Migrant workers

Of human bondage

Print edition : August 08, 2014

Illegal immigrant workers queue up at the Saudi immigration offices in the Alisha area of Riyadh on May 26, 2013, to fix their legal documents for work and residency in the kingdom, after the government introduced the Nitaqat law. Photo: FAISAL AL NASSER/REUTERS

S. Seran of Thittakudi in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu, who was deceived into working as a cattle grazer in Saudi Arabia for three years. A 2012 photograph.

An Amnesty International India report on Indian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia calls attention to their vulnerability to abuse and exploitative recruitment practices and the lack of an emigration law that guarantees them certain basic rights.

THE flow of low-wage workers from India to West Asia, which began with the oil boom in the Gulf countries in the 1970s, has all along brought with it concerns about human rights abuses that migrant workers are subjected to in many host countries.

A report by Amnesty International India released recently to coincide with the anniversary of the introduction of the Nitaqat law in Saudi Arabia—which led to the exodus of 1.4 lakh irregular Indian migrant workers from that country—has found that such abuses continue to happen and that the core reasons are mainly within the emigration and recruitment practices in India.

The report, “Exploited Dreams: Dispatches from Indian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia”, based on interviews with migrants from Kerala who returned home from that country after the introduction of the Nitaqat programme, recruiting agents, government officials and civil society groups, has called attention to the continuing vulnerability of Indian workers to abuse because of the deception they face during the migration process.

This includes workers being cheated by brokers about working conditions, wages, nature of employment, hours of work and payment to the sponsors, about the legality of the work arrangement, and through demands for excessive fees for employment visas. Such a situation leaves room for their exploitation by employers in Saudi Arabia. Indian migrant workers in that country, therefore, face serious human rights abuses, including forced labour and human trafficking, the report released in Thiruvananthapuram on July 4 says.

According to the rights group, Saudi Arabia has attracted more low-paid Indian migrants over the past 25 years than any other country in the Gulf region. Of the 5.6 million Indians estimated to be working in the Gulf countries, over 1.7 million are in Saudi Arabia.

Every day, nearly 1,000 low-wage migrant workers are provided with emigration clearances to travel to Saudi Arabia from India “to work in construction sites, cafeterias, supermarkets and guest houses or to sweep the streets, cook in restaurants and serve in households as domestic workers”. Indian workers in that country alone send back nearly Rs.50,000 crore every year. Remittances to Kerala account for nearly 33 per cent of the State’s net domestic product.

However, the enforcement of the Nitaqat programme (to deal with local unemployment and dependence on foreign workers in the private sector) has had a serious impact on Indian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. The insistence that workers must only work for their sponsoring employers and on the jobs stated on their visas has led to over a million irregular migrant workers being sent home. Of them, about 140,000 are Indian workers. According to the Amnesty report, the plight of these returnees is dire, with many of them finding it hard to get regular jobs back home and struggling to repay their visa loans.

The report documents several cases of human rights abuse of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, such as they being deceived into illegal employment agreements that force them into jobs in which wages are much less than originally promised, make them work for 15 to 18 hours a day, or put them in terrible working conditions and lead them into situations of debt bondage and forced labour.

Workers are also subjected to other forms of abuse—beatings, verbal abuse, confiscation of passports and residency documents apart from being declared as absconding migrants and denied exit permissions to return home. Workers facing these abuses come under severe physical and psychological stress. In a few cases, the abuses amount to forced labour and human trafficking, the report says.

They also face problems regarding wage payment—arbitrary deduction of wages, underpayment, late payment and even non-payment. In some cases, migrant workers said “they were not paid for months, or were not paid at all, and were told by their employers to continue working if they wanted to be paid some day”.

Confiscation of passports of migrant workers continues to be a routine practice in the kingdom, even though the Saudi Council of Ministers had decided in October 2000 that employers were not to do so. Similarly, resident permits issued by the Saudi government (without which migrant workers “cannot work legally, cannot move freely, may not be admitted to hospitals for medical treatment, and can even be arrested”) are also used by employers as a “tool of control” against migrant workers. Sponsors were reported as refusing to give the permits or delaying giving them for months or arbitrarily retaining them until the worker agreed to pay a price for it.

The prevalent practice of reporting a worker as “harib” (runaway worker), or the threat of it, has also been used as a mechanism by sponsors to expel migrant workers from their sponsorship, curb complaints, demand money and threaten them into accepting exploitative conditions of work, the report says. Migrant workers who are determined to be “harib” can be detained and deported. They may also be barred from re-entering Saudi Arabia and their bank accounts may be frozen.

Because of all this, the workers find themselves in a helpless situation, as they are usually burdened also by the debt they have accumulated to buy their visas when they first sought employment and the need to support their families back home.

“According to the ILO [International Labour Organisation], the practice of retaining identity documents is one of the key characteristics of contemporary forced labour, as it prevents workers from leaving their jobs, restricts their movement and makes them vulnerable to threats and intimidation by employers. This was particularly true for migrant workers who were in irregular arrangements, and were working for different employers,” the report says.

Many Gulf countries (including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) have a sponsorship system called “Kafala” (with variations in its form) which regulates recruitment and employment of migrant workers. Under it, every migrant worker must have a specific job and a sponsoring employer under whom he works—and neither of which can be changed easily.

But migrant workers and their sponsors have found ways around it, for example, through an informal arrangement called “free visas”, where a sponsor allows migrant workers to work for other people in return for a monthly or annual payment. But such informal systems make the workers more vulnerable to abuse.

For example, the report says, under the Saudi labour law, employers are required to bear all costs relating to the recruitment and employment of migrant workers, including fees for the application and renewal of residence permits, work permits, changing professions, exit and re-entry visas and air tickets.

But the Amnesty study found that migrant workers who entered Saudi Arabia on free visas were made to pay for their residence permits (“Iqama”) and insurance cards, which they were required to renew periodically. The payment conditions and amounts were determined informally. Workers also were required to pay for the exit permits they needed from their sponsors in order to leave Saudi Arabia. This was yet another instrument used by the sponsors to control and abuse workers.

Amnesty also found cases of “forced labour” where workers had been engaged in employment for which they had not offered themselves voluntarily and faced threats of penalties if they stopped working, including the withholding of passports and exit permits and failure to pay pending salaries.

Emigration laws

Ananth Guruswamy, CEO, Amnesty International India, said while releasing the report that Indian citizens working in many Gulf countries faced enormous hardships, suffering and human rights abuses because of the lack of an emigration law that guaranteed certain basic rights at the pre-departure stage itself.

The report contains evidence of recruiting agents violating emigration laws and policies, including by failing to conduct due diligence to ensure that migrant workers are not deceived. Visa brokers, who are used by most potential migrants, are both unregistered and unregulated and function outside the law. Reliance on brokers to facilitate the recruitment process has often left the migrants vulnerable to deception, exploitation and indebtedness.

A third of the migrant workers interviewed as part of the study said that they had been deceived by their “visa brokers”, who acted as intermediaries between employers and recruiting agents, providing a range of services from selling visa review letters and providing information about jobs and prospective working conditions and wages to directing prospective migrants to recruiting agents for visa processing and buying air tickets. Some brokers are based in Saudi Arabia, where they often receive arriving migrant workers at the airport and act as the first point of contact between them and the sponsoring employer.

The recruitment of Indian migrant workers for employment abroad is governed by the Emigration Act, 1983, under which such recruitments are to be conducted through government-certified recruiting agents (individuals or public or private agencies). Under this law, visa brokers are illegal and can face up to two years in jail and be slapped a fine of up to Rs.2,000.

In the case of Saudi Arabia, only recruitment agents registered with the Saudi consulate in Mumbai—also referred to as wakala holders—are authorised to conduct the visa application process. (“Wakala” is a system of giving authorisation permits to agents to recruit workers on behalf of the Saudi authorities.)

The majority of workers interviewed in the report, however, admitted that they had paid brokers for their visas instead of going through government-certified recruiting agents. “Migrant workers dependent on visa brokers—who are all unregistered and unregulated—can be exposed to exploitation and deception, and made further vulnerable to human rights abuses when they emigrate,” the report says. Under the Emigration Act, recruiting agents have certain obligations towards migrant workers to ensure that they are recruited fairly without deception. But recruiting agents in Kozhikode, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram (the hubs of migration in Kerala), for example, “seemed to believe their obligations did not extend to seeking to ensure that migrant workers travelling to Saudi Arabia are provided safe employment, regular salaries, renewed residency documents or a mechanism to settle disputes with their employers”.

The report also mentions that one of the crucial challenges migrant workers continue to face is the “difficulty in accessing authentic and timely information” relating to overseas employment, recruitment agents and emigration procedures, which makes them dependent on intermediaries and vulnerable to exploitation.

The report makes recommendations on the steps the Indian and Kerala governments must take to fulfil their obligation to strengthen protections for the rights of migrant workers abroad. This includes effective regulation of recruiting agents and visa brokers; compulsory pre-departure training programmes, and effective access to remedy; a contemporary emigration law to replace the Act of 1983; and steps to make recruitment companies involved in the “wakala system” accountable for the welfare of the recruited migrant workers in Saudi Arabia.

It has also called on the Saudi government to (a) fundamentally reform the kafala system and remove the requirement for migrant workers to obtain the permission of their employer to move jobs or leave the country; (b) reform national labour laws to ensure that migrant workers have adequate protection against abuses by employers and the state; and (c) sign and ratify without reservations international covenants on civil and political rights, on economic, social and cultural rights, and on the protection of the rights of all migrant workers and members of their families.

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