DUBAI: “I like it here”, said my taxi driver Arjun as he whisked me from the Dubai International Airport to my hotel, “but I miss my family in Kerala”. Arjun is one of the 8.5 million Indians who live and work within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), in many cases forming a large percentage of the population. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) alone live some 2.8 million Indians, accounting for about 30% of the total population of just over 9.3 million. Although the presence of an Indian workforce in the GCC goes back many decades, there was huge growth in numbers following the massive increase in oil prices in 1973. Most of these were semi or unskilled workers employed in manual labour and coming from the poorest sections of Indian society. For these there was the promise of wealth beyond dreams. Unfortunately for many, these dreams have turned into nightmares, suffering harsh conditions and the denial of basic labour rights.
When an Indian worker enters the private sector employment in the GCC, he/she is granted a visa within the “kafala” system. This sponsorship system ties the worker to a residency permit, which, under normal circumstances, means that they have to get written consent from their sponsor to change employer or even to exit the country. This clearly leaves Indian workers open to abuse and has been condemned by the International Labour Organisation. There have been many cases of employers confiscating passports, delaying the payment of wages, or even deporting workers, without having to present any reason for such action. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report in 2016 detailed examples of authorities frequently failing to prosecute sponsors for breaking laws and breaching contracts. An earlier HRW report in 2013 excoriated Saudi Arabia for failing to take action against a range of abuses, including overwork, food deprivation, forced confinement, and psychological, physical, verbal and sexual abuse. A number of Indian-based agencies, which have recruited domestic workers to work in the GCC states, have been accused of colluding with prospective employers to exploit illiterate and ill-informed workers, promising false wages and conditions while misinforming them about their rights.
The receipt of foreign remittances forms an important part of the Indian economy; those from the GCC alone account for more than half of its worldwide remittances. A World Bank report in 2016 showed that India expected to receive a total of $65.5 billion in that year. An astute Narendra Modi government would therefore seek to maintain or even increase this flow, recalling that during the financial crisis of 1991, foreign remittances played a huge part in relieving the balance of payment crisis, as well as mitigating high local unemployment. This benefit is two-way, as the Gulf relies on a sizeable Indian labour force for the development of its economy. Providing such a large percentage of the Gulf’s labour force, India can exploit its importance as an international partner in the area. Not only is the GCC one of India’s largest trading partners and an essential provider of energy imports, but recent years have seen a huge growth in India’s strategic interests in the Gulf. So, India provides cheap, reliable, hard-working and largely docile workers, the loss of which would cause substantial economic disruption, and in return it gets financial, economic and influential benefits. Improving conditions for workers in the Gulf would not only maintain these benefits, but could also yield significant political gains for the Modi government.
Soon after Narendra Modi’s 2014 election victory, there was a gradual move to give states in India more say in foreign policy, with Sushma Swaraj holding meetings with MPs from some labour-exporting states to discuss issues relating to the Indian Gulf diaspora. When visiting Oman a year later, she described the welfare of the Indian diaspora as one of the top priorities of the Modi government. Soon after, the Saudi Ministry of Labour and Social Development introduced 38 amendments to the Saudi labour laws, such as prohibiting the confiscation of passports, or a delay in the payment of wages, punishing them heavily if they contravened. The Arab News, in October 2015, reported that the new inspection and enforcement regime had resulted in over 1,440 firms being shut down for failing to safeguard worker’s wages. So far so good, but more should be done. Delhi should develop new Memoranda of Understanding during bilateral discussions with Gulf states, which should address fundamental changes, such as the abolishment of the “kafala” system, in order to improve workers’ rights. Debt entrapment has become a weapon of choice of some Gulf employers and Indian recruitment firms, and these should be shut down if they mislead workers on how much they will earn and the debts they will owe. Among many other improvements, India should identify Gulf-based companies that have a history of violating workers’ rights, denying future workers emigration clearances to work for these firms.
In just three years of office, Narendra Modi has created a greater awareness of the conditions of the Gulf Indian diaspora. Notably, when addressing a stadium of 50,000 expatriate Indians in the UAE, his first stop on a Gulf tour after his election, he praised the local rulers for setting aside land for the building of the first Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi, a sign of the country’s recognition of the diaspora. He later visited a migrant labour camp and expressed concern for the well-being of workers living there. This is clear evidence that Modi has moved much further and faster than his predecessors, but there is still a substantial distance to go.