India supplies the highest number of 500,000 labourers to Qatar to help the country meet the FIFA World Cup target of 2022. An Amnesty International report last year created a stir when it highlighted the levels of exploitation of workers in the Gulf emirate engaged in building infrastructure for the World Cup in 2022. Recently, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) which calls Qatar a “country without conscience” has made a startling estimate saying that based merely on “tragic statistics collected by two embassies—Nepal and India—which account for 50% of the total migrant workforce” 4,000 more workers will die in Qatar before the start of the 2022 World Cup. Since 2011, nearly 700 Indian workers have lost their lives—an average of 20 a month with numbers peaking during the hot summer months.
Considering the growing number of casualties of Indian workers in Qatar, India needs to further scrutinise some of the provisions of the labour agreement with Qatar. In this regard, both countries need to develop a fresh perspective to deal the safety issues of the workers.
In modern times, the migration of workers from the Indian subcontinent began with the export of indentured labourers to British colonies round the world to work in plantations and the first Emigration Act of 1922 promulgated by the British was aimed at maximising the interests of plantation industrialists rather than safeguarding Indian workers. It was only in 1983 that a new Emigration Act was passed after the gulf boom of 1970s caused a massive exodus of Indian workers to the Gulf region. The focus of the new act was on management and promotion of migration from India to the six oil-rich Gulf States. Besides remittances, its aim was also to tap the overseas employment opportunities. Until 2002, the 1983 Act—with some amendments and reforms—continued to manage the emigration process from India.
During the 1990s, globalisation speeded up the cross-border movement of people, making India one of the largest labour-sending countries in the world. It also brought to light several cases of fraud and exploitation of Indian workers both in the sending and host countries. To meet the new contingency, India replaced the 1983 law with the Emigration Act of 2001 and set up the ministry of overseas Indian affairs (MOIA). The MOIA signed manpower agreements in the light of the new legislation with five Gulf countries, with the exception of Saudi Arabia.
After Saudi Arabia’s Nitaqat programme in 2011, it was found that out of 2.8 million Indian expatriate workers, approximately 1.4 million did not have proper legal documents. They were either overstaying or working as huroob (having run away from the sponsors). As a result, the illegal immigrants were sent back. Overnight, the returned migrants, who were earlier seen as a source of economic stability and prosperity for their families and communities, became a serious cause of concern. Now, Kuwait is also planning to reduce the number of foreign workers by 800,000 annually. Around 2 million Indians presently work in Kuwait.
Clearly, India cannot afford to ignore the issue of its expatriate workers in Gulf countries. The prospect for Indian workers in the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, is brighter than for many other nationalities. But India must take immediate steps to sustain its credibility in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) guest labour market and safeguard the interests of its citizens—both in host countries and when they return. It must also take into account the political volatility in oil-rich Gulf region.
New Delhi’s first task in this regard should be to stop illegal migration and tackle the problem of overstaying. Indian missions in the destination countries must be equipped and trained to scrutinise documents of Indian workers periodically. They should also start getting regular feedback from the workers about their living and working conditions. This will help the Indian government to rework its bilateral labour agreements.
The next immediate priority should be to evolve a detailed labour migration policy with Riyadh. India is the largest exporter of labour to Saudi Arabia, the only GCC country with which India has not yet signed such an agreement. New Delhi should persuade the GCC countries to develop a common immigration law. The GCC as a bloc needs a common labour policy as Gulf states receive labour from the same countries.
Simultaneously, the Indian government must undertake a detailed study of the labour market dynamics in Gulf countries. This will help it formulate a better emigration policy that will train and prepare the kind of workforce that can compete internationally. Since migrant workers do not have the capacity to negotiate salaries and minimum safeguards for their working conditions in the destination countries, India must evolve a living wage formula for them through negotiations with the host countries.
Though India has started reforms in its overseas emigration policies following the establishment of the MOIA as a separate ministry to deal with overseas affairs, one major neglected area is empowerment of the potential expatriates through education and training about the relevant laws and political economy of the gulf countries. This is important as most of the unskilled and semi-skilled migrants to Gulf countries are illiterate. Their ignorance complicates dealings with their immediate bosses as well as handling their legal cases in the host countries.
While India must harness the benefits of migration to nations worldwide, it must finally realise that migration cannot be an endless process. The government needs to intervene and break the cycle of migration by helping migrant workers establish their own businesses at home. For migrants, evacuation from the host nations can become a catastrophic experience. This has been repeatedly seen in the Gulf crisis of 1990, the Israel-Lebanon crisis in 2006, the Libyan crisis and now post-Nitaqat in Saudi Arabia.
Most Indian migrants in the Gulf spend their entire working life there and return in near penury. The government needs to establish a pension fund for migrants to cover their years of retirement, perhaps on lines of the National Pension Scheme or the Provident Fund Act 1975.