Deathly Subsistence

The invisible migrant workers dying of “natural causes” in the Arab Gulf

31 March 2020
An expatriate construction worker takes a break near a building site in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. The nations of the Arab Gulf prohibit manual labour in unshaded locations in the summer months, usually for a few hours between 11 am and 4 pm from June to August each year.
Chris Jackson/Getty Images
An expatriate construction worker takes a break near a building site in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. The nations of the Arab Gulf prohibit manual labour in unshaded locations in the summer months, usually for a few hours between 11 am and 4 pm from June to August each year.
Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Devendher Kasholla was set to return home in three weeks, to celebrate his older brother’s wedding. A native of Rampur, in the Nizamabad district of Telangana, Devendher had worked variously as a carpenter, mason and steel fixer at a labour-supply company in Saudi Arabia, since 2013. The earnings Devendher sent home, his mother, Rukmini Kasholla, used to build a new brick and cement home. He lived in a private dormitory that he shared with three other workers in the city of Dammam. Pradeep, Devendher’s roommate, described him as a hard-working and principled person.

On 9 March 2017, sometime just after midnight, Devendher gasped loudly in his sleep, raised one of his hands in the air and dropped back on his metal bed. He was declared dead by 1.40 am that morning, about an hour after he had been rushed to the Arawdha General Hospital. The death certificate said, “collapse of the heart and respiratory system due to hidden causes.” In medical terminology this means his heart had stopped beating but it was unclear to the doctor why. Devendher was 26 years old.

When I spoke to Rukmini in October last year, she sat through the entire interview with a photograph in her hand. The image was of her son posing in front of a white mini-van. It was the most recent photograph she had of him. Like countless Indian migrant labourers who move to other countries in the hope of a better livelihood, Devendher’s family had scraped together Rs 2,50,000 to send him to Saudi Arabia. His father had passed away a decade ago from a stroke and his brother worked as a daily-wage labourer in Hyderabad. Once in Saudi Arabia, Devendher worked twelve hours a day for six days a week, from 7 am to 7 pm, and was paid 12 riyals an hour—roughly Rs 240 as per today’s currency exchange rate. He made approximately 2000 riyals a month after rent, food and other expenses. Rukmini would tell me that to deal with the time difference, she stayed up until 11 pm each night to speak to Devendher who used to return to his dorm around 8.30 pm. “He never complained about his health or of any illness,” Rukmini told me, “He would have told me if he was suffering from something.”

As per government records, Devendher was one among 33,930 Indians who passed away between January 2014 and October 2019—a rate of roughly sixteen deaths each day—in the Arab Gulf, a group of nations including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Data collated from various sources such as right to information applications, questions from Lok Sabha proceedings, websites and relevant departments in embassies, press releases and media investigations, show that a majority of deaths in the region were caused by cardiac arrests and related causes. For instance, in 2018, 59 percent of Indian deaths in the UAE were due to heart attacks.

The Indian government, however, appears to have no idea how seemingly healthy young and middle-aged workers were dying from heart and respiratory failures in the Gulf. Despite ministers declaring in Parliament that most deaths in the Gulf occur due to “natural causes,” the ministry of external affairs and Indian embassies in each of the Gulf countries had not conducted any research or investigations into the deaths of Indian nationals abroad. In the overwhelming majority of cases of workers who die from cardiac complications, autopsies are never performed to determine what caused their death.

Nikhil Eapen is a freelance journalist and a researcher at Equidem, a labour-rights organisation.

Keywords: migrant workers Gulf countries ministry of external affairs
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