Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | Ensure Indians forced to work abroad remain safe

The Asian Age.  | Sunanda K Datta Ray

Opinion, Columnists

India's Struggle with Migrant Worker Rights: A Call for Decent Conditions and Economic Empowerment

Relatives mourn near the deceased after the coffins' arrival on an Indian Air Force plane from Kuwait at the Cochin International Airport in Kochi on June 14, 2024. Grieving families kept a solemn vigil in the terminal of an Indian airport on June 14 as the bodies of dozens of migrant workers killed in a Kuwait building fire returned home. Wednesday's dawn blaze quickly engulfed a housing block home to some of the many foreign labourers servicing the oil-rich gulf state's economy. (Photo by Arun CHANDRABOSE / AFP)

The law seeking “contractual assurances of decent conditions of life, work, pay and residence” for Indian workers abroad, that Shashi Tharoor demanded after the horrendous Kuwait fire would certainly avoid considerable human suffering.

But it would be even more effective in terms of national self-respect if India ends a form of servitude that broadcasts our government’s colossal failure to the whole world.

Compulsory incarceration at home would solve nothing. What we need are realistic economic policies that go beyond slogans like “Viksit Bharat” and “Swachh Bharat” and create full employment so that Indians don’t need to wander the world with a begging bowl. However, I realised when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed me to a committee involved in the living conditions of the nine million Indians in the Persian Gulf that given their acute awareness of caste and class, my high-powered colleagues on the committee were more interested in placating Indian diplomats in the region than helping the labourers there.

The latter’s living conditions in Singapore and the Gulf are often abysmal. The bitter joke in the Gulf was that no temperature gauge ever rose above 40 degrees because that was when air-conditioning became mandatory.

Those labourers would have stayed on in the scorching desert heat if the law allowed them to do so. Sadly, even exile and neglect were preferable to unemployment at home.

Demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax have aggravated hardship. Unscrupulous agents promise fabulous salaries and generous accommodation so that illiterate peasants sell or mortgage the wife’s jewellery and whatever little land they might have to pay the fare and grease palms for their journey to nowhere. Their passports are taken away and their labour rewarded with a pittance.

The G-7 leaders with whom Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently hobnobbed in Italy courted him mainly because they need an Asian counter to China. It was big news in Singapore but shameful for us when a Tamil lawyer said he earned more as a “karungguni” man (bikriwallah) there than he had at the Bar in Chennai.

Singapore once arrested nearly 9,000 young Indian illegals. Some could not afford a return ticket; others refused to leave jail where life was more comfortable than the struggle outside. Some destroyed their passports and, being Tamil, Telugu or Malayali, pretended they were Singaporean. Ultimately, 1,750 Indians were repatriated.

India’s political establishment wasn’t too pleased when Inder Kumar Gujral, as external affairs minister, flew to Kuwait in 1990 in response to appeals from Indian workers dislocated by Iraq’s invasion, and returned in a blaze of publicity with mounds of mail and 250 passengers, including children, a pregnant woman and several sick persons. The operation invited comparison with the 1961 Berlin airlift.

Indian migrant workers are victims of all manner of hazards. More than 63,000 have died in the six Gulf nations in the past decade, 29,000 of them in the last four years, explaining Mr Tharoor’s call for a bill to ensure decent conditions of work and security. “More than five years ago when I chaired the parliamentary standing committee on external affairs, I requested the government to prepare an updated Emigration Bill to ensure decent conditions of work and security for our migrant workers”, he was quoted as saying. “I am shocked that five years later there is still no bill.”

As it happens, India and Saudi Arabia have signed several agreements on various categories of workers. But they either don’t go far enough or enforcement is subject to human frailty on both sides. Put bluntly, no one cares.

Reports of outrages forced New Delhi to appoint Mr Shashank, who was foreign secretary in 2003-04, to investigate the emigration racket. Indian software engineers in Malaysia complained of harassment. The destruction of Hindu temples there prompted the Hindu Rights Action Force to sue Britain for $4 trillion ($1 million for every Malaysian Indian) for leaving Indians “unprotected and at the mercy of a majority Malay-Muslim government”.

Mr Shashank found that collusion between officials and shadowy syndicates meant doctored passports and forged work permits. Even in the late 1980s, many simple Tamils believed you could go to the bus stand or railway station, buy a ticket, travel to some port and board a ship bound for Singapore from where one walked across the causeway or took a bus to Johor Baru in Malaysia.

Intermediaries exploited their innocence.

India has always been more concerned about diplomatic repercussions than human suffering. This was confirmed again in 2013 when long-suppressed passions exploded in riots after a bus ran over a 33-year-old Tamil worker in Singapore’s Little India. “Cane these hooligans and let them rot in jail”, was one online comment. India’s high commissioner sounded almost as uncaring: India’s “strategic partnership” with Singapore took precedence over the well-being of workers or Mr Shashank’s reminder that these simple folk had helped to build the miracle that is Singapore.

Thousands of Indians slaving for a living in the Gulf, Malaysia and Singapore send home more money home than the pampered white-collar businessmen who organise jamborees in London’s Wembley Stadium and New York’s Madison Square Garden. The “Overseas Citizen of India” status is meaningless for citizens of another country. The Pravasi Bharatiya Divas to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi’s return from South Africa and the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Awards are for high dignitaries. Plans for a separate passport for labourers will further rub in their lowly status.

An active cell in Indian missions abroad to scrutinise employment contracts, watch over execution and inspect residential and recreational facilities in cooperation with local workers’ centres would be more useful even if the bill that Mr Tharoor wants is ever enacted. No one expects Mr Modi to echo Thailand’s Prime Minister who, when asked to send ships to repatriate illegal Thai workers, retorted: “Instead of sending ships, we should send warships to Singapore”. But P.V. Narasimha Rao did warn of “severe repercussions on bilateral ties” when Singapore began whipping offenders, and South Block did summon Singapore’s first secretary and told him of India’s concern. K. Natwar Singh called whipping “barbaric”. Dr Manmohan Singh offended Malaysia by speaking sympathetically in Parliament of the grievances that underlay the Hindu Rights Action Force’s campaign.

The only permanent solution lies not in words but in economic growth and a full employment society. Gloating over Indian investment creating jobs in the United States — 1,13,423 according to one estimate, 50,000 according to another — only exposes the inferiority complex of people who care more for a white hand’s pat on the back than for national self-respect or the welfare of Indians.