Labour rights
Unregistered agents, the Kafala system and the flouting of norms enable the exploitation of migrant workers.

Nayeem*, went from Adilabad, Telangana to Saudi Arabia to work in a beauty parlour. But for three years, she was exploited, made to do housework, and allegedly sexually assaulted by her employer’s son.

46-year-old Haseena Begum, a woman from Hyderabad, broke both her legs after she was allegedly thrown from the third floor by her Saudi employer.

Sameera*, who went from Bengaluru to Abu Dhabi in the hopes of earning better wages as a domestic help, was made to work for long hours without breaks. She was then held captive by the recruiting agency along with 10 other women belonging to different nationalities.

Horrifying stories of abuse, assault and exploitation are not uncommon for Indian migrant workers who go to the Gulf countries. This reporter has spoken to a number of migrant workers in the past year and a half. The stories follow a similar trajectory: hopes for a better life and/or financial pressures, an agent who promises a comfortable job and wages in a Gulf country, abuse at the hands of the employer there and failure to receive timely help from local or Indian authorities.

There are several systems in place which enable this exploitation, aided by deep running malpractices and corruption.

Unregistered agents

India has over 1200 registered recruiting agents, says Bheem Reddy, vice-president of the Migrants Rights Council. However, these agents often delegate sub-agents in smaller towns and rural areas.

“Many of these sub-agents turn rogue and trap people in need with false promises. These agents report to district agents, who report to the city agent (a Hyderabad agent for instance,) who then reports to the main registered agent. Ultimately everything has to go through the latter only. The problem is that when a case comes to light, the police fixates on the one sub-agent and doesn’t investigate the chain,” he explains.

Hubertson T, an advocate with Lawyers Beyond Borders, regularly works cases of exploited Indian migrant workers. He points out that while there are lists of unregistered agents on government portals, there is no systematic crackdown to make them shut shop. He insists they should be booked under section 370 of IPC (trafficking of persons) and 370A (exploitation of a trafficked person).

Fraudulent agents at any level of the chain take money, sometimes lakhs of rupees in cash, from the candidates and the employers both. “They justify the sum saying that they have to pay the middle man, foreign embassy, foreign employer and also to agencies to arrange a job,” Hubertson says.

“When there is an issue between the migrant worker and the foreign employer, the latter says that he has paid such a huge amount of money to the agent, so he will release the migrant worker only if the agent returns the money,” he adds.

In this tussle, the migrant worker ends up being trapped in a foreign country without freedom or resources.

Flouting documentation norms and immigration

Another common strand in stories of most exploited migrant workers is that they are given their documents (visa and passport) at the last minute, which are then immediately taken away by the employer once they reach the destination country. This effectively stops them from one, inspecting if the visa being given to them is for the same work as promised by the agent, and two, leaving the Gulf country if they want.

Hubertson elaborates how agents find loopholes in immigration. Taking the example of a migrant worker going to Saudi Arabia for employment, he says, “The agent will provide a worker with a UAE visit visa.  Once they reach Dubai, then the agents there will give them the actual Saudi visa. For the Indian government, these people are visiting to the UAE and that’s how the agents get away.”

The Kafala system

A major hurdle for the workers in accessing their rights in the Gulf is the Kafala system. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the system emerged in the 1950s to regulate the relationship between employers and migrant workers in West Asia. However, the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries have continued with the system in present day as well.

Briefly, here’s what the system entails:

“Under the Kafala system a migrant worker’s immigration status is legally bound to an individual employer or sponsor (kafeel) for their contract period. The migrant worker cannot enter the country, transfer employment nor leave the country for any reason without first obtaining explicit written permission from the kafeel. The worker must be sponsored by a kafeel in order to enter the destination country and remains tied to this kafeel throughout their stay. The kafeel must report to the immigration authorities if the migrant worker leaves their employment and must ensure the worker leaves the country after the contract ends, including paying for the flight home.”

Even the ILO document acknowledges that the excesses committed by sponsors or employers under the Kafala system can be “likened to a contemporary form of slavery.”

Bheem says the Kafala system also emphasizes the temporary presence of migrant workers in the Gulf countries and deems them as nothing more than contract workers, which automatically reduces their rights.

International organisations like ILO are only asking for Kafala to be reformed. Some of the reforms suggested include formalizing and monitoring private recruitment processes (non-governmental agents), discontinuing individual sponsorship system and for the worker be in possession of his/her documents travel documents and mobile phone.

Hubertson says outright abolishment of the Kafala system may not work immediately given that these are traditionally conservative countries. In the long term therefore, reformation could be a necessary step towards abolition itself, he argues.

Redressal mechanisms, or lack thereof

In case a migrant worker’s rights are violated in the Gulf, he/she can approach an Indian mission, the labour department or the local police – but only in theory.

TNM wrote about the Indian Embassy’s apathy to migrant workers in the Gulf last year. Another story by TNM revealed even more accounts by workers alleging that the Indian Embassy has no teeth there. Multiple accounts say that even times when workers have taken serious risks like escaping their employers and approached the Indian missions, they have simply been told to come another day.

While Bheem maintains that police officers in the Gulf are generally sensitive to migrant workers, Hubertson and some migrants say otherwise. “If the worker goes to the local police, they don't even register the complaint.  They call the employer and handover the worker to the employer.  There are cases where police even registers false cases of theft and so on, at the employer’s insistence, which ensures that the worker cannot leave the country,” Hubertson notes.

Ultimately, both Hubertson and Bheem agree that the Indian government needs to take steps to ensure its workers’ rights in the Gulf.

Hubertson also points out that the ‘Prior Approval Category’ list, which lists blacklisted employers, needs to be regularly updated and made available for reference by agents as well as migrants. So far, he claims that the businesses are not only in operation but also receive workers by fraudulent Indian agents.

“The state government and NRI bodies should also come forward and ensure free legal assistance to migrant worker victims through the National Legal Services Authority, the State Legal Services Authority, The District Legal Services Authority, the Taluk Legal Services Committee at all pin code areas,” Hubertson insists.

*Names changed