India’s overseas migrant workers: exploitation remains a problem

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The recent tragic deaths of 46 Indian migrant workers in a fire in an unsafe accommodation block in Kuwait has reignited concerns the Indian government is failing to exert sufficient pressure on overseas governments and businesses to protect the safety and labour rights of Indians employed overseas in unskilled and semi-skilled work.

There is something all too familiar about the life of Indian migrant workers. Poverty and a lack of opportunities push thousands of these workers to leave their families and migrate overseas in search of work and much-needed income.

A recent International Labour Organization (ILO) report found that the total percentage of unemployed young people in India has almost doubled in the past 20 years or so, from 35.2 per cent in 2000 to 65.7 per cent in 2022. Against a backdrop of rising unemployment, Indian workers are facing acute financial distress, which is driving the46 indian migrant workers in an unsafe am into signing up to work in countries with poor labour and housing practices and conflict zones such as Israel.

This June, a tragic fire in a Kuwait labour camp, which claimed the lives of 46 Indian workers, and the death of an Indian migrant worker after a gruesome workplace accident in Italy, have again highlighted the vulnerability of India’s migrant workers. These high-profile incidents, widely reported in both Indian and global media, have shone a spotlight on the horrific working conditions faced by a large, and often ignored, section of the Indian diaspora.

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The massive blaze in Kuwait’s Mangaf area on 12 June claimed the lives of 50 migrant workers from south and south-east Asia and left many others injured. As many as 46 Indian workers were killed in blaze, which has been described as the deadliest building fire in Kuwait’s history. The seven-storey building housed around 180 low-income workers, who often work under exploitative contracts and live in overcrowded housing, with limited or poorly enforced regulatory protections.

According to media reports, the fire was caused by an electrical short-circuit in the building’s ground floor guard’s room, sending smoke billowing up to the upper floors, where most of the occupants were asleep.

Local newspapers reported that many victims suffocated as they tried to escape, as the stairs were filled with smoke and the door to the roof was allegedly locked. The building was also reportedly occupied beyond its capacity, and Kuwait Fire Department told local media that flammable materials used as partitions in the building contributed to the spread of the blaze and the creation of dense smoke.

Col. Sayed Hassan Al-Moussawi, an official in Kuwait’s firefighting force, told reporters: “In a building like this, you’re supposed to go up to the roof, but unfortunately the door to the roof was locked.”

High death toll
Commentators say that the rapid spread of the blaze and high death toll suggest that the building did not have adequate safety provisions, such as suitable fire exits and fire-fighting equipment.

Following the blaze, Kuwait’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defence and Interior Minister Sheikh Fahad Al-Yousef Al-Sabah immediately ordered unannounced inspections of buildings and worker camps across the country to identify and crack down on properties housing migrant workers where overcrowding and safety violations occur. He also ordered the arrest of the building’s owner and the Minister of Public Works and Municipality Affairs Noura Al-Mashaan ordered an investigation into building violations at the blaze site and suspended several top municipality officials linked to the incident.

Incidentally, 24 of the workers who perished in the blaze were from Kerala, and it is estimated that over 50 per cent of all Indian workers in Kuwait are from that state. Indian workers are thought to form 30 per cent of Kuwait’s workforce, with an estimated 900,000 Indians working in sectors such as construction, healthcare and domestic work. Many of the other expatriate workers in Kuwait are from other countries in south and south-east Asia.

Speaking to reporters, Kerala Governor Arif Mohammed Khan said that both the state of Kerala and India as a country need to consider why the nation’s people are being forced to go abroad for employment, leaving behind their homes and often their families.
‘Serious matter of concern’

Expressing shock over the tragedy, Congress leader and former member of parliament for the Wayanad Lok Sabha seat of Kerala, Rahul Gandhi, who recently assumed the role of the Leader of Opposition (LoP) in the lower House of Parliament, said the dismal condition of “our workers in the Middle East is a serious matter of concern”.

Shashi Tharoor, Congress MP for the Thiruvananthapuram constituency of Kerala, called for legislation to “ensure decent conditions of work and security for our migrant workers”.

About 13 million Indians work abroad - more than 60 per cent of them in Gulf nations - according to information shared with Parliament by the Indian Foreign Ministry in 2023.

Kuwait has a population of over 4.8 million, of which 21 per cent are Indians. The money the migrants send back to India amounts to more than a fourth of the diaspora’s annual remittances.

Vulnerable to exploitation
However, commentators say Indian labourers employed as unskilled and semi-skilled workers in Gulf countries like Kuwait – such as construction labourers, masons, domestic staff and food delivery riders – are vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers and recruitment agents, and sometimes face poor working and living conditions and discrimination.

Many workers who migrate to Gulf Cooperation Council (CGC) countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – are tied to their employers due to the kafala sponsorship system, which was created in the 1950s to control migration into Arab countries. Although the system allows for the supply of cheap, plentiful labour during an era of economic growth, it has become increasingly controversial due to the associated perceived exploitation of migrant workers.

Under the kafala system, a foreign worker’s legal status is tied to their employer. The system gives employers enormous power over workers’ lives and working conditions, and in some circumstances, they may even bar workers from leaving the country. This lack of legal protection potentially leaves workers vulnerable to exploitation, with many enduring low wages, poor working conditions and various forms of abuse.

“The Kafala system’s exploitative practices must be addressed, and a more just and equitable system should be put in place,” states Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain, a campaign group that documents and highlights human rights violations in Bahrain, the rest of the Middle East and North Africa.

“The international community must continue to press for reform to ensure that migrant workers can live and work in conditions that respect their human rights and freedom,” it states.
Significant debts

Commentators say that the kefala system severely limits the ability of migrants in Gulf countries to demand occupational safety improvements at work and seek better housing, because they are financially tied to their employer. They argue that workers often incur significant debts to pay recruiters to provide them with work in the Gulf, although employers are meant to cover and pay these fees. Most GCC countries prohibit workers from forming unions, and there have been instances of the authorities detaining and deporting striking workers.

Employers in Gulf countries have also been accused of confiscating workers’ passports, and commentators say that fear of loss of employment and being deported prevents migrants from complaining about the quality of their working and living conditions.

Campaigners also allege that migrants in GCC countries sometimes face hazardous working conditions, unpaid wages and inadequate housing, while employers rarely face prosecution for breaching labour laws.

Commentators add that owners of buildings used to house migrants and employers sometimes endanger lives by placing foreign workers in overcrowded and unsafe housing in order to save money. They also accuse local officials in Gulf countries of corruption by sometimes turning a blind eye to housing violations, such as unsafe and overcrowded accommodation.

Campaigners allege that the authorities in Gulf countries, and the Indian government, are sometimes negligent in protecting migrants from exploitation. They have called for much stricter law enforcement to prevent future tragedies like the deadly blaze in Mangaf.

Indian migrants in the Gulf countries have long complained of hazardous (and sometimes deadly) working conditions, long hours, unpaid wages and cramped and unsanitary housing, says Human Rights Watch, a campaign group that investigates and reports on abuses happening in all corners of the world.

Between 2019 and 30 June 2023, India’s External Affairs Ministry received 48,095 complaints of abuse filed by workers with Indian embassies in the six Gulf countries. Kuwait led with 23,020 complaints, followed by Saudi Arabia with 9,346.

The migrants complained mostly about non-payment of wages, denial of labour rights and benefits, denial of residence permits or their renewal, denial of weekly allowances, overtime
or weekly holidays and forced long hours.

Abuse of labour rights
The abuse of migrant workers’ labour rights in the Gulf was most evident in the lead-up to the FIFA Soccer World Cup in 2022 in Qatar.

Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers came under particular global scrutiny when the small but wealthy country surprisingly won the right to host the football World Cup in 2010. However, more than 6,500 workers from Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka died in the country in the period 2010–2022, The Guardian UK newspaper reported in 2021.

The most common cause was recorded as ‘natural death’ attributed to heart or respiratory failure, suggesting the causes were not work-related. However, studies have linked exposure to extreme summer heat – for example, while working outdoors for prolonged periods – to cardiac arrest.

“The World Cup organisers were well aware of the issues but failed to put in place adequate measures to protect workers and prevent predictable labour abuses at World Cup sites, even after workers raised these issues directly,” said Steve Cockburn, Amnesty International’s head of economic and social justice.

Soaring temperatures
In fact, for manual workers from India and elsewhere the situation gets far worse in the soaring temperatures that are common in Gulf countries. “Despite substantial scientific evidence on the devastating health impact of exposure to extreme heat, Gulf states’ protection failures are causing millions of migrant workers to face grave risks, including death,” said Human Rights Watch in a recent report.

In fact, in 2015, Human Rights Watch issued guidelines urging international and domestic construction companies in CGC countries to ensure their contractors and sub-contractors adopt standards and practices that respect migrant workers’ rights and protect workers from abuses like trafficking and forced labour.

The Guide to Doing Ethical Business in the GCC sets out standards for ensuring workers’ rights under international law and minimising the risk of labour abuse in the supply chains of construction companies operating in the GCC. The guidelines cover issues such as recruitment fees, timely payment of wages, passport confiscation, accommodation and health and safety, and also recommend independent third-party monitoring of companies’ labour practices to ensure effective implementation.

However, commentators say that despite some positive legal reforms and improvements, a significant proportion of migrant construction workers in the GCC remain vulnerable to exploitation, poor working conditions and cramped, unsuitable housing.

Death in Italy
Meanwhile, the brutal death of an Indian farmworker in Italy on 19 June shocked the nation and shone a light on the plight of undocumented migrants, or ‘invisible workers’, who work long hours in wretched conditions for paltry wages to harvest produce from fields in some European countries.

There was widespread outrage among Indians living in Italy after the death of 31-year-old Satnam Singh, who worked as a farm worker in Agro Pontino, near Latina, a rural area south of Rome that is home to tens of thousands of Indian migrant workers.

Singh died after he was dumped on the road without medical assistance by his employer after his arm was severed by heavy farm machinery. Singh, who was from Moja city in Punjab state, had moved to Italy for work four years earlier. AFP reported that he was working without the proper legal papers.

Italian police told a news agency that they were alerted by Singh’s wife and friends, and an air ambulance was dispatched.

BBC News quoted Italian media as saying that Singh’s alleged boss, Antonello Lovato, left Singh and his wife by the roadside near their home. Singh’s severed arm was placed in a fruit crate.

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said that Singh, one of thousands of Indian immigrants who work the fields in the country, was the victim of “inhuman acts”.

“These are inhumane acts that do not belong to the Italian people,” she said following a Cabinet meeting. “I hope that this barbarity will be punished harshly.”

In a statement, Maria Grazia Gabrielli, from Italy’s largest trade union CGIL, said: “Exploitation in the fields very often results in starvation wages, unsafe and inhuman working rhythms and conditions, psychological and physical violence.”

India’s Ministry of External Affairs condemned the employer’s negligence regarding the treatment of Singh, stating that his employer, who was responsible for his medical care, had been arrested.
Ministry of External Affairs official spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal called for humane treatment of workers, adding that all possible assistance was being provided to the family of the deceased.
Better coordination

Speaking to The Wire media outlet, KP Fabian, a former Ambassador to Qatar and Iran, said there needs to be better communication and coordination among countries that allow workers to travel to countries such as those in the Gulf to ensure the safety and employment rights of those workers. He argued that competition among labour-exporting countries to enable their workers to move to Gulf and other countries for work should not stop these nations collaborating to protect all migrant workers from labour abuse and unsafe working and living conditions in the host countries.

He added that, as leading nation in South Asia, India has a responsibility to be one of the global leaders in tackling the problems faced by migrant workers everywhere, and needed to make precrisis plans to protect Indian workers overseas, rather than simply making post-crisis interventions.

Meanwhile, in an editorial comment published after the Mangaf fire tragedy, The Indian Express said India’s central and state governments needed to do “much more” to protect migrants in countries like the Gulf. “They should use the growing goodwill for India in the West Asian countries to guarantee the wellbeing of the migrant labour force,” the newspaper argued.

The Indian Express also argued that the country’s Emigration Act was 40 years old, and leaves migrant workers at risk of exploitation. However, despite the External Affairs Ministry acknowledging in Parliament last year that a new law is required to cover migration issues, the legislation has yet to be drafted or introduced.

“The toll taken by the Kuwait fire is a reminder that the new government has to do much more to safeguard the lives of Indians who go abroad to work,” stated The Indian Express.


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