Migrant workers

The Asian workforce in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries

Print edition : December 18, 2020

Filipino overseas workers from Kuwait arrive at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, in Manila on February 23, 2018, following President Rodrigo Duterte’s call to evacuate workers after a Filipina was found dead in a freezer in the Gulf country. Photo: Romeo Ranoco/REUTERS

The essays deal with a variety of policies and issues affecting the migrant workforce in the GCC countries.

THE two editors of the book under review, S. Irudaya Rajan and Ginu Zacharia Oommen, need no introduction to the reading public. Rajan, who is a professor at the Centre for Developing Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, has over 35 years of research experience in migration issues. Oommen, member of the Kerala Public Service Commission, has taught or held fellowship at universities in France, Sweden and elsewhere. He has done extensive fieldwork in Palestine, Israel, France, Kuwait and Kerala. His published works include South Asian Migration to Gulf Countries: History, Policies, Development (2015).

Asianization of Migrant Workers in the Gulf Countries has 16 chapters. The contributors include scholars from nine countries, among them Australia and Canada. The 76 tables/figures used in the volume attest to the industrious research the contributors have done.

The central thesis of the book is that Asians have migrated to the Gulf in large numbers since the 1980s, displacing the Arabs. Of the 15 million foreign workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, 12 million are from non-Arab Asia. This is convincingly argued and the preference of the Gulf rulers for non-Arab Asians is highlighted. Initially, following the oil boom of the 1970s, a large number of people migrated to the GCC countries from other Arab states, including Egypt, but by the 1980s the rulers in the Gulf became concerned about the political risk of ‘radical’ elements from these countries coming in and in order to “mainly safeguard the political interests of the oil rich monarchies”, non-Arabs became the preferred workforce.

The political risk as such does not fully account for the Asianisation. The editors state in the opening chapter, “Asianization in the Gulf: A Fresh Outlook”: “The Asian workforce became a preferred choice due to certain characteristics, specifically docility, political neutrality, flexibility, willingness to work at manageable wages and readiness to work hard.” They trace the history of Indians going to the Gulf in the 19th century as Britain started to gain political control of the region. The extraction of oil starting from the 1970s caused a large influx of foreign workers into the Gulf.

“Majority of the Asian migrants in GCC countries are semi-skilled or unskilled workers, mostly illiterate, single and male.” The Asian migration to GCC countries is predominantly a male phenomenon, with women accounting for only 15 per cent, mainly on account of the prevailing “patriarchy” in the sending countries.

On the question of the treatment meted out to the workers by their employers and the reluctance on the part of the host government to take corrective action when the employer misbehaves, “the policymaking centers in Asia” have been focussing attention on maximising the remittances, avoiding any confrontation “with the generally repressive regimes in the Gulf”.

Is India actively promoting export of labour? No. “The job market in Gulf countries is not egalitarian in nature, and the wage differential is quite high between expatriates and the natives. However, the policies of all Asian countries, except India, promote migration.” There is no consolidated account of what India should be doing. As a matter of fact, there is a lot the Centre and the State governments, especially Kerala, can do to avail themselves of the opportunities in the Gulf.

There are International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions and United Nations General Assembly Resolutions on migrant workers. To what extent the GCC countries have adhered to them, and to what extent they comply with them? Zahra R. Babbar, Assistant Director for Research at Center for International and Regional Studies, Georgetown University School, Qatar, has addressed these questions in the chapter titled “Understanding Labour Migration Policies in the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries”. The ILO Conventions/U.N. General Assembly Resolutions have no provision for ensuring compliance by the signatory states. The GCC countries look at migrant workers primarily as coming under the ambit of immigration laws. In short, migrant workers are not treated as human beings per se.

The essays deal with a variety of issues of public interest.

Among the sending countries, the Philippines stands out for equipping its embassies to look after and defend the interests of its migrant workers. Nail G. Ruiz, in the essay “The Rise of the Philippine Emigration State: Protecting Migrant Workers in the Gulf Cooperation Countries”, has given an excellent account of the origins of the 1995 Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipino Act, considered as the Magna Carta of FOWs (Filipino overseas worker). Flora Contemplacion, 42, mother of four, working as housemaid in Singapore, was charged with double murder of another FOW, Delia Mega and her employer’s child. Flora, not knowing English, was coerced into signing papers confessing to the double murder. She had no legal assistance. Despite appeals from the Philippine President, Singapore executed Flora. The media and the public started a campaign for justice for FOWs. The Foreign Secretary and his colleague in charge of Export of Labour had to resign. When this reviewer was Ambassador to Qatar in the early 1990s, the Philippine Embassy had qualified lawyers working as Labour Attaches. Obviously, India and other labour-exporting states can learn much from the Philippines.

A related question is how and whether India prepares its migrant workers before they start work in the Gulf. It has been reported that a Filipino housemaid on landing at a GCC airport does not go directly to the employer. The Embassy keeps her for a day or two and briefs her about the dos and don’ts. The NORKA (non-resident Keralite affairs) ROOTS, Kerala government’s distress relief initiative, of which the State Chief Minister is chairman, should undertake a study of what the Philippines is doing in such matters.

Human rights of workers

The great merit of this volume is that the migrant worker is seen and respected as a human being, not just a sender of money. M.V. Bijulal, Assistant Professor at Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam, in “Contemporary Forms of Slavery, Citizenship and Human Rights of Migrant Workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries”, has made out a strong case for upholding the human rights of workers. His idea of sending countries collectively engaging the receiving state/states does make sense. However, we live in a world where ideas that make sense are unlikely to be acted upon.

Oommen’s essay (“Gulf Migration, Remittance and Religion: Interplay of Faith and Prosperity Amongst Syrian Christians in Kerala”) on the interface between religious practice and migration as applied to the Syrian Christian community in Kerala is fascinating. “Religious and spiritual reorientation amongst Syrian Christian communities in the host countries is abetting the assertion of communal identity, proliferation of radical religious groups, rise of godmen and cults, and the emergence of new forms of worship in the Kerala society” (emphasis added).

We should complement the editors for bringing together so many scholars to write on a theme of enduring importance. The ground realities have changed much since this volume was composed. Kuwait has passed a law to bring down the percentage of foreigners in the total population from the current level of 70 to 30. Oman has added momentum to Omanisation. The expatriate population in Oman has reduced this year as compared to the previous year by 10.2 per cent among Bangladeshis, 14.5 per cent among Indians, 11.9 per cent among Pakistanis and 1.1 per cent among Egyptians.

There is an excellent chapter on Nitaqat, Saudi Arabia’s new labour policy, by Zakir Hussain, Research Fellow at Indian Council for World Affairs, New Delhi. But with fast moving developments it has become outdated.

This significant change in ground realities calls for another book spelling out what governments have to do. What is lacking in India and elsewhere is creative interaction between scholars and the government. Let us hope that the Kerala government will take the initiative in this regard. How about an executive summary in such books meant to give advice to governments in a consolidated fashion?

The price of the book is slightly puzzling. A suitably priced paperback edition will be welcome.

Ambassador K.P. Fabian is professor, Indian Society of International Law, Distinguished Fellow, Symbiosis University.