Minister of State for External Affairs, V.K. Singh told The Sunday Guardian in Jeddah on Friday that he had a productive and fruitful visit to Saudi Arabia on the issue of retrenched and unpaid Indians. He also thanked King Salman, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, for personally intervening and giving instructions for the resolution of the problems at the earliest. Excerpts from the interview:
Q: What is the takeaway from your visit to Saudi Arabia?
A. The Saudi government has been positive and large-hearted in its approach. The king’s intervention is a magnanimous gesture. Assurances have been given to us that the problems where residency permit (Iqama) is concerned, will be resolved; problems where people want a transfer within the Kingdom to any other job will be facilitated. People who want to go back, the Saudi government will provide them passage to go back to the country. The Saudi government will provide them free air tickets.
Q: Have the issues at the labour camps been resolved?
A. There were some reports that people were not getting food and medical assistance. All those have been resolved by the Saudi government. We have received very positive support in resolving problems in terms of going out to the camps and talking to them. In the two camps that I visited in Jeddah, we had the director general from the Labour Department accompanying us.
Q: Which is unprecedented?
A. That is why I am saying that we have seen a very, very positive and large-hearted response from the Saudis. We are sure that with this, we will be able to resolve the issues for people who want to go back. There are issues which of course we have projected to the Saudi Labour Minister. A lot of people have not been paid for 8 or 9 months. These are not really super rich people. So for their subsistence, they have taken loans from people around them. They need to pay this before they leave. We have requested that if a mechanism can be found, where if these defaulting companies can pay these individuals at least two months of outstanding dues.
Q: What was the response to this particular proposal of clearing two months’ dues?
A. They are going to look at it. All this requires thinking and finding out the conditions of various companies. How it can be done, what are the legal methodologies. It is not a simple matter.
Q: How would you describe these people? Are they stranded people?
A. I would not say stranded. These are not stranded Indians. They are people who are working here, and because companies are going through an economic crisis, they have not been paid. Therefore, if you have not been paid for 8 or 9 months and you have salaries that are not that much, there is a crisis. To a certain extent, measures to mitigate their problems have been taken in terms of providing food. Let me tell you that the Labour Minister said that food and such assistance not being provided is against our culture. It is a humanitarian thing, which should never have happened. I must say that the attitude is very positive to resolve this and assist these people because we have three million Indians working here. They have made a fair contribution to the economy of Saudi Arabia.
Q: And the Saudi labour minister acknowledged this?
A. There is an acknowledgment that Indians have worked very well and they have never created problems. Therefore we must help.
Q: How many Indians would like to go back?
A. Initial assessment indicates that there are a few who would like to go back.
Q: Few, meaning?
A. Few means 100, 200, 300, 400. Those who do not have any liabilities want to go back immediately. There is a majority which needs to pay back personal loans. They would like to go back after their loans are cleared. Anybody who has come here looking for a job and has worked for 6, 7 or 8 years, they are looking at continuing this journey that they have embarked on in working here. There are some who have worked for only two years. For them, the liabilities are not high and they would like to go back.
Q: An erroneous impression was created in Indian media that Saudi Arabia was in some kind of a war-like situation and that Indians were marooned on an island of nowhere. That certainly did not help...
A.The problem is that such stories look very romantic. And I think the media in general tends to portray everything as war. Nobody understood the crisis. The crisis is of a different nature. It is only when you talk to the people that you come to know. Even where the food aspect is concerned, there were one or two places—very few places where this crisis came up.
Q: But it was projected that Indians were starving.
A. Nobody was starving. What happens is if a person did not get proper food for one day, he would say, “Oh, we haven’t got food today.” It gets accentuated. Plus, the frustration. You know, 8 or 9 months of not getting paid. And obviously people who come here, some of them come from not very rich economic background. They have liabilities at home, hence the crisis. They cannot send money back, they do not have money to run their daily expenses. That is what becomes a crisis.
Q: In the statement that I read yesterday after the meeting with the Labour Minister, you mentioned only one company that had a problem.
A. There may be more companies, but this food issue came up only with one company. And that problem has been solved.
Q: Generally in such cases where Indians do not have money, do we have a corpus fund or something within the ministry, with the embassy or the consulate to help? Right now did the community chip in?
A. The problem is where the food and other things are concerned, the embassy is providing food. We have authorised the missions to provide food from our expenses. We are not charging anybody. The ministry has made arrangements from a particular welfare fund. But given the proportion, suddenly these camps came up. So we appealed to the Indian community because we did not know how long it would last. Nobody can say one day or five days. The Indian community and Indian companies rallied around, and they have helped openheartedly. We are now looking at a situation where if after some time there is a limit to what a community will voluntarily give, we will chip in on that. But the issue here is that this came up in only a few camps.
Q: But has the Labour Ministry now promised that they will provide food as well?
A. Yes. Food, medicine and other daily needs of our workers in Saudi Oger camps will continue to be provided by the Saudi government. The others will continue to be taken care by our embassy.
Q: Has the Indian government thought of providing interim relief to these workers?
A. We have asked these people to file claims with the embassy and the consulate. These claims are against their dues from the defaulting companies. Once they make the claims, the Saudi Labour Ministry is going to find out measures as to how they are going to get their dispute resolved so that this money can come. The Indian mission’s job is to ensure that they get these claims from the people and get them filed to the Labour Ministry.
Q: In the past, we have seen that the missions did not have enough money to hire legal help.
A. In the last two-and-a-half years that we have been in government, I have not heard any mission which has said they do not have money to hire legal help.
Q: Did the good relationship that exists between the two countries ease the crisis?
A. Obviously, the warmth in the relationship is very visible. The moment I came here, the Labour Minister met me and assured me. The King has already ordered for these issues to be resolved in the fastest possible time. This shows the warmth in our relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Q: Your message from Jeddah to the Indian community in India.
A. My message to the Indian community in India is that let us not panic. Companies fail in all countries. There is a methodology. Let us not unnecessarily ascribe different motives to it. People are being looked after. There is a big Indian community in Saudi Arabia. There is a very responsive mission in Saudi Arabia and I find there is a very responsive government in Saudi Arabia to assist us. So have a little patience, things will work out.