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Indian workers return to Gulf in their droves

There is renewed demand for blue and white collar workers in the Gulf
  • Skilled and unskilled workers returning to Gulf after pandemic
  • UAE hosts largest concentration of Indian nationals outside of India 

The demand for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled Indian workers has increased “drastically” as a rebound in Gulf economic growth signals the end of the coronavirus-induced reverse migration of workers from the region.

An increase of nearly 50 percent in fresh migration to the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members – including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman – has been recorded in the first seven months of this year, compared to the whole of 2021, according to statistics presented to India’s parliament.

V Muraleedharan, minister of state for external affairs, told the Lok Sabha, the Indian Lower House of Parliament, that a total of 189,206 emigration clearances were issued for the Gulf between January and July, compared with 132,763 emigration clearances for all of the previous year.

“Economic recovery in the Gulf region and their increasing openness to travel from India has now seen a return by many Indian workers,” Muraleedharan said in a statement. 

“Because of the pandemic 2020 was the worst year for migration to the Gulf.

“Only 94,145 emigration clearances were issued during that year. It worked out to be about half the number of clearances so far this year.”

Max Sims, business development manager at manpower agency Alliance Recruitment, said that after the pandemic demand from the Gulf countries for skilled and unskilled workers “has drastically increased”.

“We have been receiving many enquiries for workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, from Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular, across all industries,” Sims said.

“Junior level workers are in huge demand – cleaners, drivers, maids and construction workers, including engineers, masons and carpenters. The demand is urgent.”

In the aftermath of the virus 716,662 workers returned from six Gulf nations, of which many have now managed to return, external affairs minister Dr. S Jaishankar said in parliament in February.

More than 300,000 returned from the UAE and 137,000 from Saudi Arabia.

David Robinson, health, safety and environment director at Dubai-headquartered construction firm ASGC, said the industry faced several challenges during the pandemic.

Issues such as delays in the release of planned projects, material and equipment shortages, and health concerns, hindered work on many projects. With constructions schedules returning to normal, this means demand for workers has also increased.

“We are seeing a great keenness of former workers willing to return, as well as new ones interested in joining our company, and this is helping us with ongoing projects, and bolstering our confidence in winning and delivering new ones.

“Overall, I would say, this is great news for Gulf nations, with so much expansion in construction planned, the infrastructure to support this return of workforce numbers is already in place from previous years, when numbers of former expat workers were much higher, so, I see no issues in their return,” Robinson said.

Indian nurses recruited in Saudi Arabia

Attracting new skills

Emigration clearance is required from the Indian government for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers, as well as certain professionals such as nurses, for taking up employment in 18 countries, including the GCC.

Such clearance is not required for Indians who are educated above school grade 10, unless their profession is notified by the Protector of Emigrants.

Indians who have already worked abroad for three years, income tax payers, and some other categories of Indians, also do not need emigration clearance prior to travel.

“One of the key challenges is to get skill sets back,” Rizwan Sajan, chairman and founder of Dubai-headquartered building materials, home décor and real estate development conglomerate Danube Group, told AGBI. 

“Most businesses in the GCC rely on skilled professionals from South Asia, especially India.

“They are sincere, hard-working, focused, more productive and less expensive compared to those from other countries.

“Their ability to communicate in English, both written and verbal, as well as [their] ability to solve problems make them the best human assets for businesses.”

Sajan added that the increase in business activity, due to a higher-than-expected growth in the UAE’s gross domestic product (GDP), point to a robust trajectory in the UAE economy that will require “massive employment” in various sectors.

“This is the reversal of economic activity compared to 2020, when businesses had to downsize and let go of people due to Covid-19,” he said. “Most businesses are in recovery mode and thus will need efficient and skilled people.

“Some companies are hiring back the skilled professionals that they had to lay off in 2020 and many of those professionals might come back to join their previous companies.”

More senior level roles are being filled from the Indian talent pools

Sajan said that Danube – a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate spread across 50 locations in ten countries and employing more than 3,600 people – did not fire staff during the pandemic and is continuing to hire due to business growth. 

“Getting the right skills is a key issue for all of us,” he said. 

Zurich-based Michael Bolliger, chief investment officer for emerging markets at UBS Global Wealth Management, forecast the UAE’s economy will grow by over five percent in 2022.

Bollinger told state news agency WAM that the UAE’s economy grew by 3.8 percent in 2021 and that all indexes, including the Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) and Business Confidence Index (BCI), showed that the growth of the non-oil sector is still robust after a good start to the year, as the country’s GDP grew by 8.2 percent in the first quarter of 2022, while oil-related GDP grew by 13 percent, in line with relevant OPEC+ agreements.

The GCC economies will grow by 6.4 percent in 2022 and 3.4 percent in 2023, he said.

Sarah Brooks, managing director at Fikrah HR, said that companies are also beginning to hire more talent from India for senior roles that would previously have been earmarked for Indian UAE residents or Western nationals.

“There’s a higher propensity now for companies to hire for senior level roles – junior management and above – from external Indian talent pools, as opposed to homegrown Indian talent who may have started on a junior level and grown in their careers to become a director or CFO or CEO,” Brooks said.

“I think there is now a leaning towards being able to hire from that pool because of the improvements and accessibility to education, along with tangible business experience in that region. 

“I also believe it comes down to a cost crunch from a payroll perspective, where companies want someone with a particular educational background and experience and expertise.

“They may have previously recruited from other countries like the US, UK, Europe and Australia for example. They’re now saying we want that level of skill and expertise, but we’re not prepared to pay that high salary anymore.”

Hospitality staff are required by the Gulf’s hotels

Technology roles

Vikram Ahuja, co-founder of digital recruitment firm Talent500 by ANSR, said the expansion of Middle Eastern companies into India, as well as more Indian tech startups setting up a base in the UAE, is also playing a role in driving more Indian workers to the region.  

“Highly skilled Indian talent has found its way into the UAE because the market has been building at such a rapid pace,” Ahuja said. 

“The highly skilled talent in India who previously favoured Western markets has started to recognise the UAE as a viable market.

“For a lot of Indian professionals who would look to move to the US or Canada or the UK as preferred locations, these countries have lost their sheen a little bit, particularly with what’s happened over the last couple of years with the pandemic.

“Indian professionals will be open to moving the UAE because it’s close to home, tax efficient, has a great quality of life, is safe and secure, and offers good earning potential.” 

Ahuja added that the UAE government announcement to grant golden visas to 100,000 coders has also drawn more Indian talent.

“Easily about 50 percent of applicants would have been Indian and many of them would have got it,” he said.

“There is also already a whole legacy of successful Indian entrepreneurs in the UAE and they’re likely looking and thinking ‘if they can make it, so can I’.”

The UAE hosts the largest concentration of Indian nationals outside of India. Indians make up 3.42 million of the total population of nearly 10 million, of which more than 65 percent belong to the blue-collar category.

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