Worker borrowed money to buy stamp for suicide letter

Thousands of Indian construction workers move to Dubai every year lured by the promise of a better way of life. But many find themselves hopelessly trapped in what is effectively bonded labour, working in harsh conditions and for low wages. And for some, the only way out is suicide.

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By  Sean Cronin Published  August 7, 2005

Before hanging himself from the ceiling fan of his labour camp room last year, 24 year-old Arumugam Venketesan wrote a tragically matter-of-fact suicide note. It reads: “I have been made to work without any money for months. Now, for a month I’ve been suffering from a constant headache and wanted to visit a doctor to examine my condition. “I asked my camp boss for AED50 but he refused and told me to get back to work. “My family means everything to me. My older sister has two daughters and I have seen the face of only one of them. “I do not think it is possible to see my second niece in this life. I am very worried about my younger sister’s marriage and education, and I want my friends to help my family out in any way possible after my death. “After my death I want the company to pay all my salary dues to my family and repay the financial debt my family has incurred because of them.” Venketesan was one of the thousands of Indian construction workers lured to Dubai every year, with the promise of earning better money and securing a better life for themselves and their families. But some will never make it home. Depression, anxiety and stress are common conditions among migrant construction workers in the UAE. And many commit suicide in desperation, through what one top Dubai-based psychiatrist describes as a combination of ‘exploitation and a shattering of hope’. Venketesan arrived in Dubai in January 2004. It is understood that he borrowed the equivalent of AED7500 from an agency in his native Chennai in India to fund his visa and travel expenses. But by December of the same year, penniless and suffering from severe depression, Venketesan decided to take his own life by hanging himself. So desperate was his situation that he was forced to borrow 50 fils from a workmate so he could buy a stamp for the letter he was to send home and which contained his suicide note. Dr Shiv Prakash, a psychiatrist based at the New Medical Centre and Hospital in Dubai, said: “When these workers reach here and they realise what they’ve gotten themselves into and see that they’ve lost everything, they react to it. “They feel trapped as they now know that they can’t go back either. There’s no escape. They know that they are in a bonded labour type of situation and are reacting to what they think is the biggest mistake in their life, an irreparable loss. It is the reaction to this loss which can lead to suicidal contemplation. “They reach a stage where they gradually deduce that there is no option but to take one’s own life. They feel it is more honourable to do that than to face the humiliation and devastation that awaits them when they go back.” Anwar Basha is the president of the Tamil Cultural Association in Dubai, and is also the social worker who handled Venketesan’s case. He says: “The reason the death rate among construction workers here is so high is firstly that they are not paid what they are promised. “The tension that they go through is phenomenal. In my opinion, this is the main reason for all their problems, physical and mental.” Venketesan was a qualified tradesman and held a diploma in electrical and electronic engineering, but he was forced to work as a labourer. “Obviously one would think you’re being hired according to your qualifications, but the labour market here just isn’t like that,” added Basha. Following Venketesan’s death, it emerged that the company that brought him to Dubai was being paid between AED15 and AED20 per hour for the labour they supplied to contractors. But this company passed on a mere AED3 per hour to its workers. Another construction worker who committed suicide was 22 year-old Thangavel Selvakumar. Speaking from his home in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, his uncle Rajendran Udayar told Construction Week: “The last time he called to speak to us he told us that the work was very difficult and that he was being made to work in the open sun. “I don’t think he was able to cope with the harsh conditions there. “In these parts when someone goes to Dubai to work, it is considered a big shame for the family if the person returns. I think he felt a bit trapped.” The suicidal tendencies of both Selvakumar and Venketesan both seem to have been influenced by both the physical and emotional stress of working in extremely tough conditions on subsistence wages. The labour consulate at the Consulate of India in Dubai, estimates that around 4% of deaths recorded in official statistics are suicides — many of them from the construction sector. KV Shamsudheen is chairman of the Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust, a Sharjah-based social welfare organisation who recently received a call from a site worker threatening to commit suicide. He managed to talk him out of taking his own life, but he believes the number of suicides among construction workers is increasing. He said: “The suicide rate in this country is alarming. Everyday the suicide rates are increasing. “The reason for a lot of them is that they don’t have anyone to turn to or even talk to. “Some sort of a call centre needs to be set up to deal with people like this.”

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