DUBAI (Reuters) - Indian laborer Athiraman Kannan kept to his routine in the hours before he jumped off the world’s tallest building.
Three weeks ago, he arrived at Dubai’s Burj Khalifa at 7 a.m., clocked in and headed to where he was working on the upper reaches of the 163-storey tower. About an hour later, the 38-year-old father of one flung himself off the Burj Khalifa’s 147th floor, dying instantly when he hit the 108th floor.
“I spoke to him the night before and he seemed fine,” said another Indian worker, a friend and former roommate who had known him for seven years. “I still can’t believe he did this.”
Kannan’s leap off the Burj Khalifa was the 26th known suicide by an Indian worker in the country in 2011. Last year, 113 Indians committed suicide, roughly one every three days.
The deaths have focused fresh attention to the plight of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates where armies of overall-clad laborers swarm over construction sites, seldom noticed by those in the plush office blocks and shopping malls.
Many laborers are paid less than 1,000 dirhams ($270) a month and are typically saddled with large debts.
Workers complain of unpaid wages, excessive working hours, high recruitment fees, isolation and employers holding their passports to restrict their movement.
Kannan arrived a decade ago in the glitzy Gulf Arab desert state from a green and culturally rich city in India’s south, but became embroiled in a family inheritance dispute after his eldest brother passed away.
Isolated and stressed, he told friends he planned to return home and settle the matter days before his death. Local media said Kannan had been denied permission to take leave, a charge his employer Arabtec strongly denies.
“He’s not alone there are many of us here in camps who suffer from problems,” said the worker, who did not want to be identified for fear of action from his company.
Kannan had spoken about his depression over the financial issues at home. He earned more than 2,500 dirhams per month and supported his elderly parents, wife and four year-old son.
“He was trying to go back home and had booked for leave just two days before he killed himself,” said his friend.
The United Arab Emirates, a small but wealthy OPEC member with big ambitions to become a major financial and cultural center, is home to 1.75 million Indians. They are the largest expatriate population, and three of every five are laborers, according to Indian government figures.
Kannan’s death was followed by the suicide of another Indian worker, who jumped from the third floor of his labor camp building this week.
Shortly after Kannan died, the Indian embassy in the UAE launched a three-month, five-language radio campaign telling its citizens about a distress hotline and help center set up last November, the Indian Worker Resource Centre.
“Any death is shocking, it is shocking for us,” said M.K. Lokesh, India’s ambassador to the UAE. The issues, he said, are “depression, financial problems — they miss their families.”
The hotline mostly received calls about legal issues, the envoy said, with very few calling about personal issues related to the vicious cycle of debt and poverty faced by many Indian laborers in the country.
Embassy officials have conducted outreach programs in labor camps, dusty housing complexes far away from the gleaming towers of Dubai, and also pushed for a minimum wage.
“We are tackling things at the broader level in that we have increased minimum wages, we have set up the center (and) a medical campaign has also been organized,” Lokesh said.
Suicide rates among Indian workers have declined since 2008, the embassy said, with more than 110 recorded suicides in 2010, compared with 147 deaths in 2008, at the height of the economic downturn. That figure may be higher due to the stigma associated with suicide.
Kannan lived in a camp in Jebel Ali, on Dubai’s outskirts, that houses thousands of workers. Gulf Arab states have long faced criticism from rights groups over the condition of laborers, where they often are crammed into small rooms, sharing basic living, cooking and sanitary facilities.
A 2010 Human Rights Watch report said Middle East and Asian governments had failed to meet minimum standards in tackling abuses of migrant workers.
The UAE government has introduced reforms such as introducing a midday break, restricting work in the open during the blistering summer months and a wage protection system.
Some problems begin in the workers’ home countries, where they are recruited with false promises of good pay to send home.
Many workers, promised unrealistic salaries, take loans of $2,000 to $4,000 to pay recruitment agencies to bring them to the UAE, even though the law here bans the practice.
“They arrive here after taking huge loans back home, work tirelessly to pay back the loan, and eventually leave with the loan still pending,” said K. V. Shamshudeen, who runs a welfare group for expatriate Indian workers in the UAE.
Shamshudeen said workers often faced worse living conditions than their families back home who benefit from the income sent back from the Gulf.
“While the families live in two-storey villas, these men stay in multi-level bunk beds and queue up every morning to use the bathroom,” he said. “Giving up all pleasures of life for your family is also a kind of suicide.”
Editing by Reed Stevenson and Jon Hemming