Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Kerala and Gulf Money
One thing that has surprised me on my visit to Kerala is that this is the community that all those Indians I met (and photographed) in Dubai are from. It feels like a lovely completion of a journey, because when I was in Dubai and meeting so many Indians, I got my first pull thinking that I had to visit India. Although most of my family members have been to India multiple times and have always sung its praises, it wasn't until I met those men that I really wanted to visit. Their sweet soft spirits brought the country to life in a place where I was expecting to meet Arabs.
Of course, I had sort of forgotten this reason to come here. Once India had been added to my travel list I forgotten why until I sat by Sonia and Binoy on my flight to Kerala. Binoy was talking about the time he had spent working in Saudi Arabia and what a great place it was to work. Suddenly things began to click together. Later when I hitched a ride with his two friends who had also worked in Saudi Arabia, I was beginning to see a theme. Then I arrived in Varkala Beach, a heavily Muslim community that sends many of its men to the Gulf to work and it really sunk in. This was the same community those Dubai men were from. I began to have move conversations with the local people there and got their opinions about those Gulf jobs opportunities and it was clear that they saw them very differently than I had after my trip there.
After going to Dubai I began to pay more attention to some of the workers rights issues playing out there. My eyes had been opened while watching the film Syriana and seeing two Gulf workers turn into suicide bombers after the devastating conditions they faced there. From the West's perspective workers are brought in and treated like slaves for virtually no wages. They are forced to work long hours doing construction and other tough jobs. They live in horrible conditions in the hot desert, are given no water. Their passports are taken from them until they pay back the initial expenses for travel and visas which often can be very very high. They have little recourse because there are many many workers who would love to take their place the moment they complain or don't show up to work because of illness or exhaustion. And in Dubai at least, although there are some laws to protect workers there are only a handful of inspectors to cover many many work sites.
But now I am forced to see the other side of this story. Although it is clear there are many cases of bad treatment, what Human Rights Watch says are extremely low wages of between $105-$250 a month are 3 to 8 times what an Indian can earn in their country. In their eyes these jobs are the road to new found wealth. They can give them a leg up. The work might be hard, but so is subsistence fishing in the over fished coasts of Kerala and with these jobs the rewards are much higher.
After 5-10 years of hard work they can come home to the new HUGE house they have paid for with their wages. (And I mean HUGE. They make US McMansions look small.) An Indian holds his wealth in his house and these people are putting every dime they have into houses. (Sometimes they don't even have money to buy furniture and often run out of money to pay the property taxes. But that is a whole other story!)
Here there are stores called Gulf Trading Stores that sell electronics and other goods that Indians regular salaries here would never be able to afford.
Why Keralites vs Indians from other areas - you might be asking? There are many people in India that would love to have these jobs but Keralites have had a leg up, because of their higher education rate (literacy in Kerala is almost 100%) as well as the fact that a higher percentage of Keralites are muslim. Thirty years ago when the Gulf building boom began Keralites were there to take the jobs since their communities already had a tradition of leaving India to seek their fortunes. In the last 10 years Indians from other regions have begun to join them.
The reason this means so much to me is it connects two distinct impressions of two totally different trips and shows vastly different perspectives to the same issue.
The me who had only seen it in Dubai and in Syriana saw slave labor and felt pain in their struggle. I watched some Afghans who we befriended on the plane get shuffled at the airport into a world that seemed detestable. Now the me who has met so many Keralan Gulf guest workers sees economic steps on the ladder. I see that what is a terrible job to one person is an opportunity to another. I see that Gulf development is lifting India's tides too. I see yet another global connection that shows that there are many steps on the economic ladder and immigration plays a large part in world economic development.
While the West should keep fighting for job protections, I hope it is done with the understanding that India needs and wants these jobs and they don't want the Western world to shut down the flow of workers because of excess criticism and regulation. (I'm still working out this part of my thoughts. Its hard to put both pieces together in a sane way. Its not like I want worker abuse. Apparently one group of Keralite workers was shipped to Iraq to work for contractors there, maybe not what they had signed up for??)
Posted by Cordelia