P Satyanarayana died of cardiac arrest in Saudi Arabia on March 14. One among the thousands of foreign workers to lose their jobs because of the economic crisis in the Gulf country brought on by falling oil prices, the 49-year-old from Telangana had stayed back for close to two years to fight a legal battle for 14 months’ worth of pending wages and end-of-service benefits that totalled 20,000 Saudi riyals or Rs 3.4 lakhs.

“We told him several times to forget about the pending salary and come back, but he was not ready to do so,” said his son, Shivakumar Satyanarayana. “Moreover, his travel documents were under custody of the court as he had filed a case for pending salary and benefits. Now, finally what has happened? He has left this world leaving us alone.”

Satyanarayana is not the only Indian worker to die under such circumstances in Saudi Arabia. On February 21, his 55-year-old colleague Jaswinder Singh, from Kapurthala district in Punjab, had died, also while waiting to receive compensation worth 36,000 Saudi riyals, or approximately Rs 6.5 lakhs, said another co-worker, Akbar Ali.

Both Satyanarayana and Singh had worked for the same construction company for 23 years. The two – along with numerous Indian, Nepalese and Pakistani nationals – had not been paid for over a year. Struggling to survive since mid-2015, their situation had worsened at the beginning of 2016 when their company had finally shut down.

Jaswinder Singh and P Satyanarayana worked at the same construction company for 23 years.
Jaswinder Singh and P Satyanarayana worked at the same construction company for 23 years.

“After the company ended its operations due to lack of funds and fresh projects, we were on the streets for 20 days,” Ali recalled. “Many left the country forgetting the pending salary. But we didn’t. It is our hard-earned money. It is not easy to just forget it.”

Ali, too, is waiting to get 40,000 Saudi riyals (Rs 7 lakhs) in compensation.

Soon after losing employment, the iqama (residence permit) of the two deceased workers also expired. Subsequently, they lost their medical insurance. Their passports were being held by a sponsor and they only possessed documents issued by the Indian embassy that stated the reason for their lack of original papers.

With the bodies of both Satyanarayana and Singh still in Saudi Arabia, their colleagues and social workers are making arrangements to repatriate them.

The workers who have chosen to stay back have been provided accommodation by the Saudi government. Most of them have worked in that country for over 20 years and are now in their 50s, said Umesh Chouhan, who is owed seven months’ worth of salary. “Many don’t have money, proper food and accommodation,” he said. “Moreover, uncertainty about the future is putting everyone under tremendous pressure. As we don’t possess a valid residence card, we ignore going to hospitals when we fall sick and worsen our health conditions.”

Family in crisis

It was for these reasons, perhaps, that Satyanarayana’s family wanted him to return home, even if it meant giving up on his wages. “We know that it is not a small amount, but his resident status had expired some 10 months back itself and since then, we were telling him to come back,” his son Shivakumar Satyanarayana, who is pursuing a BTech degree, told Scroll.in. “We could have found some other job. Now his body is coming.”

Satyanarayana had moved to Saudi Arabia 23 years ago as a blue collar worker in the construction sector, and had recently been promoted to foreman. He had visited his family in India about two years ago. “He was optimistic that he would win the case and get his dues cleared,” his son said.

The family has struggled as a result of Satyanarayana’s financial troubles. “We were surviving on loans for the last few months,” Shivakumar Satyanarayana said. “Now, my studies are also hanging in uncertainty. I have to take care of my mother and younger brother. I don’t think I will be able to continue my studies.”

P Satyanarayana and his wife. He last visited his family two years ago.
P Satyanarayana and his wife. He last visited his family two years ago.

Oil crisis and Indian workers

Falling oil prices have hit Saudi Arabia’s economy hard, forcing its government to control expenses, which in turn has resulted in companies struggling with poor cash flow.

Since mid-2016, thousands of workers from Asian countries have been laid off. According to social workers such as Latheefh Techhy, there are over 10,000 Indian workers stranded in the country’s various cities.

“After the Indian government’s intervention, a few returned by giving power of attorney to the Indian embassy to claim the pending salary when the cases are completed, but a few like Satyanarayana stayed back,” said Techhy.

In August, Indian embassy officials had to arrange food for at least 3,000 starving Indian workers in various camps as they were left to fend for themselves by their companies, which had gone bust.

Bheem Reddy, president of the Coalition of Overseas Telengana Associations, said those who returned were relatively new to Saudi Arabia and could make peace with giving up their pending wages. “But for people like Satyanarayana, it is quite difficult to do so,” Reddy said. “They are the sole breadwinners for their families. How can they just give up their hard-earned money and come back?”

Reddy said he feared there would be more cases such as that of Satyanarayana and Singh. “Such cases may happen again as many are under tremendous pressure without money and other facilities,” he said. “Many are aged too. Grievance redressal will take a long time in Gulf countries. I am afraid.”

Sub-continent competition

For the multitudes of Indians who travel abroad for work, the Gulf countries are a popular choice. On the other hand, in Saudi Arabia, Indian workers are losing appeal and their place is being taken by workers from Pakistan and Bangladesh. So says a study, titled “Pakistan, Bangladesh’s Surgical Strike on India’s GDP”, by Asif Nawaz of Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. The study reveals that India’s lengthy official recruitment procedure and high minimum wage is forcing Saudi Arabia to look to migrant workers from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

According to data from eMigrate, the Indian government’s official recruitment channel, while 7.8 lakh Indians migrated to 18 Emigration Clearance Required countries, such as Saudi Arabia, in 2015, the number came down to 5.2 lakhs in 2016 – a 34% drop.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, while 3 lakh Indians migrated officially in 2015, the number dropped 47% to 1.65 lakhs the following year.

“If we analyse the emigration data from Bangladesh and Pakistan, we can find the number of workers from both these countries are going up,” Nawaz said.

The study also claims that the loss of jobs in the Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia, will lead to a drop of at least Rs 500 crores in remittances (money sent by foreign workers to their home countries) per month.

“In 2016, we were short of 251,388 jobs in comparison with 2015 as far as the Gulf region is concerned,” Nawaz said. “It is an open secret that each Indian worker manages to send back home around Rs 20,000 per month from the Gulf countries. If we multiply this amount with all the jobs we lost last year it would be more than Rs 500 crores per month, and if we multiply that with 12 months, it would be more than Rs 6,000 crores per annum.”

Calculations reveal that remittances, which contribute 4% to India’s gross domestic product, will be hit badly. According to World Bank statistics, in 2016, India is set to witness the biggest drop in remittances over the last decade because of economic conditions in the Gulf as a result of the lowering of oil prices. India receives the world’s largest share of remittances, according to the Migration and Remittances Factbook 2016, with its workers sending back $72 billion in 2015.