THIRUVANANTHPURAM: Hundreds of nurses from Kerala caught up in Yemen’s civil war face a stark choice between returning home to financial ruin or taking a chance by staying on in more lucrative jobs that allow them to pay off their debts.
The government is trying to get around 4,000 nationals, more than half of them nurses, out of Yemen, where Shi’ite Houthi fighters have swept into the southern port city of Aden despite an air campaign led by Saudi Arabia to check their advance.
The medics’ predicament highlights the dilemma facing Indian health workers, many from poor families who borrow heavily to educate their children and then send them abroad to earn the money back.
The debts are sometimes owed to middlemen who charge exorbitant fees to place Indians in jobs abroad, and the government has moved to crack down on the practice by banning foreign recruitment by private companies nationwide.
“For now I’m staying,” Indian male nurse Meljo Joy said by telephone from the Al-Naqib Hospital in Aden.He chose not to board an Indian naval vessel that evacuated 349 people on Tuesday from the city, preferring to take a chance despite the fighting.
“In New Delhi, a famous hospital will give a maximum of $400 (a month) as salary,” Joy, 27, said. “But accommodation and food is very expensive. “It (Yemen) is good for me, because I get to save and keep my salary in the bank.”
Lacking experience to work in a more prestigious location, Joy paid $2,000 or nearly a lakh to a recruitment agent to land a job in Yemen. He earns $600 a month, gets free accommodation and sends money to his family to pay off a tuition loan.
As well as those taken from Aden, India has airlifted 80 people from the capital Sanaa, but it has been unable to send in more flights because Riyadh, which has air supremacy over its southern neighbour, has not opened a safe air corridor.
More than 100 nursing institutes in Kerala train thousands of graduates every year; depressing local wages create a strong incentive to seek better-paid work abroad.Monthly wages at hospitals in Kerala start from Rs. 5,000 rupees, rising with experience and seniority to Rs. 25,000.
Fierce competition for jobs abroad, meanwhile, puts nurses at the mercy of recruiters who sometimes demand large up-front fees or renege on promises of more pay and safe contracts.
Following a raid this week by tax officials on the office of one agency in the port city of Kochi, the Central Bureau of Investigation has opened an investigation into suspected corruption, conspiracy and cheating.
The agency was hired to recruit 1,200 nurses to work in Kuwait and, investigators say, charged an up-front fee of 19.5 lakh rupees – 100 times the legal amount.
As part of broader efforts by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to improve the pay and conditions of Indian migrant workers, New Delhi has imposed a nationwide ban on foreign recruitment of nurses by private companies.
From May, only two state recruitment agencies will be allowed to operate in Kerala, charging modest fees and working through legitimate diplomatic channels to curb bribe-taking in destination countries.
“We are planning to conduct the recruitments in a transparent manner, without giving any room for any sort of complaints,” said K.C. Joseph, Kerala’s minister for non-resident affairs.