Page 1 of 2 SPEAKING FREELY India can no longer ignore Gulf labor pain
By Zakir Hussain
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Migration from the Indian subcontinent is an age-old phenomenon. In modern times, it began with the export of indentured laborers to British colonies round the world to work in plantations. To handle the issue, British India promulgated the first Emigration Act in 1922. The aim of the act was, however, more about maximizing the interests of plantation industrialists than on safeguarding
Indian workers. Until 1983, this legislation continued to handle emigration flows from India.
After the first Gulf oil boom in 1973-74, India experienced a massive exodus of workers to the Gulf region. This necessitated emigration legislation that kept pace with the times, and hence a new Emigration Act was passed in 1983. The focus of the new act was on management and promotion of migration from India to the six oil-rich Gulf states. Besides remittances, its aim was also to tap the overseas employment opportunities. Until 2002, the 1983 Act - with some amendments and reforms - continued to manage the emigration process from India.
From the 1990s, globalization speeded up the cross-border movement of people, making India one of the largest labor-sending countries in the world. The intensified emigration also brought to light a large number of cases of fraud and exploitation of the Indian workers both in the sending and host countries. The Emigration Act of 1983 proved inadequate to meet this new contingency. Accordingly, New Delhi passed the Emigration Act 2001 and a year earlier established the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA).
The 2001 legislation put the focus on the welfare and protection of overseas Indian workers. It tried to address recruitment problems, ensure adequate security and protection to Indian workers in the Gulf countries, and also took into account the interests of returning migrants. To safeguard women, the Act fixed 35 years as the minimum age for the migration of domestic workers overseas. The MOIA signed manpower agreements in the light of the new legislation with five Gulf countries, with the exception of Saudi Arabia.
Recently, the government has drafted a new Immigration (Amendment) Bill, to be tabled in the Parliament and seeking to make "it mandatory for recruiting agencies, employers and workers to register with the ministry". Besides, the government has also started a new "e-migrate" online project, particularly to "enable the Ministry to keep track of everything related to emigration". The eMigrate system is also designed to help the authorities to "issue E-passport containing the electronic chip with personal and biometric details of the emigrants".
The problem with regard to Indian expatriate workers resurfaced after Saudi Arabia implemented the Nitaqat program in 2011, essentially intended at flushing out illegal foreign workers. It was found that out of 2.8 million Indian expatriate workers, approximately 1.4 million, did not have proper legal documents. They were either overstaying or working as huroob (having run away from the sponsors). As a result, until November 2013, approximately 140,000 Indians were sent back. This is nearly two-thirds of the 240,000 expatriates from 17 nations who were expelled from Saudi Arabia.
Overnight, these return migrants, who were earlier seen as a source of economic stability and prosperity for their families and communities, became a serious cause of concern. During the earlier days of employment in the Gulf, they and their families had been buying real estate in their neighborhoods; in the changed circumstances of economic strains, they were compelled to sell their properties, crashing the real estate market.
It needs to be noted in this context that Kuwait also is planning to reduce the number of foreign workers by 800,000 annually to limit their number to between 2 to 3 million. Around 2 million Indians presently work in Kuwait.
Although the prospect for Indian workers in the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, is brighter than for many other nationalities, New Delhi needs to undertake some of the following measures both to sustain its credibility in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) guest labor market and to safeguard the interests of its citizens - both in host countries and when they return, especially when in old age and financial distress. Political volatility at frequent intervals in the oil-rich Gulf region complicates the matters further.
To tackle the challenges, India should consider the following steps:
a)?New Delhi needs to plug illegal migration and tackle the problem of overstaying. For this, India could establish a department in the destination countries to check the documents of Indian workers, annually or once every two years, and take necessary measures. The department could also collect feedback from the workers about their living and working conditions. This will help the Indian government to upgrade/reform its bilateral labor agreements.
b) Being the largest labor-sending country to Saudi Arabia, India needs to evolve a detailed labor policy with Riyadh. The current situation is an opportune time for the two countries to sign a manpower agreement. As pointed out earlier, Saudi Arabia is the only GCC country with whom India has not yet signed such an agreement. Like other common policies on currency, energy, trade and movement of native workers, the GCC should also develop a common immigration law. The GCC as a bloc needs a common labor policy as Gulf states receive labor from the same countries.
c) Migration is a two-way flow. However, the sending countries rarely undertake a study on the destination countries' labor market. Looking at the changing labor market dynamics in the GCC, it is pertinent that India should establish a Migration Resource Centre (MRC) and research host-country labor markets.