India’s Overseas Labor Pains

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India’s Overseas Labor Pains

A migrant worker’s death sharpens criticism of India’s inability to protect its overseas laborers.

India’s Overseas Labor Pains
Credit: Migrant workers in Dubai image via jbor / Shutterstock.com

NEW DELHI — India is currently roiled by the death of Mahavir Yadav, a 57-year-old migrant worker who went to Saudi Arabia in 2010 to work as a painter and never returned. News suddenly arrived last month that Yadav had died of a heart attack triggered by extreme stress and work conditions that were almost Dickensian in their wretchedness. His employer — a local Saudi — would beat the elderly worker, deprived him of his salary, and also confiscated his passport.

Yadav’s two young daughters in India, now orphaned, are running from pillar to post to retrieve their father’s body, which lies in a Saudi Arabia hospital, mired in complex legal formalities. The duo have even written to India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to help them.

This is not a stray incident of a single Indian migrant worker’s cruel death in the Middle East. Many such heartrending tales have surfaced since 1983, when the Indian exodus of migrant workers to the region began following the great Gulf boom of the 1970s. The Indian government passed a new Migration Act to promote migration and cash in on the twin opportunities of foreign exchange remittances as well as overseas employment generation. Due to its economic attractiveness, oil-drenched UAE became a popular destination for temporary Indian labor migrants seeking gainful employment and higher standards of living.

India’s globalization in the 1990s further expedited this cross-border movement of people from the country, making it one of the largest labor exporting nations in the world. However, the exodus also brought with it a panoply of fraud and exploitation cases of Indian workers in the host countries. To tackle the new exigencies, India substituted the 1983 law with the Emigration Act of 2001. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) was also constituted to sign manpower agreements with five Gulf countries, excluding Saudi Arabia.

The official act, however, failed to prevent the Indian migrants’ dream jobs from turning into nightmares. Human Rights Watch reports that migrant workers in the UAE are abused in many forms, including exploitative working conditions, poor living accommodations, restrictions on freedom, and non-payment of salaries. Sexual abuse and violence are common too.

Despite such travails, migration continues. In fact India has supplied the highest number of laborers (500,000) to Qatar in the run up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup. An Amnesty International report last year highlighted the levels of exploitation of workers in the Gulf emirate engaged in building infrastructure for the World Cup. Amnesty estimates that as many as 279 migrant workers from India had died in 2014 in Qatar.

The International Trade Union Confederation reckons that based merely on “tragic statistics collected by two embassies only—Nepal and India—which account for 50 percent of the total migrant workforce,” 4,000 more workers will die in Qatar before the start of the World Cup.

Most of the Indian workers in the Middle East are low-wage earners without any long-term benefits like pensions or deferred wages, called a bonus. Such exploitation, say experts, is partly the result of the pernicious kafala system prevalent across Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and UAE. This arrangement precludes workers from protesting their low wages or poor living conditions for fear of being deported. It also requires all unskilled laborers to have an in-country sponsor, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status.

Human rights organizations criticize the kafala system for creating a thriving ecosystem for exploitation of workers, leaving them vulnerable to abuse by employers in the absence of any legal ramifications for the latter. “The system puts domestic workers under the authority of the Ministry of Interior which excludes them from the protection of national labor laws,” explains New Delhi-based human rights lawyer Preeti Jhangi. “Their labor complaints are usually dealt with by police. The system also puts restrictions on their freedom to organize or bargain collectively or protest against non-payment of salaries.”

In the face of atrocities faced by Indian migrant workers, the Indian government’s lack of proactive involvement has shocked many. According to an official at the Hyderabad-based non-profit Migrants Rights Council, this attitude is even more surprising given a nationalist government whose outreach to foreign countries has been nothing short of extraordinary in the two years it has been in power since 2014. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has visited 37 countries in this period and has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the country’s diaspora settled across the globe, which he refers to as an “extended family.”

The concern is heightened by the fact that Indian workers send home the world’s highest amount of remittance income. According to the latest World Bank figures, India leads the global remittances tally, drawing in $70 billion to its economy from its global migrant workforce in 2015, ahead of China ($64 billion) and the Philippines ($28 billion). The International Organization of Migration predicts that India will soon emerge as one of the largest migrant-sending countries of the world.

Experts say that given such high stakes, the paucity of a strong policy to protect its overseas workers is alarming. What is also disconcerting is the lack of any legal net or official protection for workers at any stage of their journey abroad and back, which creates opportunities that unscrupulous employers are quick to leverage.

Making matters worse are the country’s complex and labyrinthine regulations, which only add to the migrants’ woes. “India is probably the only country in the world where migration is a three-tier process managed by three different ministries. The passport is issued by the Ministry of External Affairs, emigration clearance comes under the MOIA, and departures are under the Bureau of Migration of the Ministry of Home Affairs,” explains Vivek Bhandari, a New Delhi-based travel agent.

The emigration process is further marred by corruption due to an entrenched nexus between government officials and recruiting agencies. “Migrant workers funnel their entire life savings, often amounting to thousands of dollars, to move overseas for work only to live like slaves there thanks to apathetic Indian laws,” adds Bhandari.

Another aspect which needs the government’s attention, say analysts, is the illegal migration of workers to the Gulf. Apparently, a large chunk of Indians working in the region are doing so illegally. In 2011, it was found that out of 2.8 million Indian workers in Iran, nearly half did not have proper legal documents. The migrants often enter the Gulf countries illegally or are over-stayers, clinging on to expired tourist visas.

Experts suggest that Indian missions in the destination countries should regularly vet the documents of Indian workers to eliminate such lapses. They should also seek regular feedback from the workers about their living and working conditions. Based on these inputs, matters should be dealt with at the highest levels and bilateral labor agreements reformulated.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has expressed a keenness to address the problems of migrant Indian workers in the Gulf. A well-fleshed out labor migration policy — which establishes accountability, bestows upon workers their rights and eliminates exploitation — will be a good start. Given the surging casualties, empowering potential expatriates by educating and training them about the Gulf countries’ labor laws, their work environments, and formally briefing workers about their rights is also vital as most migrants are illiterate.

“It’s high time India stepped in to protect its migrant workers and give them the respect they deserve. For this is also the demographic which sends home huge remittances, which bolsters the economy and contributes to national growth,” says Jhangi.

Neeta Lal, a New Delhi-based journalist and editor, was a nominee for the World Media Summit Awards 2014 & SOPA Awards 2014.