Guest post by ALIA ALLANA
For the Pilipino there was no escaping the Indian song and dance.
A tube-light flickered as loud music blared from a room at the far end of the corridor. The flickering light and the ensuing cacophony gave the corridor in Sonapur Labour Camp a surreal discotheque feel: one that the Pilipino was no longer game to. Nearer the door, voices of men dipped low and then travelled high past the room in which the tired labourer from Cebu lived.
“Oru Kili Iru Kili,” they bellowed in Malayalam and the tune filtered through the flimsy plywood door. The tired looking Pilipino pulled a face as he described the scene he had once encountered when the door was left ajar. The “party” room was clouded over with smoke and six Indian labourers from Kerala lounged cross-legged in a circle, smoking cigarettes and drinking from steel cups, writhing their bodies and shaking their hands up in the air. A bottle with no label was passed around and the brouhaha escalated to a feverish pitch. Once again the merry men burst out, “Oru Killi Iru Killi”.
The Pilipino could nail down the month – November 2011 – the merriment had commenced and despite a brief interlude it had picked up again. Though he had been alienated from the party, the Pilipino knew the cause for celebration: the depreciating rupee.
Ever since the rupee’s downward spiral began in November of last year, workers who came to Dubai, lured by the prospect of earning better wages than at home, find themselves with a bit of extra cash to spare. “It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before,” says Junaid Ansari at Al Ansari Remittance Services, “No one expected the fall of the rupee to be so sudden and so steep.” The minimum salary at the labour camps is 1,000 dirham or around 14,000 Indian rupees (at current exchange rates) and goes up to 1,500 dirham or 20,000 Indian rupees. The income is not taxed and it does not include expenses toward food, transport and accommodation, which are provided separately.
The Pilipino was far from impressed. He felt guilty about joining the celebration the first time it took place, when he had to let loose and dance to the tune. He recounted the tale: The patron of the party had come running out of the corridor, his arms flailing, his speech incoherent. He had grabbed the Pilipino by the shoulders, hugged him and given him a sip of a bitingly toxic alcoholic drink. It was also then that the news of the singing and the dancing had quietly spread, when young Indian labourers started venturing out of their rooms into each other’s, initiating a new strand of camaraderie.
“They stay up more these days than ever before,” said the Pilipino and the cause he said was a “whiny white radio”. The labourers had pooled their unaccounted for money and had purchases the radio. At first the volume was under control but since the Indians were a majority and the depreciating value had made the expatriates better off, the volume kept rising until it reached the current pitch.
“Oru Kili Iru Kili,” they bellowed each time the value of the rupee tumbled, each time one dirham brought a small increase, said the Pilipino, who could now hum the melody of the tune.
But life as a laborer is no walk in the park. News of a party results in a rebuke from the employer. Thus the door to the “party room” is always under lock and key, explained the Pilipino. The Indian laborers had lady luck on their side, and the party is expected to get wilder in the next couple of days.
“It’s always wildest after they’ve sent money at the end of the month. I wish the same fate upon the Philippines treasury,” he said. Mr. Ansari confirmed that business was better as greater remittances were making their way through his office. According to World Bank estimates, $6 billion of 2010’s remittances to India were from the UAE and he is certain that the figure will be higher this year if the rupee continues to behave in this manner.
The patron of the party, 28-year-old Mustafa Amir, answered the door after several attempts at contacting him. When he finally appeared in a crisp, new sky-blue shirt and grey pants with high buoyant spirits, he said he couldn’t wait for his cheque to arrive. He prayed that the rupee would continue to underperform. He thanked the Indian establishment for “getting it wrong”. With no children back home, he continued to send the amount he always did, keeping the remainder for him “to enjoy”.
Life had changed for him and the others he mingled with. Dubai was a better place to be in now, he said. The horror tales of Indian labour in Sonapur – decrepit and overcrowded rooms with inadequate living conditions – are increasingly tales of the past. The buildings have been modified, functioning ACs now hum in each room and the maximum capacity has been set at a comfortable four per room. And with the depreciation of the rupee, life looks rosier. Money, like life has it’s ups and downs says Mr. Amir philosophically.
(Amongst other things, Alia Allana is a student of Malayalam.)