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Condition of Indian workers in Gulf pitiable

On November 18, 2007

Business Standard features a Q&A session with overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi, who discusses the recent uprising by Indian workers in Dubai:

For the first time after the attack on Kuwait, things are getting worse for Indian workers in the Gulf. How worried are you about this?

Just a few days ago, Dubai saw a major uprising by workers, majority of them Indians. Since I was travelling in the region, we got some idea of the simmering anger and frustration among Indians. Their working conditions were pitiable and with the falling value of the dollar they were losing Rs 7-8 per dollar of their earnings. Everyone knew that the rents in the Gulf, particularly in Dubai, have zoomed during the last few years. At stake was the future of nearly five million Indians — 75 per cent of whom are unskilled — working in the region. I have been speaking to the labour ministers of all the countries, as a result of which we have a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on labour laws with Kuwait and the UAE in place. At the end of the month, I will be signing a similar MoU with the labour minister of Qatar. I also got encouraging responses from Bahrain and Oman on this. These MoUs are aimed at protecting the rights of Indian workers in these countries.

As many as 90 Indians are facing charges of rioting and many more could be deported from the UAE alone. Why did everyone fail to act —till it erupted in violence?

The crown prince of the UAE was very sympathetic to the problems of Indian workers when I met him. The UAE authorities had sincerely started working on actualising the MoU and had appointed 150 labour inspectors. Unfortunately, this was done just before Ramadan when little work is done there. The workers’ anger erupted in the intervening period. I am told that the UAE has asked its labour ministry to prepare a proposal for a wage hike for workers.

What are the other benefits of these MoUs you have signed?

In the UAE for example, the government is abolishing the sponsorship system for immigrant workers. Henceforth, a worker will only be required to sign an agreement with his employer. Also, these countries are making rules that would ensure that the employer becomes the custodian of the workers’ passports and not merely a snatcher of passports. Besides, their salaries would have to be credited through the banks. Inspectors will make spot checks to scrutinise working conditions. There will be biannual meetings at the ministerial level to review the condition of workers.

A large community of Indian workers is in Saudi Arabia. Has Riyadh agreed to liberalise near prison-like conditions of work for Indians?

In fact, the largest number of Indians in the Gulf are in Saudi Arabia. So far they have not agreed to make any changes in their labour laws. However, we have not given up on that front — India continues to enjoy tremendous goodwill across the region.

We, at our end, have not been able to check the problem of illegal immigrants. Does this bother you?

Yes, last year alone, of some 640,000 Indians who went to Gulf countries, 532,000 went on visit visas. A majority of such people do not come back and start working there. In turn they are also exploited as indentured labourers by the companies there. I was amazed to learn that Hyderabad is becoming the major exit route for illegal immigrants. In the UAE alone, of the 62,000 illegal immigrants from India (who were granted amnesty recently), 45,000 are from Hyderabad. As I looked deeper into the problem, I realised that at the international airport in Hyderabad the immigration checking is done by the local police and not the IB (Intelligence Bureau). We must plug these loopholes soon.

Where else are Indian workers facing problems?

In Kuala Lumpur. About 150,000 Indians are held up as the authorities are not extending their work visas. Most of them are labourers and unskilled workers. We have to productively intervene to alleviate their sufferings.

You are passionately involved in the problems of expatriate workers and seldom associate your ministry with the affluent Non Resident Indian (NRI) community. They too have problems…

NRIs do not need me — they are too well off to require any help. Do you know, in the US alone 2.6 per cent of NRIs are millionaires and 7 per cent billionaires? We have been engaging them in the past and seeking investments from them. One decade of our effort has yielded just 5 per cent of the FDI by NRIs. So why waste time and energy on them? Instead, they (pointing to a sheaf of online petitions from workers) need me and I am available to them. I am not apologetic about my concern for overseas workers. They sent in about $24.6 billion worth of remittances last year alone. We beat China and Mexico on this count. Of this, 50 per cent is sent by those in the Gulf. The prime minister has acknowledged the role of the expatriate workers as well. Talking about investments, the country is getting huge investments from Gulf-based NRIs in the hospitality sector. They may not be billionaires and millionaires, but they are keen to recycle their earnings back into their motherland.

Sometimes you are labelled as a Minister for Overseas Malayalees, obviously because of your promptness in attending to the problems of workers from Kerala.

Gone are the days when only Malayalees would go abroad for work. Today, my ministry is dealing with people from Rajasthan, Punjab and even Bihar. But I am not shy of talking about the special soft corner I have for Kerala workers. Their story is sad and tragic. Immigration to the Gulf from Kerala started some 30- 40 years ago. Nobody had access, time and money to travel to Madras to get a passport. They would take country boats to travel, many would perish en route. Their money was hard-earned and without valid papers many people were incarcerated. It was the visionary Indira Gandhi who empathised with their problems. She sent MEA officials to the region and got the passports issued to thousands of workers to save them from being jailed.