x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hospitals in Oman report rise in worker suicides

Suicides by struggling South Asian labourers in Oman are on the rise, but local officials and foreign embassies are doing little to address the problem.

MUSCAT // After an Indian labourer was killed by a car in the middle lane of a busy motorway, municipality workers washed away the bloodstains as the dead man's tearful friend, Ajit Ramakrishna, looked on, holding his friend's wallet.

Mr Ramakrishnan was convinced that 52-year old Arun Subramaniam had committed suicide. "He talked about stepping on the road to end his life," Mr Ramakrishnan said. "I did not think he could do it." Suicides by struggling South Asian labourers are on the rise according to hospital workers, but local officials and foreign embassies are doing little to address the problem. The two men became friends after meeting in Muscat five years ago. They were both working for the same building company as labourers. Four months ago, Mr Ramakrishnan said, Subramaniam was depressed after he was unable to afford a dowry to marry off his daughter in India, and his family had blamed him. In the Hindu tradition, the father of the bride pays cash as dowry to the husband, in addition to gifts. Labourers are paid between 80 to 100 rials (Dh760 to Dh950) a month in Oman. They are not able to save much after sending money home for their families' daily necessities.

"He told me he wanted the blood money - it would pay for the wedding and there will be enough money to look after the family for 10 years or more. By then his two sons will be working to look after his wife," Mr Ramakrishnan said. A compensation of 15,000 rials (Dh 143,000) is paid to the family of those whose death is the result of negligence, which includes road accidents. "For most labourers, the blood money is a lifetime's savings," said Lalit Kumar, 43, an Indian structural engineer. "It is also a way out for them when they are severely depressed. They sacrifice themselves for the future of their families."

Mr Kumar said he knew of four cases of suicides by building workers in the past three years. "One of them happened at one of my sites, just six or seven months ago. This Pakistani man jumped 30 metres from a scaffolding pedestal to his death. He was upset after the deaths of his mother, brother and sister in-law in a road accident back home," Mr Kumar said. After the death of Subramaniam, Mr Ramakrishnan and his friends called their embassies to ask if there was anything they could do to prevent suicides by their friends and co-workers.

"I am sure something can be done to people vulnerable to suicides if the embassy officials put their minds to the problem," Mr Ramakrishnan said. The Indian Embassy said it was aware of the problem. "We have a welfare programme where they [depressed people] can come to seek advice," Brahma Kumar, an official at the Indian Embassy in Muscat, said. He declined to give any details. Mr Ramakrishnan brushed aside the Indian official's comments, saying that the embassy did not care about the welfare of low-paid workers. "If it was a case of high-profile Indians killing themselves, then the embassy would have done something positive. We labourers are on the lowest rung of their priorities."

But not all of the suicide cases are inspired by blood money. A Sri Lankan housemaid hanged herself in her bedroom in Muscat two months ago, according to an Omani hospital nurse. "It is not uncommon for the hospital to receive emergency cases of people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka, who make attempts to commit suicide," Maryam Busaidy, a nurse at the Royal Hospital said. "Unfortunately, we failed to resuscitate the Sri Lankan housemaid when she arrived. Her friends told us she was jilted by her lover and decided to kill herself."

The suicide deaths and attempts received or certified by Royal Hospital, according to Mrs Busaidy, include wrist slitting, poisoning, overdosing on drugs and jumping from buildings. "The sad thing is that they keep increasing all the time. Hardly any month passes without such a case. As an Omani, I cannot do anything but I am sure the affluent expatriate communities in Oman need to look into this to help their compatriots in the lower categories of employment," Mrs Busaidy said.

sshaibany@thenational.ae