Abused and helpless: Is Indian embassy apathetic to migrant workers in the Gulf?

Indian workers stranded in West Asian countries on a broken promise - a story far too common but hardly heard
Abused and helpless: Is Indian embassy apathetic to migrant workers in the Gulf?
Abused and helpless: Is Indian embassy apathetic to migrant workers in the Gulf?
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On May 8, 2016, Sana was hopeful that she might return home. She had left Mumbai in June 2015 with the hope of a decent-paying job to go to Saudi Arabia, but ended up being lied to and even tortured.

Sana told The News Minute that she came to Saudi Arabia as she was promised a hose nurse’s job in which she would have to look after her employer’s ailing wife. “But when I came here, I found out he was lying,” she said. When she insisted on getting the job she was assured, the man said he would look around.

“He then took some money from another man who said he wanted me to look after his sick mother. I went there but they were also lying. There was no sick mother,” she says. The second employer started to beat her and coerce her into housework and even kept her locked in the house.

“His wife would tell me to shut up and work or she would tell her husband to hit me,” Sana says.

When a friend put her in touch with the Indian Embassy, she was told to either escape from her employers and come to the Embassy or contact the police. “They said they couldn’t help further with these Arabi people,” she rues.

Desperate, she tried to get help on Twitter, but to no avail.

Running out of options, she managed to escape on May 8. The police told her to stay at the first employer’s house who promised to make arrangements to send her back home in five days, but it has been 12 days now and nothing has changed for her.

Sana’s story is far too common and being stranded in a West Asian country on a broken promise is almost the norm as workers allege that even Indian authorities there refuse to help them return home.

Jemeela, a migrant worker from Kerala has been stranded in the Kuwait Expatriate Shelter for the last 8-10 months and is not allowed contact with her family back home or even a phone call.

“People are hardly ever allowed [in the shelter]. There are workers of different nationalities there and they are all allowed phones, except the Indians,” says Hubertson, advocate and member of Lawyers Beyond Borders, who was able to get in touch with Jemeela.

He explains that there is a ‘Prior Approval Category’ which blacklists the employers who are accused of exploiting workers. He alleges however, that rogue employers often make deals with the embassy officials so they can continue to avail migrant workers. 

“The difference in treatment of Indian workers at the shelter exists because the Indian embassy does not want people back home or the government to know about these things,” he alleges.

Image: A letter by one of workers stuck in the Kuwait Expariate Shelter, highlights the treatment metted out to them 

Alwin Jose is a volunteer with Kuwait Kanyakumari Association and helps stranded and abused workers. He has a number of stories to tell, but none of them have a happy ending. 

Alvin recounts how 11 fishermen from Tamil Nadu were exploited, not paid salary for five months and were then stranded in the country after the employer tricked them into signing a document saying that they had taken Rs 5 lakh from him.

At first the Indian Embassy took them in. But on the 23rd day, the lady who worked there told them to get lost,” he says. “They somehow contacted the Association and now we have taken their case to the labour court here,” he adds.

The cruel cycle of giving these workers hope before abruptly snatching it away is echoed in other West Asian countries as well.

24-year-old Lisha went to work as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia in June 2015. She was beaten by her employers and sought refuge with the Indian Embassy, after which she was placed in a shelter. However, she has been put in another shelter now where things are not looking good.

“She has a phone but it is very difficult for her to call more than once or twice a week. She said that she was fine at the previous place but in this shelter, she is facing a lot of problems. The women here are trouble her a lot,” says Suma, Lisha’s mother.

Suma says that she has filed a petition for her daughter at the Ooty Collector’s office but has been told that all further proceedings will have to wait till the elections in Tamil Nadu get over. She sounds wary, but hopeful of Lisha’s return.

Shoba Gnanadhas hails from Tamil Nadu and came to Dubai to work as a housemaid in September 2014, and has not been paid her salary for five months. She had contacted the Embassy a little more than a fortnight ago and seems hopeful about her return. However, when asked if she has her documents, she replies that her passport continues to be with the employer.

“Ideally, the Indian Embassy should immediately contact the employer to get the workers’ documents and begin proceedings to send them back home,” says advocate Muthukumar, member of National Domestic Workers Union. More often than not, this does not happen.

Back home, it appears that there is no information of negligence on part of the Indian embassies in the Gulf. 

“I think that the Indian embassy is quite proactive [in helping workers] and follows due process of law,” said Vikas Swarup, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson. Swarup had said on May 14 that he would respond in greater detail with responses from the embassies concerned via email, which is awaited. However, no answer has been received so far.

Multiple attempts were made to reach Indian Embassy’s helpline for domestic workers in Kuwait, but there was no response.  

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