Workers abroad suffer due to India’s apathy

Columnist  | Sunanda K Datta Ray

Opinion, Columnists

Relatives of the missing workers have knocked at every door since June 2014 when they were last heard of but to no avail.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj (Photo: PTI)

The belated flurry of activity over the 39 Indian workers missing in Iraq for more than three years without anyone turning a hair reminds me of the sad photograph of a haggard unshaven man by the pile of bleached skulls in Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng prison which is now a genocide museum. He was the only Indian among 20,000 prisoners of whom only seven survived. Indian officials could tell me nothing about that man who ventured so far to eke out a living and met his death in the venture. Unlike rich professionals in the US, Indian labourers abroad are not of their class.

A country that can’t look after its own merits contempt. The Mosul jail where the 39 men were kept was demolished long ago. Relatives of the missing workers have knocked at every door since June 2014 when they were last heard of but to no avail. Sushma Swaraj’s well-publicised public appearances and the sudden spurt of energy by television channels are like locking the stable door after the horse has fled. It is a coincidence that this -coincided with the elevation of a President whose caste origin and humble background are his strongest selling points. The impressive borrowed ritual, especially the resplendent cavalry and viceregal landau, hammered home the importance attached to a symbolic mingling of the high and the low. The symbol would have seemed less empty if ordinary Indians abroad were not callously ignored. 

There is also a selfish reason for caring. Two million Indians in the US might organise Madison Square Garden jamborees and pander to India’s “rock-star politician” (quoting Time magazine), but seven million Indians in West Asia serve the country they have never left even if physically absent. In 2015, workers in six Gulf Coordination Council states sent back nearly four times the amount repatriated by the pampered white-collar darlings of the Indian American Community Foundation. 

UAE Indians alone accounted for more than $12.5 billion out of that year’s nearly $69 billion remittance. Although our newspapers speak of “Indian workers emigrating to the Gulf” they don’t emigrate at all. They go on short-term contracts for specific jobs and return home when the contract expires. There is no scope for staying on or investing their savings there. In contrast, the steadily growing number of Indian Americans consists almost entirely of professional migrants. As the plucky Sunayana Dumala demonstrated after a white American racist murdered her engineer husband in Kansas, come hell or high weather, they will not be cheated of their ambition to become American. 

This group doesn’t need India. Rubbing shoulders with New Delhi’s high and mighty at the annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas is only gilt on the gingerbread. Their exaggerated nationalism, compensating for twinges of guilt at abandoning the motherland for filthy lucre, plays straight into the arms of the saffron brigade. 

There would be no objection to flags of convenience if workers in West Asia, Singapore and Malaysia who are often illiterate and at the mercy of unscrupulous middlemen were better treated. 

It used to be joked in the UAE that the temperature never rose above 50 degrees because the law obliged employers to give employees a day off when it did. 

Complaining about the quality of food and long working hours, nearly 3,000 Indian workers in Dubai rioted for less inhuman living and working conditions some years ago. Their being forced to eat humble pie and abandon their demands should have reminded India that no matter how loftily our leaders might talk, a nation that exports unskilled labour must expect to be lumped as the world’s poor relation. Yet, a committee organising Pravasi Bharatiya Divas awards wasn’t at all pleased with a recommendation to honour an NGO that had helped striking workers. Official members would much rather honour the resident Indian diplomat who was one of their own. Who knows what happened to the thousand Indians who lived in Vietnam in 1949 according to American reports?

External affairs ministry outfits abroad possibly feel they have enough on their plate without being burdened with another ministry’s responsibilities. The grumblings of Indian diplomats when I.K. Gujral rescued thousands of workers in Kuwait matched American complaints about his bonhomie with Saddam Hussein. Asked about the number of Indian workers, an Indian high commissioner in Singapore shrugged “How would I know?” No trace of India’s righteously angry reaction to Devyani Khobragade’s treatment in the US was evident when Singapore punished 300 labourers for protesting the death of a 33-year-old Tamil worker run over by a bus. Instead, India’s envoy, Vijay Thakur Singh, gave a clean chit on television to Singapore and promised the “strategic partnership” and cooperation on “a wide range of issues” would not be affected. It was as bad as an earlier high commissioner turning a blind eye to the arrest of nearly 9,000 Indian illegals and pretending not to have received the Singapore government’s 88 letters on the subject. India objected to the ill-treatment of Indians in South Africa only because of Mahatma Gandhi, and also to berate white supremacist colonials.

The only effective long-term answer is a strong economy so that Indians are not forced to seek their fortune abroad. Until then, the government can at least enter into foolproof agreements with employing countries and order its representatives strictly to supervise implementation and keep an eye on the welfare of Indian workers. 

Sadly, one fears nothing will happen and Indians will wriggle through all nets. Our envoys are so busy trying to secure their own post-retirement positions abroad as well as jobs for their children that migrant labour like the 39 missing men will remain at the mercy of unscrupulous employers.