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Great Indian Diaspora

Perils of a pardesi


An average emigrant shells out anywhere between Rs 70,000 and Rs 1.5 lakh to get to a country in the Middle East, but earns as little as Rs 7,000 per month, leaving him with little to send back home

Recession didn’t deter the Indian emigrant from his Gulf dream. Now, an uprising in the Middle East-North Africa region has failed to make a dent in the queues outside visa offices. Despite the horror stories of abuse and exploitation, the Great Indian Diaspora continues to grow

Newspapers have been inundated with headlines about Indian emigrants trapped in Libya ever since protests against the dictatorial regime of Muammar Gaddafi broke out in the North African country last month. But a similar rescue mission carried out in May last year remains untold — a horror story of 67 labourers from a worksite near Tripoli who, starved of food and deprived of promised wages, escaped from their employers’ clutches and fled home with the help of the Indian embassy.

Libya is just one of the Arab countries situated in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) stretch which has remained a favoured destination for unskilled Indian emigrants over the years. The entire region was recently rocked by people’s uprisings either against dictatorial regimes or demanding better citizen welfare. What started with a revolution in Tunisia spread to Egypt and has led to violent clashes in Libya and Yemen, and smaller protests in Bahrain, Jordan and Oman. But lost in the revolutionary spirit is a vital issue: the question mark that hangs over the future of the lakhs of Indian emigrants who routinely head to these countries on a flight of fantasy but return home penniless and dispirited.

Migration and labour experts believe the MENA crisis will mark a turning point in the Great Indian exodus saga. They liken the current uprising in the Arab world to a milestone in the journey of Indian emigrants, just like the oil boom in the Gulf in the 1970s or the construction boom in the UAE in 2000, both of which suddenly boosted the demand for Indian labour. While it may be too early to determine whether the crises will favour or cut short the Indian emigrants’ dream, whether it will hit Indian remittances from the region or cause a rise in demand for emigrant laborers for the reconstruction of these nations, experts say the time is ripe for unskilled Indian emigrants to get their due share of respect for their menial labour in the entire MENA region.

The journey of Indian emigrants has been shaped by global events since the 1970s when the booming oil industry in the Gulf boosted the demand for cheap labour. Indian emigrants who benefited were known to draw their relatives and friends into a rapidly spreading social network that spanned generations. Three decades later, it was the construction frenzy in the UAE that similarly lured Indian labourers.

The region was badly hit by the 2008-09 global recession, but that did not deter the Indian emigrant from pursuing the Gulf dream. “Even we are not able to explain the attraction of labourers for this region despite the improved opportunities available in India,” says Sandip Roy, protector of emigrants, Mumbai. He says his office receives 2,000 passports for emigration clearance every day, a number that has not reduced despite the current crises. The crowds outside his office in Santacruz and the long emigration queues at the Sahar international airport in Mumbai at a time of unrest in the MENA region speaks of how the overseas dream lives on.

Over 6.4 lakh workers migrated overseas, a large chunk to countries in MENA in 2010, a rise from the previous year’s 6.10 lakh, according to the latest figures obtained from the MOIA, which maintains a record of all those getting emigration clearances. Their remittances, pegged at $46.9 billion as of 2009, form a substantial proportion of India’s overall foreign earnings.

Irudaya Rajan, professor of International Migration at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, points out that Saudi Arabia is slowly edging out the UAE as the preferred destination for Indian emigrants due to the construction slump in Dubai and the launch of new projects in Saudi Arabia, a pattern substantiated by MOIA figures (see table on right). Roughly 99,879 Indians migrated to Saudi Arabia in 2005 vis-à-vis 1.9 lakh who headed to the UAE, but the scene has now reversed, with 2.7 lakh emigrants heading to Saudi Arabia in 2010 compared to 1.3 lakh to Dubai in the same year.

The number of emigrants in reality is believed to be much higher, as emigration clearance is required only for select countries and that too only for non-graduates. Besides, a large number of workers migrate illegally. The numbers thus only roughly describe the pool of unskilled labour emigrants who seek jobs as construction workers, oil rig workers, mechanics, domestic help and nurses.

“The shift of emigrants to Saudi Arabia is even more worrying, as working conditions there are worse than in other countries in the region,” says Rajan, describing how workers toil for 18 hours at a stretch, are not paid promised salaries, often not given even food or water and enslaved as employers usurp their passports. “Emigrants are sold a dream which turns out to be a nightmare once they reach there,” he says.

Over 10,599 emigrants lodged complaints with Indian embassies in the Gulf countries alone in 2010 for varied reasons,
including heavy workload, harassment, non-payment of salaries or violation of contract conditions (see box 3 for country-wise complaints). This is only the tip of the iceberg, as most emigrants are too bogged down to seek succour.

Most are lured by money, but the mathematics just doesn’t add up. An average emigrant could shell out anywhere between Rs 70,000 and Rs 1.5 lakh to get to a country in MENA, and could earn as little as Rs 7,000 per month, leaving him with little to send back home.

TOI-Crest has learnt of horror tales of the abuse meted out to Indian workers. The latest form of exploitation, it emerges, is emigrant labourers who are taken to Saudi Arabia on a visa for mechanics but made to slog in the scorching sun as shepherds. A Konkan resident, who had been flown to Jeddah under a similar pretext last year, suffered a heart attack allegedly due to harsh working conditions. Indeed, following the increasing number of complaints from emigrants about pathetic working conditions, the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) temporarily banned emigration of workers to Libya in June 2010.

But even more needs to be done. A 2010 Human Rights Watch report ‘Walls at Every Turn’ documented how Indian maids in Kuwait often found it difficult to access help from the embassy. A shelter run by the Indian embassy for maids had a capacity to house just 40 while an estimated 2,22,500 maids work in the country.

Professor of labour studies at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Sharit Bhowmik, says it’s time the government replaced its reactive approach to the hardships of emigrant labourers in the region and turned pro-active in safeguarding their working conditions. The sweeping demand for democratic governance in the region may be a good time to initiate memoranda for emigrant protection, say researchers.

The MOIA has already initiated some positive changes in the past few years. The ministry has recently signed an MoU with Bahrain, giving Indian emigrants equal rights as locals and making their work contracts recognisable in the local courts. Officials are also in the process of putting in place a minimum wage requirement for workers heading to Saudi Arabia.

Whether the sweeping change in the MENA stretch will bring relief for emigrant Indian workers, only time will tell.

Reader's opinion (2)

Akhil AggarwalMar 24th, 2011 at 12:07 PM

A nice article on the plight of the emigrants to MENA. But i think there is a discrepancy in the figures of remittances. 6.4 lakh workers sending 46.9 b$ remittances amount to ~73000$ per person ie 35 lakh rupees which is exceptionally large for a person earning Rs 7000 per month. Kindly clarify....

Gagandeep GhumanMar 20th, 2011 at 07:49 AM

Great Job, Madhavi !

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