The gloomy reality of Gulf returnees
There is a emerging school of thought that the pandemic has accelerated deglobalisation which was already underway thanks to rising nationalism and protectionism. Whilst much of the attention seems to be on trade policies, there is also a rising trend of reverse migration of human resources. Whilst the recent US policy to curb H1B visas predominantly affects white collar workers, the story seems to be starker and more tragic elsewhere. As Indian cities seem to be creeping back to normalcy, several migrant workers who rushed to their villages during the lockdown, also seem to be returning back to their urban jobs gradually. However, with international travel still limited, global economic recovery still limp and protectionism in parts of the world, one particular state in India – Kerala, whose economy relied heavily on remittances from overseas workers, who have returned back, is faced with structural challenges. Often the blame is usually ascribed to the state’s inability to attract industry, mired with labour union issues, for having failed to create jobs, thereby forcing mass migration of menfolk overseas, usually the Middle East (referred to as the Gulf) in search of livelihood. This story in the Mint gives us a glimpse of the state of such ‘Gulf returnees’ in an economy still bereft of meaningful jobs, pandemic or otherwise, now exacerbated by the lack of remittance income which is affecting consumption as well.
“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”.
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.”