South Asians Outside Their Borders Part I: Construction Workers in the Middle East

Mohanalakshmi Rajkumar, Qatar, Persian Gulf (published in January 2006)

Mohanalakshmi, born in Chennai, was raised outside India since age four. She came to the US in 1988. She grew up in Texas, California, and Florida, went to North Carolina State U, and now is working toward Ph.D. in Postcolonial Studies at the University of Florida.. She is now a project consultant at the University of Doha, Qatar.

The debate over immigration policy in the US has intensified as attitudes towards  illegal/undocumented workers have changed. Some wonder what the fuss is all about. After all, in their minds, undocumented workers take menial jobs that no legal US resident takes. These unlawful workers, the argument goes, are a central part of the American economy. Eliminating them will create a large gap in the current economic structure. They are necessary and essential whether people like it or not.

Living in the US, the issues surrounding the Latino immigrant population can often seem all-consuming. But throughout the world, other immigrant populations encounter similar difficulties working outside their native lands. South Asian laborers in the Arab marketplace face many of the same dilemmas of Latinos in the US. The parallel maybe unwelcome, but the experience of the first tier of South Asian workers demonstrates its validity. This is the first of a four-part series focused on the Indian workers in the Middle East.

Beginning at the ground level, unskilled and semi-skilled Indian laborers provide the basic needs/services of the growing economies of nearby countries. That the labor is “racialized” in the Persian or Arabian Gulf region cannot be disputed. The oil-based wealth of most nationals in Gulf countries requires that imported workers supply everything from nannies to litter collectors. These countries are primed by foreign workers at all levels of industry and commerce. The levels of employment and types of jobs accessible to people are categorized largely by nationality, ethnicity and race. Western Europeans find lucrative packages and bonuses in well-placed positions in the commercial sector. Americans have now entered many countries as educational  consultants or faculty members.

If you are of South Asian descent with a basic secondary level education or lower, mostly you are a maid, driver, or construction worker. In many upper middle class Arab homes, South Asians’ are the invisible hands that prepare food, raise children, and perform menial tasks. Life for these worker means exploitation. Abuse and neglect are certainly possible, and often likely, for these semi-skilled workers. Workmen’s compensation, insurance, or benefits are far from the mind of most workers since difficulties in obtaining their most basic needs such as housing, meals, or paychecks consume most of their attention. Indian embassies in the region are inundated by worker requests for help; workers often come in groups to file claims of falsely garnished wages or missing passports preventing them from going home. Lack of staffing in embassies makes following up on these complaints challenging and difficult.

Construction work is the most visible field where Indians, Nepalese, and Sri Lankans are everywhere to build structures that have few regulatory codes or guidelines. Workers have few safety gears such as helmets or other protective coverings for hazardous work. There are virtually no safety harnesses for work on skyscrapers and deaths from fatal falls are not unusual. The desert heat provides another challenge to these exclusively male workforce. They work twelve-hour days and sometimes during the night, depending on how behind schedule their particular project is. In the summer official labor laws prohibit outdoor working if the temperature is above 115 degrees  F. In many countries the official weather reading is never published to avoid project delays. High incidents of workers passing out has resulted in trailers placed in or near construction sites where a heat stroke victim can rest for a few hours. Immediately on their return to consciousness they are sent back to their previous task.

Is it true that these jobs are actually wanted by anyone despite the treatment and work requirements? It is. In a country like India where the population explosion has forced people to get educated or look elsewhere, overseas labor jobs are attractive for the non-specialized worker. The profile of these workers is almost the same: Young men between the ages of twenty and forty who have passports and physically fit. They pay a fee to a recrutiment agency for placement overseas. Most workers can’t afford these agency fees so they start out in debt to their future employers. These companies are often brokers for the various construction projects within the country itself and assist with the filing of paperwork, visas, and issuing of plane tickets. In all their helpfulness, however, many of them falsify the contract offers to young workers which the men don’t discover until they reach their destination. By then it’s too late. Their passports are taken and held until they repay the amount owed to the company.

If these abuses sound harrowing, they are. Labor unions, worker rights, or human resources offices are fantasies in the day-to-day lives of these workers. The image of these thousands of hands could be akin to the Untouchable caste within Indian itself; but this population has no Gandhi to re-label them “Children of God.” Instead the complexities of economies built on capitalist principles ensure that the disadvantaged poor people will always want these jobs, and rapidly industrializing wealthy companies will always be in need of them.

Who is responsible for the plight of the immigrant worker in the Gulf region? Is it the worker himself who leaves his family, often for years at a time, in search of better income? Is it his own government unable to create jobs for him within his own borders that allow him to feed himself and his family? Is it the government of his host country that often appears to espouse principles of equality and democracy in the public sector? Is it his employer under whose sponsorship he is allowed into the country?

Any and all of these parties could be argued as partly responsible in the abuse of the uneducated Indian workers outside in the Middle East.   — END

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