No dream destination for Indian workers; rights abuses are rampant in Gulf countries

Contrary to the glitzy and glamourous photographs on tourist websites, West Asian countries – referred to as Gulf countries in India – aren’t dream destinations for work.

Thousands of middle-class Indians live and work in very poor conditions, a fact underscored most recently by the video appeal of a man from Karnataka.

Abdul Sattar Makandar published a video through an activist in India, appealing to be rescued from his current situation. But he is not the only one, to be driven to desperation in such a manner.

Over 7 million Indians live and work in the oil-rich Gulf nations of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain. These account for more than 60% of all global non-resident Indians (NRIs). An analysis done by IndiaSpend revealed that “an Indian living in Saudi Arabia or Kuwait is at ten times the risk of death, compared to an Indian living in the US, due to poor working conditions.”

Documented rights abuse

In 2014, photographer Farhad Berahman documented the poor living conditions of migrant labourers from South Asian countries, most hailing from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, working in Dubai.   

Talking about the inhuman conditions labourers are often subjected to, Farhad told Daily Mail: “People come to this land to make their future and benefit from the huge investments in construction and oil. There are many luxurious hotels and world-renowned structures which labourers have built over recent years. The employer usually takes their passport as soon as they arrive at Dubai airport… The labourers usually work 14 hours where in summer the temperature goes over 50C.”  

By comparison, he said, “it is usually advised for western tourists not to stay outside for more than five minutes in summer. According to the government's laws, work places should close down during this kind of temperature in order not to harm labourers and their health, but the government often does not even announce the right weather temperature.' 

Rothna Begum, Human Rights Watch's women's rights researcher told The Economic Times, "There are good and bad employers, but abuse is quite endemic in the Middle East. The weak labour laws and systems are the ones that give the employers inordinate power, control and impunity, creating the conditions for exploitation."

No labour law protection?

According to the Global Rights Index 2015, workers in the Gulf nations and North Africa are among the world’s worst treated.

“Workers in the Gulf States… endure many of the violations which make the Middle East and North Africa the world’s worst region for fundamental rights at work... in Qatar and Saudi Arabia migrants continue to endure forced labour and labour law exclusions which amount to modern slavery,” said International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) General Secretary Sharan Burrow.

Tales of passports of workers — mostly low-paid migrant labourers working in the construction and hotel sector, with women being domestic workers — being seized and the workers being forced to live and work in squalid and desperate conditions are common.  

At the heart of the problem is the Kafala system of labour contracts, where a migrant employee is bound to a single employer, as he or she can only live and work in these countries under the sponsorship of a kafeel (sponsor).

The system, which contradicts basic labour laws, decrees that the employer dictates working conditions and also doesn’t allow for an employee to get out of a contract with the kafeel until the kafeel themselves allow so. 

Since their sponsors also have the power to deport them, workers end up being blackmailed and in a job whose terms and conditions they cannot decide, with even their passports in the sponsor’s possession.

The Indian side of the problem

Added to this is the system of labour recruitment by agents in India, who make inflated promises and do not provide adequate information to migrating workers who then arrive at their destination countries to find a drastically different reality and no information on how to negotiate their way out of a bad situation.  

How common is it?

According to a recent reply by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in the parliament on February 20, 2016 out of 1754 grievances registered on the government’s Madad portal, 855 related to that of citizens stranded in Saudi Arabia.

The Ministry of External Affairs in February, 2015 had launched the ‘Madad’ (Help) portal to enhance accessibility   for people and fix greater “accountability and responsibility” on officials.

In November 2015, Swaraj had revealed in the Lok Sabha that the number of complaints received in that year stood at a staggering 7,432 complaints, of which 2,472 complaints originated in Saudi Arabia alone.

Despite all of these problems, the Gulf nations are still some of the most preferred options for Indian emigrants, particularly for working class emigrants. As a High Level Committee Report on Indian Diaspora says, the primary reasons for this are a match between the high demand for domestic workers and in sectors such as construction in the Gulf and the large-scale unemployment of such workers in India. This is also why almost 70 per cent of the Indian migrants working in the Gulf nations are semi-skilled and low-skilled workers, and white collar workers comprise only 30 per cent.

As simple economic needs trump most other considerations, and highly iniquitous labour conditions trap thousands of people, there isn’t much they can do for themselves. Unless more systematic help arrives from the Indian government, we will continue to hear cases such as that of Abdul in the future. 

(Monalisa Das and Soumya Chatterjee contributed to this story)