Context: The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic distress has considerably impacted the South Asian Migrant workers in the Gulf region.


  • Stats:South Asians account for nearly 15 million in the Gulf. Indians constitute the largest chunk with men dominating the workforce.
  • Remittances:
    • According to the World Bank, in 2019, total remittances to South Asia was about $140 billion, of which India received $83.1 billion, 
    • Pakistan received $22.5 billion, Bangladesh received $18.3 billion and Nepal $8.1 billion.
  • Poor conditions of living:
    • The labourers form the backbone of the Gulf Economy but are provided with minimal or no social security benefits.
    • They are forced to live in deplorable conditions wherein multiple persons share a room so as to save money and remit it back to their homes.

Current Scenario:

  • The pandemic, the shutdown of companies, the tightening of borders, and the exploitative nature of the Kafala sponsorship system have given the workers a deadly blow and they are facing multiple problems due to it, namely -
    • Shortage of Food and other necessities
    • Salary Cuts and Retrenchment (Most prominent in construction sector)
    • Lack of access to medical services and medicines (Earlier Kerala Government was providing this but suspension of air travel halted the process)
    • No safety net, welfare mechanisms, or labour rights
  • The COVID-19 spike in these labour camps has mainly been due to overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions. 
    • However, as the COVID-19 crisis and response unfolded in the Gulf countries, the most neglected segment turned out to be the migrant women domestic workers, whose untold miseries have increased in the present volatile situation.
  • There is also a growing demand for nationalisation of labour in the gulf region owing to the economic distress which further got aggravated by falling oil prices.
    • Countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia have provided subsidies to private companies to prevent native lay-offs. 
    • However, the nationalisation process is not going to be smooth given the stigma attached to certain jobs and the influence of ‘royal sheikh culture’.
  • Owing to the above difficulties many have returned back to their homes in wake of getting the desired level of protection in these difficult times.

Steps Taken for the Workers:

  • Scenario in India:
    • The Indian Government has repatriated over 7 lakh NRIs from various destinations under the Vande Bharat mission and a similar move is followed by other south asian economies.
    • It has also announced the SWADES initiative that focuses on skill mapping of citizens returning from abroad.
    • The Kerala Government has announced Dream Kerala initiative to utilise the diverse skill sets of migrants.
    • The Kerala High Court in July directed the Government to set up a mechanism to assist workers in seeking compensation from their immigrant country.
      • The order was based on a petition filed by Lawyers Beyond Borders, an international network of legal experts.
  • Worldwide scenario:
    • Bangladesh has announced a special package for the resettlement of return migrants which includes money on arrival, money to launch self-employment projects, and compensation for the families of those who died abroad from COVID-19. 
    • The Overseas Employment Corporation in Pakistan has come out with special programmes to upgrade the skills of returnees.

Way Ahead:

  • The countries of origin are now faced with the challenge of rehabilitating, reintegrating, and resettling these migrant workers. 
  • The past three major crises in the Gulf – the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the global economic crisis, and Nitaqat in Saudi Arabia – had not triggered a massive return migration. 
  • The need of the hour is a comprehensive migration management system for countries that send workers as well as those that receive them. No South Asian country except Sri Lanka has an adequate migration policy. 
  • The pandemic has given us an opportunity to voice the rights of South Asian migrants and to bring the South Asia-Gulf migration corridor within the ambit of SAARC, the ILO, and UN conventions. 


Kafala System:

  • It is an exploitative system used to monitor migrant laborers, working primarily in the construction and domestic sectors in Gulf Cooperation Council member states and a few neighbouring countries, namely Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. 
  • The system requires all unskilled laborers to have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status. 
  • This practice has been criticised by human rights organizations for creating easy opportunities for the exploitation of workers, as many employers take away passports and abuse their workers with little chance of legal repercussion.


  • It is the newest policy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia implemented by its Ministry of Labor and Social Development, whereby Saudi companies and enterprises are required to fill up their workforce with Saudi nationals up to certain levels.
  • Announced in 2016, it is a key element of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.


Image Source: The Hindu