A report in The Times Of India on 22 November claims 33,988 Indians have died in the Arab States of the Gulf in the past five years. The article further says an average of 15 Indian nationals die every day in the six GCC countries. A majority in Saudi Arabia.

This being so, what of the thousands of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who have perished on construction sites in these countries? Or of the Nepalese, 1,400 of whom  are estimated to have died building football stadiums in Qatar, host of the 2022 FIFA world cup.

But the scandal of migrant labor in the Arab States is nothing new. It has been an occurrence since oil exports began in earnest in the 1970s.

Following Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, newly amalgamated sheikhdoms in the UAE such as Abu Dhabi and Dubai, as well as Qatar, needed unskilled labour to construct their new empires.

So began the trafficking of migrants, their passage organized by unscrupulous agents who cared nought for their welfare.

Baluch labourers laying  cables Abu Dhabi, 1975

Industrialising countries have always depended on migrant labour to perform menial work  — the Irish in England, the Turks in Germany, the Italians in Australia, but the harsh conditions and callous treatment by Arab employers equates with nothing less than economic slavery.

According to the Times, the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi has so far this year received 15,000 complaints from Indian nationals mainly involving  cheating agents and harsh conditions.

The most common grievances  relate to withholding salaries and the denial of legitimate labour rights.  Kuwait for instance will never announce the temperature exceeds 50c because this is when outdoor work can legally stop.

Passports are taken by employers so that even when a contract is finished, but the job is not complete means that many  migrants cannot return home. And no overtime or sick leave is ever afforded them.

Tourists visiting  popular states such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi may notice that the thousands of South Asians on the streets easily outnumber locals. It is a joke that you can visit one of these Gulf States and never see an Arab.

Baluch migrant workers Abu Dhabi 1975

Every migrant who sets off with the dream of earning enough to buy a bride, a shop, or a little farm,  has no concept of the terrible conditions awaiting them.

The Times cites the deaths of 4,823 Indians this year. But what of the potential workers who never reached the land of opportunity?

In the early days of trafficking,  many a dhow carrying migrants from Karachi or Bombay grounded on off-shore sandbanks when they were told to get off and walk. Only to drown before reaching land.

Who knows how many never made it and until now, the accidental deaths and suicides of other than Indian nationals  remains unknown.


Christine Osborne

Author The Gulf States and Oman:

Croom Helm 1977

Taylor Francis: 2nd reprint 2018.