;

Assets: Five-room house,Rs 80 in bank

A Class III dropout,Moosa is unable to recall all the jobs he did during his two decade-long stay in Saudi Arabia. With a free visa,Moosa boarded a flight for the first time for the Gulf in 1993,seeking the job of a mason. But his first assignment,which lasted four years,was that of a shepherd; then,a security guard,followed by a confectionery unit worker. His starting salary was 600 Saudi riyals,which amounts to Rs 9,960 and in 20 years,it grew to 1,000 riyals (Rs 16,601).

A timber worker,Moosa does not have a very specific reason for why he left for the Gulf.

“The Gulf was everyone’s destination at that time. During every visit home,my family pleaded with me not to go back.”

Many have returned to his village,Vazhakkad in Malappuram,in the wake of the new labour law in Saudi Arabia,Moosa says. His village panchayat has 30-odd returnees,many of them unskilled.

Nitaqat also forced Moosa’s younger son M Shafeer to return home. Shafeer was on a house driver visa,but did odd jobs. Now,the family depends on the

Rs 5,000 per month sent by elder son M Sajeer,who works for a bio-medical engineering firm in Saudi Arabia.

Back home,Moosa has found it tough to get a job. He is employed as an irregular unloading worker at a saw mill. “Unloading a truck of timber fetches Rs 600; I am lucky if I get a load in a week,” he says,adding,“I would be happy to work as a security guard.”

Initially,his wife Mymoona was happy to see him back,he says. But now,“seeing me sit idle on most days,she has begun to murmur that it would have been better for me to be in Saudi Arabia”.

Moosa’s only consolation is that he has been able to construct a five-room house for his family. “It took four years to complete the structure. One room was constructed during one visit; the second room during the next visit two years later.”

However,he adds,even that doesn’t mean much. “To the 12 cent family property I could add only three cents,” he shrugs. “What remains in my NRI account of the local bank is Rs 80.”

C Chathankutty,53;

Assets: No bank balance,four-room house

The 53-year-old of Kondotty in Malappuram spent the past four years virtually in hiding after the construction firm he worked for as a mason closed down in 2009. Chathukutty says that he would move in secret from one construction site to another to escape raids for illegal migrants.

Chathankutty had gone to Saudi Arabia in 1995. “I had a company visa for 14 years. I should have come back after the company closed down its operations. But the liability of Rs 5 lakh incurred during my daughter’s marriage forced me to stay there at any cost. My house was pledged for the loan. Even for sending money,I did not leave the construction site where I stayed. The money to be sent home was handed over to persons with valid documents. Last four years,I ate,slept and worked in buildings under construction just to repay the loan,” he says.

Three months ago,Chathukutty made use of the Saudi government’s new law that provided a loophole to illegal migrants to quit the country. However,since reaching home,he has not been able to find a job. “Migrant workers from north India are working in the construction sector in Kerala,they charge much lower wages than local workers,” he says.

He now spends time tilling 14 cents of land near his home,and has taken 30 cents of land on lease for cultivating bitter gourd,tapioca and beans. “I am not familiar with farming. I’m looking for a mason’s job in faraway towns,” he says.

Chathukutty has a wife and a son,Vineesh,who is working as a sales executive.

Narakath Saithalavi,50;

Assets: A three-room house,a small tea shop

When Saithalavi,of Mongam in Malappuram,left for the Gulf in 1992,his daughter Serina was a year old. “During every trip home,I wanted to stay back,” he says. “But I had to repay loans taken from friends in Saudi Arabia to buy flight tickets.”

Saithalavi recalls that many a time he could not send a single penny home despite working 14 hours per day for six days a week. The highest salary he got was 1,300 riyals per month before the new law came into force. Last year,he could get the work permit renewed only after spending 12,000 riyals (approximately

Rs 1,98,213).

Saithalavi had completed 25 years as a hotel worker when he was sent home four months ago. He landed with a burden of

Rs 1.25 lakh debt,though he had the solace of having constructed a house for his family.

He availed a bank loan of Rs 4 lakh to settle the debt taken from friends. Out of that amount,

Rs 75,000 and some savings that he had were invested in the tea shop that he now runs,from 6 am to 9 pm daily. “Better business will come only if I offer better menu. But a full-fledged hotel would require big investment,” he says. Saithalavi has another grudge: “Working hours here are longer than those in the Gulf.”

His daughter is married; his son works at a computer hardware unit in Kochi.

Muhammed Asharaf,38;

No assets,Rs 20,000 debt,minimum balance in account

An auto driver in his coastal village,Beypore in Kozhikode,Asharaf boarded a flight to Jeddah in 2006 knowing very well the risks of going on a free visa “of a house driver”,which he got after coughing up Rs 1.40 lakh. Later,the sponsor demanded a month’s salary to renew the work permit.

Asharaf switched jobs — from construction worker to hotel employee to painter to fish merchant and finally,a salesman. “At the time of raids,I went into hiding,” he explains.

After the Saudi government gave six months for free visa-holders to regularise their visas,Asharaf tried finding a new job,but the exorbitant cost of visa conversion was something he couldn’t manage.

During his seven-year stay in the Gulf,he visited home five times. “Every time I thought of staying back,but the loan taken from friends in Saudi Arabia for flight tickets forced me to go back there.”

In the first three years,Asharaf could earn only Rs 10,000 a month.

“I borrowed money from friends to send a few thousand rupees to my family. The highest salary I got was 1,500 riyals per month as a salesman at a water bottling unit,where I worked for 14 hours a day. But that did not last long as the Saudi government began a crackdown on illegal migrants.”

In the month that he has been home,Asharaf has incurred a debt of Rs 20,000. Staying in a rented house with his wife and three teenage children,he is struggling to meet his daily expenses. Wife Zeenath’s bank account has minimum balance.

“A Gulf returnee can’t escape the popular perception that he comes with bundles of currency. Marriages,visit to relatives’ houses led to debts. Now I avoid friends and family functions,” he says.

Last week,he registered with the Non-Resident Keralites Affairs Department,expecting the state government to finance his ‘dream’ of owning an autorickshaw.

However,he is ready try his luck again in the Gulf if,he adds,a genuine visa is available.

Nightmare ends,but no hope still

Approximately 8,000 persons from Uttar Pradesh immigrate to Saudi Arabia annually,and many of them are duped to believe that they would get very high salaries. Some Malihabad residents,who went to Saudi Arabia through a common agent,claim that the owner of an illegal zardozi workshop in Riyadh is the ‘head’ of a ‘bonded labour racket’. They allege that he lures youths of Uttar Pradesh through his agents. Once they reach Saudi Arabia,his agents reportedly blackmail relatives in India to prevent them from going to the police. Several victims claim to have submitted complaints to the Malihabad police station,but no FIR has been lodged as yet.

Kaleem,25,

ASSETS: A motorcycle, three-room semi-constructed house

Kaleem may have to get married soon. But,having lost his job in Riyadh,he appears reluctant. He earned enough by doing housekeeping jobs to save 2,000 riyals (Rs 33,203) every month,which he used to send to his family. “Since I am the eldest,my parents fixed my marriage,but I am worried about the future. It is hard to get a job,” he says.

Kaleem is the eldest son among seven siblings. He has three unmarried sisters. Two years ago,he had gone to Saudi Arabia on an independent visa. “I used to run errands,clean cars,did everything to earn money,” he says. In two years,he repaid a loan of Rs 70,000 which he had taken to get the visa,but he has no savings. “My brothers are not educated. I was the lone member earning for the family.”

Kaleem is not alone in village Badharia,near Saraimeer in Azamgarh,to have come back. “Between June and October,10 of us have returned.” His friends,Bilal,who worked as painter in Saudi Arabia,Faiz,a carpenter,and Saqib,an electrician,have no work. They all shared the same room in Saudi,and their problems are common too — unmarried sisters,ailing parents,getting house renovated. “Saqib was a driver in Jeddah and will soon start driving a tempo for a living. But even if we get jobs,it won’t be enough. There are 150 persons from Azamgarh who have lost their livelihoods.”

Mohammad Javed Khan,41,

Assets: 800 sq ft house,no bank account

A resident of Mirzaganj in Lucknow’s Malihabad,for Javed Khan a promise of 1,500 riyals per month led him to take a flight to Saudi Arabia in 2008. It was a “bonded labourer’s” life for the first eight months. “A local from Malihabad told me about his brother running a zardozi workshop in Riyadh,” he recalls. At the illegal workshop,there was very little money in lieu of 15 to 18 hours of work daily inside locked premises. When he protested,his documents,including passport,were confiscated; his mobile phone was taken away upon arrival. “After eight months,I escaped to Jeddah where I was paid 1,500 riyals per month at a zardozi workshop,” he says. But without a passport,which would have expired anyway,Javed had no option but to go into hiding.

Javed’s family consists of his father,wife,six-year-old daughter,and sons aged eight and 11. Javed’s younger brother Mujahid Khan,26,is married and has two daughters,aged one and two and a half years. He feels guilty about not having been able to come home to meet his dying mother. “I had to feed my family,I had little choice,” he says.

But he finally decided enough was enough after reading about people being deported. Last month,Javed approached the Indian Embassy to avail a free visa to go back home.

Rizwan Khan,30,

Assets: None

Mohammad Usman would have been 35 this year. He went to Saudi Arabia in 2006,and was followed shortly after by his brother Rizwan Khan. They went on Umrah visa for a pilgrimage,and subsequently went into hiding in order to get work. “The modus operandi was that we land on Umrah visa,perform the ritual,then local agents transport us to other places in closed trucks,” Rizwan explains. “Invalid or no documents meant that we were at the mercy of our employers,who threatened to report us if we didn’t follow orders.”

Initially,the wages were decent. But gradually,their employers at a garment workshop in Riyadh reduced it to 25-50 riyals a week. “Usman used to constantly worry about his four children and wife as he could not send them any money,” says Rizwan. “When Usman suffered a heart attack,the employers didn’t take him to a doctor fearing they would be caught,” Rizwan adds,talking about his well-built brother. “The employers took away all his documents and left his body outside a hospital,where they keep such bodies in deep freezer for a year,waiting for claimants.” Rizwan couldn’t be a claimant.

Since his return from Saudi in June,he has been trying to earn a living through zardozi. But it’s not enough. Rizwan has to take care of his mother,wife as well as Usman’s son who is 10 years old. Rizwan’s two younger brothers,25 and 18,also do zardozi work like him.

Mujeeb Ahmed,27,

Assets: A motorcycle

A Class VIII dropout,Mujeeb Ahmed from Malihabad was 19 when he went to Saudi Arabia in 2009. His family arranged Rs 1.5 lakh for his visit through an agent. In 2010,his parents received a call; at the other end was a crying Mujeeb being beaten up with belts. “My helpless parents didn’t know what to do. My employer wanted me to tell my family to pay more to his Indian agent or I would face the consequences,” he says. Two years later,he escaped through a bathroom ventilator and reached a relative’s house in Jeddah. Early this year,he was caught by the Jeddah police as a part of the crackdown and sent to jail. It took about three weeks for the Indian Embassy to prepare his passport,during which he stayed in jail. Back in India,he says,“All I know is zardozi.”

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