Dubai’s woes displace migrant wokers

Marketplace Staff Feb 11, 2010
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Dubai’s woes displace migrant wokers

Marketplace Staff Feb 11, 2010
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Kai Ryssdal: There was good news today for one slice of the American labor market. The Department of Labor announced new rules to protect temporary farm workers, mostly in the areas of wages and safety. Those two topics are of concern to low-income workers everywhere. And in South Asia, another group of migrant workers is feeling the pinch as once-booming Dubai sends a lot of its foreigners home.

Raymond Thibodeaux reports from the southern Indian state of Kerala.


RAYMOND THIBODEAUX: Abdul Wahab sits in his home in Kochi. His wife Neeza pours glasses of orange drink for him and their two children. This is the first time in 24 years that he’s returned from Dubai for more than just a few weeks home leave. Abdul and about 1,700 other dockworkers at the Dubai Ports Authority were recently laid off from their jobs. No warning. No efforts to get them alternative employment. It all happened in one day.

ABDUL WAHAB: All of the sudden after the shift they came and gave them the paper that your job is finished. You can go back to your country. There is no time to think. All the camp is surrounded by the military, and there is no way to struggle or agitate. So they simply came back.

Abdul’s homecoming is bittersweet. He says tough times lie ahead in India. But his wife Neeza couldn’t be happier.

NEEZA: We only hope that he is back for good. Without him, it is sometimes a struggle to raise our two children, especially since I also must work.

Abdul, like many South Asian migrant workers, had looked on the Gulf countries as a gravy train. The oil boom of the 1970’s made them rich. The kinds of places that could finance huge construction projects.

BINOD KHADRIA: That triggered massive demand for overseas workers.

Binod Khadria, an economics professor, directs the international migration and diaspora studies project at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

KHADRIA: That was a golden opportunity for low-skilled and mid-level-skilled people to find highly paid jobs.

He says most of those workers came from India, and most of the Indians come from the southern state of Kerala, where one in six workers is employed overseas. But now that Dubai’s economy has been hit by the global downturn and construction projects are being abandoned or reconsidered, migrant workers are being shipped home by the planeloads.

KHADRIA: The psychology is on now that it’s coming to an end. They have that sense, but they also are hopeful that the gravy train can find other routes. Europe is opening up. East Asia is opening up.

Kerala’s economy is counting on it. Keralans working abroad sent home about $5 billion a year, boosting Kerala’s economy by nearly 25 percent.

Rafeek Ravuther is host of “Migrants’ World.” It’s a TV show about Indians working overseas. He says returning Indians complain that even in a rising India, the salaries are way too low. Some have had to take their children out of private schools. But Rafeek has noticed something else.

RAFEEK RAVUTHER: If they are coming back to Kerala, they will not do those kinds of jobs they did in Dubai, they will not do it in Kerala.

Not at Keralan rates at least. Rafeek says it’s also a pride thing. Any job in Dubai was seen as so prestigious that bachelors advertising for a wife would often add “works in Dubai.” But in the present climate, with jobs in the Desert Kingdom evaporating like mirages, potential brides may not be so impressed.

In Kochi, India, I’m Raymond Thibodeaux for Marketplace.

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