Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Chat with a Migrant Worker

Migrant workers have been a fixture in Kuwait for around 40 years now and comprise a substantial amount of the population here as well as in other Persian Gulf countries. Some notable statistics include that 2/3 of Kuwait’s population of 3 million and 80% of the UAE’s population of 4 million are non-citizens.

In the beginning of the development of the Persian Gulf countries, in which Kuwait took the lead early on, many of the needed workers were brought from other Arab countries, most prominently Egypt and Palestine, due to their ability to speak Arabic. But over the years, many foreign migrant workers came from the South Asian countries, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, and from the Philippines, and more recently Indonesia. These migrant workers come to the Persian Gulf with the hopes of more opportunity for work and higher salaries, a portion of which they send back to their families in their home countries as remittances. Thus, the economy of the Persian Gulf countries supports the economies of several countries with substantial remittance sending migrant populations in the Persian Gulf, notably Egypt and the Philippines.

But the promises made to migrant workers aren’t always as advertised. The hopes for better salaries and adequate working conditions are often betrayed. In a country as expensive to live in as Kuwait, the Bangladeshi servants in one public library for example, whose job it is to prepare tea for the librarians and keep the place clean, receive 30 KD or about a $100 a month, with housing and transportation to and from work already covered by the company sub-contracted to provide the servants by the government. Even if you added the cost of housing and transportation to their salary, it would not total more than 50 KD or $175.

Yesterday, when I went to the local shopping area in my neighborhood to print the surveys I am using to conduct my research, I had a nice chat with the migrant worker in the copy/print shop. He had a clean-cut appearance and was from Bangalore, India. He looked in his 20s, about 25. He told me he made 100 KD ($350) per month. He grumbled a bit about why the Kuwaiti owner paid him so little. He said Egyptians get paid more because they can read and type in Arabic, which makes sense.

But in a country where a decent apartment that another Fulbright Scholar is renting for 325 KD per month, more than 3 times his salary, I asked him how he gets by on just 100 KD. First he began by telling me that he sends 70 KD ($240) to his family back in India and lives off of 30 KD ($100). He helps to support his parents and two younger sisters and a younger brother. From his 30 KD he spends 13 KD ($45) for monthly accommodation and some meals in a flat shared by bachelors, with about 10 bachelors to a flat. That means he has about 15 KD ($50) left as disposable income per month. The remainder is probably used for mobile phone or international calling expenditures, clothes, and food.

He manages to get by on $50 a month of discretionary income for himself while more well off members of society here easily spend that kind of money on themselves for dinner. The wealth gap is flagrantly conspicuous, but an accepted aspect of the developing global economy.

Another interesting aspect of this migrant worker I met was his background. In the copy shop, recordings of Qur’anic chants were blaring from one of the computers. Seeing as he was the only one in the shop, I surmised it was he turned on the chanting and not an Arab Muslim co-worker. However, he looked more like a Hindu Indian. There are some noticeable differences in appearance that allow Indians to discriminate between Hindus and Muslims. As a result of my curiosity, I asked him if he was Muslim. He replied yes but with the clarification that he was a convert.

And so I inquired further: “Did you become a Muslim in Kuwait?” With his response being: “No, me and my family converted in India.” Followed by: “Alhamdulillah [Praise be to God] we found the right path.” I asked him his name which was the Arabic name Suleiman. His original name prior to his conversion was Mohan Krishna and very Hindu in type, and he was from Brahmin caste, the highest caste in the Hindu religion. Krishna was the prophet-founder of the Hindu religion. However, he said extended family relations with his Hindu family are good and that they are on speaking terms. He also said they didn’t convert, implying his family had already tried unsuccessfully before hand. When I asked about what kind of friends he had, he replied that he prefers friendship with Muslims over Hindus, which in addition to previous statements conclusively revealed his proud Muslim religiosity.

Although I had enjoyed speaking to him and learning a little bit about the life of South Asian migrant workers, I had to go off to Kuwait University and distribute my surveys. I’ll probably see him again when I go back to print more surveys. And although he may be paid minimally, he appears fine and well for the most part and I’m sure his family looks forward to his remittances.

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