A new government in India has taken over, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It remains to be seen what importance the new government will attach to improving the lot of millions of Indian migrant laborers working in Gulf countries like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman and Saudi Arabia.
The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, led by Vayalar Ravi in the previous government, did little to improve the conditions of workers, despite visiting the UAE on a regular basis.
Many issues plague migrant workers in the Gulf. First and foremost is the confiscation of passports by employers. This draconian practice, akin to modern slavery, should be abolished.
Another important issue is the payment of salaries to blue collar workers in the construction industry. In the UAE, where significant numbers of Indian workers work on the construction of enormous towers, the salaries are abysmal. Unskilled workers like steel fixers are paid around 600 dirham ($163) per month, while skilled workers like carpenters make 800 dirham per month.
The salary is pitiful in an expensive place like Dubai. Many labor strikes in the UAE are often related to payment.
For example, thousands of workers belonging to Arabtec, a major construction company in the Gulf, went on strike in the UAE in May last year, demanding higher wages. Around 200 workers were subsequently sent home. The laborers were demanding a wage hike of $50 per month.
Other issues include improving the working and living conditions of the workers. The men are accommodated in ghetto-like labor camps that lack basic amenities like proper drinking water and sanitation facilities. Labor camps are cramped, with at least eight men living in a single room designed for no more than three or four people.
Lack of safety is another important aspect that should be addressed by Gulf employers. Accidents at construction sites are common, leading to a number of laborer deaths every year.
In a report last year, Human Rights Watch (HRW) singled out both Qatar and the UAE for criticism over the rights of migrant workers. The two countries are hosting high profile events in the coming years. Qatar will be hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and the UAE will have the 2020 World Expo.
HRW pointed out the rampant abuse of workers, including non-payment of wages, a draconian sponsorship system, overcrowded labor camps, the confiscation of passports and unsanitary conditions in the labor camps.
It said that immigration sponsorship laws grant employers extraordinary power over the lives of these workers. “They have no right to organize or bargain collectively, and face penalties for going on strike. Although the law calls for a minimum wage, the Ministry of Labor has yet to implement it.”
A human rights activist who went to Qatar bemoaned the conditions of workers in the country and said that Qatar has become an open jail due to human rights abuses.
“There is a rampant exploitation of migrant workers in Qatar. It has become an open jail where workers are trapped due to confiscation of passports and non-payment of salaries,” said P Narayana Swamy, president of the India-based Migrants Rights Council. He urged FIFA to issue a “red card” to Qatar to stop the abuses.
He said the Qatari government has “colorful labor laws,” but they are rarely implemented. “Confiscation of passports is common. I have not come across a single worker whose passport was not taken away by the construction companies. A lot of discrimination is going on,” said Swamy, who visited the country last month.
He said workers are living in cramped accommodations and sleeping in bunk beds. “We are requesting the prime minister of India to send a delegation to Qatar to study the problems of workers. The majority workers have no insurance and are working under unsafe working conditions. FIFA should issue directions to Qatar to stop the abuses,” he added.
HRW said more than 1.2 million migrant workers – mostly from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal, and Bangladesh – live and work in Qatar, and that number is increasing rapidly.
“The country may recruit up to a million additional workers in the next decade to overhaul its infrastructure and build the stadiums required to host the 2022 World Cup,” the report said.
The HRW report also stated that migrant workers reported extensive labor law violations. “Common complaints included late or unpaid wages. Some lived in overcrowded and unsanitary labor camps, and lacked access to potable water. Many workers said they received false information about their jobs and salaries before arriving and signed contracts in Qatar under coercive circumstances.”
It also urged the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to leverage their countries’ collective bargaining power to seek greater protection for their nationals working in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
A report by the British newspaper The Guardian revealed that migrant workers from Nepal died throughout the summer at a rate of one per day in Qatar. Extreme dehydration and evidence of forced labor accompanied the allegations. Nepal’s Ambassador to Qatar even went so far as to describe the country as an “open jail,” after 44 migrant workers – mainly young men – lost their lives. It said that construction work for the World Cup will leave 4,000 migrant workers dead.
The UAE government has recently taken some steps to improve the situation for workers in recent times, with the introduction of a wage protection system to guarantee salaries for workers every month, and a midday break from 12:30 pm to 3:00 pm during summer so that workers get some respite from the hottest time of the day. However, human rights organizations are urging the UAE to do more to support the laborers and respect their rights.
Tragically, a large number of Indian workers commit suicide in Gulf countries every year, mainly because of a lack of money and the harsh working and living conditions. Their country should be demanding that Gulf governments put a stop to human rights violations. The new Modi government has an important role to play: He should pressure the Gulf to improve conditions.
Fareed Rahman worked as a journalist in the United Arab Emirates for about eight years reporting on migrant workers and their problems. He was a visiting fellow at The University of California at Berkeley in 2012.