The Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) and the Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) jointly organised a webinar on May 14, 2020 on ‘Indian Migrants in the Gulf: Coping with the Double Blow of Oil Price Collapse and COVID-19.’ The panellists were Ambassador Navdeep Suri, Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), acting as the Chair and Moderator; Dr D Dhanuraj, Chairman, CPPR; Professor Irudaya Rajan, Centre for Development Studies (CDS); Dr Deepika Saraswat, Research Fellow, ICWA; and Dr Bindhulakshmi Pattadath, Associate Professor, Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, TISS.

The session started with Ambassador Navdeep Suri commenting on how India and the UAE approach the issue of migrants by building more connectivity between the countries compared to Mexico and the US. In the past year, India received around US$18 bn of remittances from the UAE alone. He also commended Kerala on its handling of the COVID-19 and the migrants in the State. Regarding the return of migrants from the Gulf, he said even though around 70 per cent of them are from the blue-collar job sector, people from other sectors are also included. COVID-19 has affected the upper and bottom echelons of the society both incurring financial loss and unemployment. He also emphasised that the country should look after its migrants and create a “culture of empathy” and implement more systems to support them. He also mentioned the ‘e-migrate project’ for blue-collar workers to be soon integrated into Saudi Arabia, and the ‘Skill-mapping’ project between labour-producing and labour-receiving countries; currently 16 vocations have been recognised. He also suggested that the government should create a portal where migrant returnees are registered and have access to their skills. He also stated that as the migrants will be returning to different states, they should be segregated by the respective states instead of amassing them all together.

Addressing the panel, Professor Irudaya Rajan stated that the government should expect around 9-10 lakh migrant returnees, 10-20 per cent from the Gulf want to return due to the loss of employment. He called for diversification of policies and migrant-related schemes; all the migrants should not be grouped together in the same basket. He also mentioned that as a process of migration, some returnees might even re-emigrate; around 30 per cent might do so. Therefore, he said, all these factors should be taken into consideration while framing policies for migrants.

He said that COVID-19 has brought migrants into the limelight—both internal and international migrants. He also suggested that steps should be taken to upgrade the skills of migrants by providing them skill training and connecting them to the ‘Skill India’ mission.’  He also specified that around 30 per cent of the current returnees might include “eventual return” migrants whose only purpose was to earn more money and make some savings. They do not require financial assistance from the government, but might be “looking for viable projects to invest in.” Another group of 25-30 per cent of migrants may fall under the “post-return migrants,” who are forced to come back due to the expiration of their working visas. As their goals of migration have not been met, they will need cash-assistance such as one-time payment and soft loans-based financial schemes. And finally, there are undocumented migrants and around 10 per cent of them come under the no/semi-skilled category. They might be forced to return as they do not receive any medical assistance abroad and they require the most assistance from the government.

Dr Dhanuraj talked about the political economy aspect of the migration and how it will influence the State of Kerala. One sixth of the State’s gross domestic product (GSDP) has been due to the remittances and various systems in the State have evolved as a result of migration. Kerala has definitely been benefited and supported by the remittances from the migrants in the Gulf. For years, they have been investing in land and properties within the State which slowly led to the construction and management of shopping malls, establishment of various institutions and other urban development projects. In many ways, the money of migrants was sustaining the State. The educational institutions benefited from NRI quotas, hence their return can indirectly lead to job loss in the education, tourism and health sectors. He also stated that one should give thought as to why the migrants left the country in the first place. It was mainly due to the lack of jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities, among other things. The various reasons that contributed to their migration still persist in the State. He also said that it is time for the government to improve the ease of doing business environment in the State. He stressed on the need for market intervention, and policymakers should pay attention to the State’s capacity to absorb the sudden influx of migrants and their employment requirements. He called for the re-orientation of State policies, and economic action from the State rather than limiting it to temporary assistance.

Dr Bindhulakhshmi Pattadath highlighted the administrative apathy and gaps in the policies of the nation-states to cater to women migrants. According to the data shared by the ILO, women form 41.6 per cent of the migrant workforce in the Gulf states, yet the policies fail to cater to most of them as a bulk of them are employed as domestic workers, which are by far the most marginalised amongst all the migrants. The marginalisation is attributed to the legal status given to these domestic workers which categorises them as unskilled labourers although they come with a specific set of skills required to maintain a household. A lot of them work as undocumented labours that make them even more vulnerable to problems such as unpaid wages, forced labour and dangerous working conditions. Also, the local laws of the Gulf States such as the Kefala system, which grants exclusive “ownership rights” to the employer of the employee and often likened to bonded labour or modern-day slavery, enable marginalisation and exploitation of these workers. She pointed towards the ongoing Indian evacuation programme, Vande Bharat Mission, not doing enough to ensure conditions for safe return of these workers. She suggested that irrespective of their legal status, these migrant workers who want to return should be brought home. Also, the Welfare Fund should be adequately utilised to ensure their protection and safe return.

Dr Deepika Saraswat addressed the panel by throwing light on the labour market of the GCC States. She talked about the segmented nature of the labour market in the Gulf region where the foreign migrants form the bottommost strata of the society and consequently were disproportionately hit due to the ongoing crisis. For instance, the UAE has allowed employers to break work contracts in the wake of the COVID crisis leaving the migrants jobless and stranded in the country. She also discussed the ongoing nationalisation plans in some of the GCC States, especially Saudi Arabia, to decrease the economy’s dependence on oil revenues and its impact on the migrants now and in future. As a part of the project, the current oil wealth will be distributed to sectors such as health and education along with bolstering the small and medium enterprises in the Gulf kingdom. The Saudi government plans to make the work permits costlier for the employers in order to support these enterprises. This will have an adverse effect on the jobs that are available to migrants as employers will be less willing to employ them due to the rising costs. However, things are not as bleak as they might seem since the tax-free environment of the Gulf nations still attracts a lot of foreign and international entrepreneurs and offers abundant job opportunities to nationals and migrants alike. Furthermore, many GCC states prefer mega projects like the Expo 2020 that is scheduled to be held in October 2020 in Dubai, the FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar, etc. that do not directly benefit the people but require a large workforce. This means that, despite the current situation, the demand for low- and semi-skilled workers in the region will remain high in the near future. Adding to that, the nature of the Gulf economy is such that quick training of nationals or mechanisation will not be easy and foreign migrants cannot be replaced in the labour market.

After the informative session, the panellists took questions from the audience and answered them with full vigour. To summarise a few arguments, steps like employing the returnees in the State were suggested. As the crisis has prompted the inter-state migrants to return home, it leaves a gap in the workforce in Kerala that can be filled by the returning migrants from the Gulf. On the question regarding the impact of plummeting oil prices, Dr Rajan was of the view that the fall in the prices is short-lived and may see a rise in demand and price of oil in future as the world economy will emerge from the COVID crisis in the coming months.

Some policy suggestions were also made during the last spell of the Q&A round. The need for announcing a financial relief package for internal and international migrants was reiterated along with the demand for rejuvenation of the ‘Skill India’ programme in order to train our workforce which will equip them better in handling such crises and retaining their jobs in future. Also, the attitude of the States and the society towards the returning migrants will be crucial and according to Dr Dhanuraj there is an urgent need for market intervention at this point. The fact that Kerala will suffer without the remittances that once helped build the State, further strengthens the need for economic action by the government. The State should look beyond its policy of protectionism and bolster plans to develop the skills of returnees to facilitate their re-emigration or reabsorption into the State economy. It was also suggested that the Government of India can bring in some changes regarding the skill profiling of domestic workers and make language and skill training mandatory before migration, following the footsteps of the Philippines. The insightful session had many recommendations that could help the government in improving the current conditions of the migrants.

The report is prepared by Juanita and Aishwarya, research interns with CPPR-Centre for Strategic Studies.

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