Do right by India’s real NRIs
Every detail of the latest story of abuse of Indian workers in West Asia is both horrifying and painfully emblematic of the condition of Indian migrants to these countries. Three men from Kerala paid an agent to get them employment in Yemen, but they were taken to Saudi Arabia instead. They were trained electricians but were made to work in a brick factory. They were beaten by their employer with a wooden plank for refusing to do the work, the torture captured on camera and sent home to their families. Theirs is far from the first such story of entrapment, deceit and abuse. In October, a woman worker from Tamil Nadu said that her Saudi employer had tried to chop off her hand when she tried to escape. In September, a video emerged online which seemed to show the abuse of an Indian construction worker by his Saudi supervisor. Journalists investigating the construction of the 2022 FIFA World Cup infrastructure in Qatar found Indian workers were among those living in cramped accommodation for low wages and long hours under often exploitative contracts. Earlier this month External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj told Parliament that there were over 7,400 complaints of exploitation made by Indian workers in Gulf countries in 2015 alone.
There are over 6 million Indian workers in West Asia, forming a quarter of the region’s total expatriate workforce, including 2.8 million in the UAE, 1.8 million in Saudi Arabia, and over half a million each in Qatar, Kuwait and Oman. (Money repatriated to India from the Gulf countries was $32.7 billion in 2014, compared to $10 billion from the U.S.) The International Labour Organisation estimates that many of the 600,000 workers in the region who are victims of forced labour are Indian citizens. In fact, the chain of exploitation begins at the recruitment and migration stage in India, as was the case with the men from Kerala in Saudi Arabia — a police officer in fact put them in touch with the agent. The Ministry of External Affairs is aware of the problem; and Ms. Swaraj has been quick to respond to outrage over such incidents, offering help and support. However, there has not yet been a lasting fix to the problem; recruitment remains largely unregulated, India’s push for higher wages remains unfulfilled, and protections for Indian workers once they discover the nature of their employment are often difficult to come by. Many of these workers are leaving behind impoverished lives, and might not always be in a position to assert their rights in the hope of a better life for their families. These are India’s real NRIs — in numbers and in terms of remittances and investment in their home countries. India must do better by them.