Kuwait fire deaths put spotlight on plight of Indian workers in Middle East

Kuwait fire deaths put spotlight on plight of Indian workers in Middle East

The death of 41 Indian workers in a major fire in Kuwait has put a spotlight on the harsh living and working conditions of labourers migrating to Gulf countries in search of work even as the Narendra Modi government faces allegations of neglecting their health and safety.

The condition of "our workers in the Middle East is a serious matter of concern", Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi said while expressing shock over the tragedy.

Fellow Congress MP Shashi Tharoor called for legislation to “ensure decent conditions of work and security for our migrant workers”.

Indian migrant workers in the Gulf countries have long complained of hazardous, sometimes deadly, working conditions, long hours, unpaid wages, and cramped and unsanitary housing, said Human Rights Watch.

This was made evident by Wednesday’s tragedy as more than 200 workers were found to have been living in one six-storey building.

Apartments of the workers were separated by a highly inflammable material which quickly caught fire and spewed black clouds of smoke, Col Sayed Al-Mousawi, chief of investigations for Kuwait’s fire department, said.

Many of the victims suffocated to death while trying to run down the stairs, he said. They could not go out on the rooftop as the door was locked.

India has over 8.7 million workers in the six Gulf countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, employed mostly in blue-collar jobs.

As many as 33,998 Indians died in the region from January 2014 to October 2019, according to the country’s foreign ministry.

That is 16 deaths a day. Yet, India’s government seems to have made no serious attempt to study the cause or the scale of the problem.

An isolated study conducted by the Indian mission in UAE in 2019 found that about 59 per cent of the deaths of Indian workers there were caused by cardiac arrest. Most of the victims were fairly young.

Of the 131 workers who died of heart attacks in Abu Dhabi, 57 were in the 20-40 age group, 14 in the 20-30 group and 43 in the 30-40 group, reported Gulf News. Another 35 were 40-50 years old and 20 were 50-60 years old.

In all, 182 Indians died in the first six months of 2019 in Abu Dhabi alone.

“Out of concern we decided to study the number of natural deaths caused by heart attacks as there have been many young people dying of heart attacks of late,” a senior Indian diplomat told Gulf News at the time.

The study found, unsurprisingly, that the majority of the heart attack victims were blue-collar workers. “Out of 182 deaths, they were 126. In the case of 131 heart attack deaths, they were 90,” the diplomat said.

The reason for the high incidence of cardiac arrest among young Indian workers in the region remains unclear.

Complaints of Indian workers suffering at the ends of their employers are legion.

Between 2019 and 30 June 2023, the foreign ministry received 48,095 complaints of abuse filed by workers with Indian embassies in the six Gulf countries. Kuwait led with 23,020 complaints, followed by Saudi Arabia with 9,346.

They complained mostly about non-payment of wages, denial of labour rights and benefits, denial of residence permits or their renewal, denial of weekly allowances, overtime or weekly holidays, and forced long hours.

The abuse of labour rights was most rampant during Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 FIFA world cup.

Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers had been under scrutiny ever since the small but wealthy country surprisingly won the right to host the football World Cup in 2010 and yet more than 6,500 workers from Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka died in that time, The Guardian reported in 2021.

The most common cause was recorded as “natural death” attributed to heart or respiratory failure, suggesting they were not work-related. Studies have linked extreme summer heat to cardiac arrest.