"I wanted to die in Oman so that I could prevent my family from facing an embarrassing situation"

Elections 2024
23 November, 2021

In Undocumented: Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf, the author Rejimon Kuttappan, a journalist and migrant-rights researcher, examines the lives of Indian migrants in West Asia via the stories of people from Kerala in Oman. The book probes questions surrounding human rights, exploitation, and marginalisation, political and legal issues and trafficking. This excerpt recounts the experiences of Appunni, who had migrated to Muscat from Kerala in 1993 with a valid passport, but had to live as an undocumented worker for over twenty years before returning with the help of an amnesty scheme announced by Oman. Upon returning home, he found that he was no longer welcome there since he had not made money. The author notes that “He now lives in a white Maruti 800, which he calls his ‘coffin.’”

After we exchanged greetings, I spotted a towel and a new Hamam soap, still in its wrapper, on the dashboard, while placing my backpack on the bonnet of Appunni’s car. I was surprised.

I asked Appunni why he was keeping a towel and a bath soap in the car. He said, “I don’t live at home, Reji. I sleep in this car, here. This white metal box is my home. And it will be my coffin, too,” he said.

It was worrying for me to hear that. Being in his hometown, he was not staying in his home?

Before asking him why, memories of Appunni talking to me when I first met him in Muscat came to mind. I met him for the first time on the shores of the Arabian Sea in Muscat in 2015. At that time, all he desperately wanted, was to go home.

He was wearing a white shirt with black stripes and torn, faded blue jeans. His sandals were old and didn’t have buckles. I could see that he was struggling to walk with them on the sand. But he was pretending that everything was fine. While walking, unexpectedly, he told me, “Reji, do you know what is on the other side of this sea? It is Kollam, my home, my sweet home. Some days, I come here in the evening and sit. On the other side, there is my home. I have even thought of swimming across this sea to my home.” He continued, “My daughter, her child, my loving wife, my boy … my small home ... it’s heaven ...”

Yes, he exhibited a desperate longing to go home. He had left his home when his daughter was ten years old. She got married off in 2005. He couldn’t go to his hometown even for her wedding. He had tried. He had landed in India, too. But he was taken back, forcefully.

And now, meeting him in his hometown, Appunni is telling me that he is not living in his home.

I finally asked him why. “Reji, I am an unwelcome guest in my own home. I stayed elsewhere for twenty-two years. It was not that I was absconding. I was earning whatever I could and remitting it home. They survived on my money. But when I came back with so much love and needing to be loved, they saw me as if I were an unwanted guest… so, I left.”

He paused, then said, “Reji, do you remember, I asked you for a visa after I returned. You probably thought that I just wanted to return to live in Oman? No, it was not that at all. I wanted to die in Oman so that I could prevent my family from facing an embarrassing situation. I am a shame for them, Reji.”

In Kerala, the first question anybody would ask a migrant worker who has come on leave would be “Eppo vannu, eppolaanu thirichu pokunnathu?”When did you come, when are you going back? If the answer had a date of return, then all would be happy. Even the near and dear ones. But if there was no date of return, then there would be long faces.

Even if a migrant worker said that he would go only after three months, it would raise eyebrows and prompt supplementary questions: “All well there? Your job is safe? Will you be able to stay back till then without a salary?”

However, what happened in Appunni’s case is different. Appunni himself has the answer. 

“Neighbours who had migrated to the Arab Gulf had built mansions and bought big cars. I couldn’t do anything. My house is the same. Some small renovations were done. That’s it. You know who can mint money in the Arab Gulf, right?” Appunni asked me.

Yes, in the Arab Gulf, a monthly wage earner will not earn much. However, those who do business, prosper. The kafala system helps businessmen to make a surplus profit by exploiting migrant workers. Additionally, even as the common man believes that Arab countries have strict criminal laws and punishments, on the ground, laws are flouted very easily. If you are a businessman with “good” connections, you can mint money.

And if you are involved in visa trading, human trafficking—of men and women workers—or the liquor business in the Arab Gulf, in a year or two, you can build a home worth crores in Kerala and drive a luxury car. After working as an irregular worker in Oman for some twenty-two years, Appunni was unable to earn anything substantial.

Appunni had gone to Oman in 1993 with high hopes. I asked, “When exactly did you go?” Appunni replied, “Reji, it was on 7 July 1993.” He was precise about the date of his arrival, but when I met him in Muscat, he had been uncertain about his return date.

Appunni was a driver; he got the job through his cousin brothers in an oil company in Oman.

He was not a direct employee of the petroleum company. He was employed by a single Arab employer who had a transporting contract with the petroleum company.

Like other Arab Gulf countries, Oman also practises the kafala system. Appunni had to hand over his passport to his Arab sponsor upon arrival, which eventually trapped him. The holding back of workers’ travel documents by employers is seen as an indication of forced labour by the International Labour Organisation Convention, 1930 (No. 29). 

Forced labour is “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily.”

This definition consists of three elements. The first one is work or service and refers to all types of work occurring in any activity, industry, or sector including in the informal economy. The second one is the menace of penalty, which refers to a wide range of penalties used to compel someone to work. And the third one is “offered voluntarily,” which refers to the free and informed consent of a worker to take a job and his or her freedom to leave at any time. In Appunni’s case, it was forced labour. Appunni was forced to hand over his passport to his sponsor, which restricted his freedom to travel.

The ILO says that migrant workers may be coerced into withholding their passports or identity documents. The employer may hold the workers’ identity documents for safekeeping. In such cases, the workers must have access at all times to the documents, and there should be no constraints on the ability of the worker to leave the enterprise.

This excerpt from Undocumented: Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf has been published with permission from Penguin Random House.

Rejimon Kuttappan is an independent journalist, migrant-rights researcher, and author of Rowing Between Rooftops (2019) and Undocumented: Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf (2021). He is also an ILO, Reuters, and NFI fellow on labour migration, modern-day slavery, and forced labour. He is also a consultant of ILO and ITUC.