There are 8.5 million Indian workers in the Gulf and they need help
Indians, especially Keralites, have been migrating to the Arab Gulf for over four decades.
In the early 1970s, if they migrated by boats to the beaches of Dubai, Doha, and Oman, today they fly into the world’s largest and busiest airports, where they themselves have worked as a mason or carpenter during its construction phase.
According to a document from the Indian Parliament, out of the 13 million non-resident Indians all over the world, 8.5 million work, mostly semi-skilled and unskilled, in the Arab Gulf.
While a few have become successful in earning petro-dollars and entering the Forbes list, for a large number of workers migration for work to the Arab Gulf remains exploitative, unsafe, and irregular.
Even after India implemented the eMigrate system in 2015 to ensure safe migration, strengthening Indian missions’ outreach initiatives and opening new grievance redressal windows, still thousands of Indian men and women are deceived when they look for a job in the Arab Gulf.
The Indian women from rural areas who look for domestic work in the Arab Gulf are still duped by traffickers. Even if they reach their master’s house safely, the majority of them are enslaved and are exploited physically and mentally.
The semi-skilled men, who migrate to build the record-setting buildings, flyovers, roads, gardens and golf clubs in deserts and artificial islands still work under forced labour-like conditions and most of the time are left in the lurch without much support from the Arab or Indian governments when they are laid off without clearing their dues.
India has ratified some important international human rights instruments that can protect Indian migrant workers from forced labour and human trafficking if properly implemented.
These include the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.
And in 2011, India had signed and ratified the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its additional protocols, which includes the Palermo Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children signifying interest to prevent and combat trafficking in persons.
However, on the ground, it seems, these tools are not properly implemented and help an Indian migrant worker in need.
And interestingly, India still regulates overseas migration of labour for over thirty-five years through the Emigration Act, 1983 and the Emigration Rules, 1983.
The Emigration Act was set up by the Protector of Emigrants to help aid, advice and support migrant workers.
However, the pre-departure mechanisms in place have been insufficient to protect workers from exploitative recruitment practices such as contract substitution, high recruitment charges, deception and fraud.
At its worst, workers find themselves in situations of forced labour and human trafficking. India needs a new law to better protect workers.
The new Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and Minister of State at Ministry of External Affairs V Muraleedharan should push for a new policy and a law that can ensure Indian migrants a safe, orderly and regular migration.
While framing the policies and laws, the MEA prioritising the below given points will help the migrant workers really.
Recruitment fees are often the largest debts that men and women migrating for work will ever incur in their lives.
Once loans have been secured, workers are expected to start making repayments immediately.
Large recruitment fees can leave workers in situations of debt bondage, a form of forced labour in which a person’s labour is demanded as means of repaying a loan, trapping the individual into working for little or no pay until the debt is repaid.
Individuals in debt are less able to bargain for better pay or working conditions or to assert their rights. Heavy indebtedness can seriously erode the value of remittances sent back home, with negative consequences for families and local economies in the country of origin.
So, the government should consider abolishing recruitment fee for the worker and be able to bring in employer pay all model, which has been successfully worked out in other countries.
The Ministry of Overseas Affairs in 2013 identified that the lack of adequate pre-departure information makes workers dependent on intermediaries and vulnerable to exploitation.
The report stated that migrant workers face 'difficulty in accessing authentic and timely information.'
Prospective migrant workers should be informed about how to migrate through regular employment channels and under conditions that protect their human rights.
Intending workers should be educated about exploitative recruitment practices, traffickers and trafficking in human beings, and the dangers and risks of migrating under irregular conditions.
Women migrants should be trained about the unique problems and conditions they could face in foreign countries both with respect to their gender as well as particular types of work they may engage in especially domestic work.
Migrant workers should be required to attend a government-accredited pre-departure orientation programme, as part of their recruitment process, prior to their departure.
The overwhelming majority of workers travel via an international airport to a foreign country and this is the final point of departure for migrant workers employed abroad.
The government should set up migrant resource centres in each airport to enable mandatory registration, validation of documents including employment contracts, recruitment receipts, and other documents.
Workers should also be issued migrant worker booklets that explain at a minimum their rights and responsibilities in the foreign country, contact details of the relevant Indian mission and relevant details about the labour law in the destination country.
Enabling the Protector of Emigrants (PoE) able to conduct surprise checks at the premises of recruiting agents and verify on a regular basis their books of record, recruitment receipts, and recruitment practices will help a lot.
However, in practice, their role is restricted to the issue of emigration clearances to prospective workers and the perfunctory supervision of recruiting agencies.
And also, the establishment of a rating system for recruitment agencies could set up a system to reward ethical recruiters and punish recruiters that engage in exploitative practices.
The recognition of sub-agents in the migration process is critical to regulate and monitor their functioning.
The inclusion of sub-agents in the draft Bill is welcome but greater attention should be paid to define sub-agents, provide clear terms and reference, and set out offences and penalties under the law.
The government should introduce alternate regulatory measures to recognise and regulate sub-agents including providing clear terms of reference by which sub-agents may be tied to recruiting agents, informing brokers about their legal obligations and duties and the human rights of migrant workers, issuing short-term and individual licenses to sub-agents to conduct recruitment in collaboration with recruiting agents and renewing licenses based on their record and emphasising to recruiting agents that the onus is on them to conduct due diligence on the prospective work conditions promised by sub-agents tied to them.
The Indian embassy is usually the first point of contact for workers in distress. At the moment, the embassy files a complaint against the employer, attempt to contact the sponsor and mediate a settlement and recommends lawyers empanelled by the embassy to assist workers.
This should be greatly expanded to support migrant workers in trouble.
Migrant workers who have faced exploitation and abuse should have effective access to remedy.
Enabling access to justice is not just important for the individual but for the family, society, and community. It strengthens the rule of law and ensures accountability from other businesses and governments.
The grievance mechanisms should be accessible and affordable for migrant workers whose rights have been violated in the recruitment process.
Majority of the migrant workers are subjected to toil under hazardous working conditions. Either they meet accidents or fall ill very soon.
As health insurance for migrant workers is not mandatory in all Arab Gulf countries, the workers themselves have to foot the medical bills, which most of the time is impossible.
We already have some medical insurance schemes. But if we increase the claim amount and widen the net, we would be able to help a few more migrant workers when they are in need.
Under the current grievance mechanisms, the central government receives labour complaints of abuse and fraud against recruiters.
The government subsequently directs the state government to investigate the complaints received.
After the investigation, the state government should seek sanction to prosecute from the Ministry of External Affairs/Protector General of Emigrants (PGE) to take further action.
This sufficiently complicates and delays access to justice for workers.
Nodal authorities should be given greater powers to initiate action against fraudulent recruiters, tour operators, emigration consultants or any other entity involved in exploitative recruitment practices including forced labour and human trafficking.
Many migrant sending countries have a decent re-integration plan for their citizens returning after ending migration.
However, in India, we don’t have an effective re-integration scheme and plan. Indian migrants, who return after ending migration are not ‘welcomed’ by society and government.
Additionally, the moment they return, they lose the status of NRI and are not eligible for any preferences while applying for SME loans. This has to be addressed.
Certain re-integration models practised in some Asian migrant sending countries can be studied and replicated according to our environment.
According to World Bank report in April, the top remittance recipients were India with $79 billion, followed by China ($67 billion), Mexico ($36 billion), the Philippines ($34 billion), and Egypt ($29 billion).
The remittance to India is almost double than the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) received in 2018-19. In 2018-19 the FDI was $44 billion.
In fact, the FDI investors get red carpet welcome but the Indian migrants, mainly the semi-skilled and unskilled, who remit the maximum of $79 billion are left all alone when they really need help.
(The author is a senior investigator with Equidem and is a Panos-ILO fellow on Labour Migration.)