Nandankari Padma, 30, is a mother of three who lives in Telangana. Her husband, Nandarkar Bhanuchander, was a driver in Saudi Arabia. He earned around ₹19,000 a month and remitted around ₹10,000 home. Padma ran her household with that. Then, in August 2020, Bhanuchander died of COVID-19 in Saudi Arabia.
Padma, forced to fend for herself and her children — all under 10 — became a daily labourer. “I started to work in a nearby paddy field. We have to live,” she said. She earns around ₹200 a day but gets work for only 10-20 days a month. “I don’t know what to do. We didn’t get any compensation from the company in the Gulf my husband worked for. After he died, even his body didn’t come home,” said Padma.
As of December 31, 2020, the pandemic had claimed 2,072 Indian lives on foreign soil, according to statistics from the Ministry of External Affairs, provided in response to a question in the Rajya Sabha. Of these, 1,892 died in the six Arabian Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and Kuwait, which together have around 89 lakh Indians in residence. The highest death toll, of 906 people, was in Saudi Arabia, followed by 375 in the U.A.E., 369 in Kuwait, 66 in Oman, 48 in Bahrain and 34 in Qatar. And now, the WHO says both cases and deaths are on an upward trajectory in the region.
Sr. Josephine Valarmathi of the National Domestic Workers Movement in Tamil Nadu said, “I know at least two dozen families in Tamil Nadu who have lost relatives in the Gulf due to the pandemic, but nobody has got any compensation. None of these families has any insurance cover either.”
Rexy Beuatlin R., 21, and her brother Adlin Rahul R., 19, live in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district. They lost their father, Raja Kumar Thankappan, in May 2020 . He died of COVID-19 while working as a mason in the U.A.E. He had paid ₹72,000 to a recruiting agent to get the job, and had taken a ₹3 lakh loan to pay for Rexy and Adlin’s education. The two siblings, whose mother died in an accident eight years ago, have to repay the loans. “My brother has dropped out of school and is working in a restaurant. The loans are scaring us,” said Rexy.
Holes in the scheme
The Indian government has an insurance scheme, Pravasi Bharatiya Bima Yojana (PBBY), for Indians who migrate to foreign countries for work. However, the scheme is mandatory only for those who come under the Emigration Check Required (ECR) category. As people with educational qualifications of Class 10 and above are eligible for non-ECR passports — except for some professions such as nursing, which require emigration clearance irrespective of educational qualification — PBBY in effect does not become mandatory for all migrants, even if they are going to an ECR country. The PBBY was launched in 2003 and amended in 2006, 2008, and 2017, with the overarching objective of strengthening the coverage of migrant workers. The premium is ₹275 for two years or ₹375 for three years.
Presently, the scheme provides insurance cover of ₹10 lakh in case of accidental death or permanent disability. However, as deaths caused by a pandemic like COVID-19 don’t fall under either of these categories, they are not covered by the scheme.
Expanding the net
Bheem Reddy Mandha, migrant rights activist and president of the Telangana-based Emigrants Welfare Forum, is advocating for PBBY to be revised so that it covers all Indian migrant workers abroad, regardless of their ECR/ ECNR status. “I understand that companies in the Gulf are struggling financially due to the pandemic. Providing health insurance is difficult, but if the government revises PBBY, it could be helpful,” he said.
Government statistics show that there are around 90 lakh Indians working in the six GCC countries plus Jordan and Lebanon, of whom around 90% are low-paid migrant workers. “Such workers are always at a disadvantage when it comes to access to healthcare and other basic rights. We need to revise the PBBY scheme,” said Mandha.
Philip K. Philip heads a group insurance company in the Gulf. He pointed out that if PBBY is enhanced by increasing the premium slightly, the policy could cover death or disability due to other causes, including disease. “The number of migrant workers is huge, and the insurance market would be very much interested in bundling the life policy along with a medical expenses policy at a premium,” he said.
Globally, some 50 countries are already seeing COVID-19 as an occupational disease and are providing insurance cover for workers, according to a note prepared by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in February 2021. A few, like Switzerland, classify it as an occupational disease primarily for healthcare workers, while others like Argentina extend this to all essential workers. Some countries including Canada, the U.K. and India — under Section 3 of the Employees’ Compensation Act, 1923 — classify it as an occupational disease on a case-by-case basis. Unfortunately, the Gulf countries are missing from the ILO note.
According to the ILO, infection by COVID-19, if contracted as a result of work, can be considered a work or employment injury. The ILO says such injuries come under the scope of the Employment Injury Benefits Convention, 1964, and the Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1952. This would entitle workers in such cases to healthcare and, to the extent that they are incapacitated for work, cash benefits or compensation.
Replying to an emailed query, Thiruvananthapuram MP and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said he agreed with the idea of expanding the insurance cover. “Insurance schemes for migrant workers should always cover illnesses and not just accidents. The government can certainly do so, but it would have financial implications,” he said, adding that he would raise the issue in Parliament.
Suresh S., 38, an oil rig worker in Kuwait, said it would be a blessing for many migrant workers if the government expanded PBBY or rolled out some sort of insurance package covering pandemic outbreaks. “My roommate died of COVID-19 in Kuwait in July 2020. He was just 43. He has a wife and two schoolgoing children. I know the family is struggling. There are many like him. It is high time the Indian government thinks of providing an insurance scheme that covers sickness too,” he said.
The writer is a migrant rights researcher and independent journalist.