New Delhi can promote savings among low-income NRIs and social welfare pension schemes for the ailing and financially weak who return from abroad.

Voices Tuesday, April 07, 2015 - 05:30
By Sumitha Kutty NRIs in the Gulf region demand that Modi end decades of neglect and genuinely protect the community’s lower and middle-income workers In recent months, investigative reports by major foreign media outlets The Guardian and The New York Times on the condition of migrant labourers in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have caused international uproar. The outrage specifically because they were working on multi-million dollar art, recreational and educational projects originating from America or Europe. This may be making news in Washington and Geneva only now, but for decades non-resident Indians (NRIs) have either observed or experienced up close the many difficulties faced by low and middle-income workers in the Middle East – particularly the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates). Stories of passports confiscated upon arrival, delayed or no pay, squalid and cramped quarters, and even physical abuse by a section of unscrupulous employers do not come as a shock to us. Rather it is the continuing ‘business-as-usual’ attitude from our own government that upsets the community. With changes in New Delhi, the frustrated expat community in the ‘Gulf’ now places its faith in Narendra Modi’s government expecting it to deliver on promises made and injustices reported. “We kept on presenting to the UPA government our grievances but we never got any result. This time, the Indian diaspora has given massive support to Modi, so I am sure that he will try to address our problems,” says a hopeful KV Shamsudheen, Chairman of the Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust, an organization that works in the Gulf to educate lower and middle income segment of NRIs on financial planning and saving habits. World Bank remittance data shows India as the number one recipient country, with $69 billion coming in during the year 2012. Given that six to seven million Indians (20 percent of our diaspora) work in the Gulf, remittances from these countries account for more than $30 billion; nearly half the total amount. (Check out interactive info graphic by Pew Research here) 65 percent of these remittances come from blue collar workers, who form a good chunk –over 60 percent – of the diaspora labor force. Most unskilled or semi-skilled manual labourers, largely construction and cleaning workers, fall into this category. A majority of them come on contracts that will ensure their return to India after completion of a certain project. It is this segment that most often faces the threat of exploitation. One key practice at the heart of the migrant debate and abhorred by workers and human rights activists alike is Kafala – the sponsorship system where workers’ passports are confiscated by the employer making him/her immobile in the labor market. Given the increasing need for a coordination mechanism between labour ‘origin’ and ‘destination’ countries, recipient countries (including the GCC ones) and major labor sending ones such as India, Philippines, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, etc. participate in the Abu Dhabi Dialogue – a multi-lateral process set up in 2008 to facilitate interaction between the two blocs. Earlier this year, the GCC labour ministries proposed a draft law focusing on domestic workers which would protect their right to keep their passports. More recently, after the media furor over the World Cup workers, Qatar proposed labor reforms in May (though with no timeline) geared toward replacing this practice. However, there is a long way to go before a major re haul of the system across labour categories. Mr. Shamsudheen agrees that the international media intervention and closer scrutiny always “helps to change the situation.” However, he cautions that a labour sending (foreign) party like India has limitations in the policy making process of the Gulf kingdoms. At the maximum, “we can push for proposals” and negotiate more favorable terms in bilateral agreements. These would include efforts to streamline the recruitment and salary payment processes by ridding the system of exploitative middlemen, educate Indian workers (particularly the unskilled and semi-skilled) on economic and legal implications of working in these countries pre-departure, and facilitate the repatriation of stranded workers (issue exit visas) in an emergency situation. Above all, ensuring the welfare and protection of workers according to the labor recipient country’s laws. What New Delhi could do on its own though is introduce and promote savings among low-income NRIs and social welfare pension schemes for the ailing and financially weak who return from abroad. Surveys conducted by the Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust found that lower income workers start their careers with debt, continue to live in debt and, ultimately, return home with debt. Only 5 percent had enough financial resources, to look after their family, when they returned to India. Most saw their earnings spent by their families, leaving them with no savings. In addition, 8 percent deaths of Indian expatriates in GCC countries were cases of suicide, a key reason being financial difficulties. Saving schemes could also provide a safety cushion for those employees who face sudden unpleasant situations (eg. when the controversial Nitaqat law was implemented in Saudi Arabia last year). To complicate matters, low income Gulf returnees also have to battle a system that cannot assist them in their rehabilitation. For Malayalee readers, this would be clearly reminiscent of the 1998 movie Garshome where the protagonist who returns from the Gulf is forced to head back to keep his family afloat. (It is important to note here though that in the last year, Kerala has made nascent interventions in this area.) Responding to pleas for assistance, the UPA government in 2012 introduced the Mahatma Gandhi Pravasi Suraksha Yojana, an investment and insurance scheme for NRIs and available only to workers who have the Emigration Clearance Required (ECR) seal in their passports. Thus far only 800 NRIs have joined the scheme. “There seems to be a lack of interest in the ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs to propagate this scheme,” according to Shamsudheen. “We request the new government to entrust all banks to propagate this scheme to NRIs and to take special interest to ensure this scheme reaches deserving lower income NRIs.” The NRI community having sent across a series of recommendations, via the Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust, to the newly sworn-in prime minister now calls upon him to keep his promises. At Pravasi Divas earlier this year Modi reassured NRIs that governments “should not weigh NRIs in just dollars and pounds… We should not look to NRIs only for investment.” Perhaps investing in them would be a good start. Sumitha Narayanan Kutty is an independent foreign affairs analyst and journalist currently based in DC. She is a true blue Malayalee born and raised in the Gelf before she found her way 'home.' The opinions expressed in this articles are the personal opinions of the author. The News Minute is not responsible for the accuracy, completeness, suitability or validity of any information in this article. The information, facts or opinions appearing in this article do not reflect the views of The News Minute and The News Minute does not assume any liability on the same.
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