Journey to despair

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The number of people circumventing the legal route to go abroad for domestic work and unskilled jobs has increased. Without the help from the host countries, there cannot be a solution to the problem of trafficking, and exploitation, of migrant labourers.

SITTING in a barely comfortable cubicle at the immigration counter, an officer can almost always figure out if the traveller standing in front of him or her is a tourist or a labourer on a tourist visa. But mere suspicion does not provide grounds to deny a traveller the stamp of approval to travel abroad. “There’s a moral question, and then there is a legal question. Which should take precedence?” asks an officer who has managed such a desk in the past. “Morally, yes, we have to prevent this kind of exploitation and potential trafficking. But legally, we can’t do much,” he adds.

What is the pressing legality that prevents officers from acting? If a traveller has a valid passport, a return ticket and proof of accommodation, there is nothing an immigration official can do. No official count is available for the number of people who take this route in search of a better life, but if agents, activists and immigration officers are to be believed, there appears to be a few thousands who take off via each international airport in India in search of their dreams.

“Legally we have to allow this person to travel. Yes, we can figure out from his or her demeanour and dress that this is not a person who can go on tour to a foreign country. But that’s a loaded judgment, and immigration officers have been in trouble for acting on their own in such cases,” says the officer. A major destination for all these labourers is West Asia. Indians number over 8.5 million in the region, and the vast majority of them are labourers. In 2016 alone, as many as 5.5 lakh workers migrated to this region in search of jobs; almost all of them have minimal skill sets. There is no count of irregular workers.

A combination of lack of awareness of their rights, ignorance of the nature of the employment contracts, a near-zero familiarity with local customs and regulations, inability to speak Arabic, and the kafala (sponsorship) system makes sure that the migrant labourer has next to no rights in these countries. For those employed in domestic work and in small enterprises, issues relating to iqama (resident permit) are a major concern.

While these problems begin after landing in the host country, trouble for potential migrant workers begins even before the worker has left his or her own country. Hundreds of unscrupulous agents approach people in distress and make tempting promises. These agents are particularly active soon after a disaster or a tragedy in the family, says Sr Lissy Joseph, who runs the National Workers Movement (NWM), Hyderabad.

An officer in Chennai narrated an incident he had first-hand knowledge of. A woman who was on a tourist visa was constantly talking to someone over the phone as she stood in the immigration queue. This raised the suspicion of the staffer monitoring the queue, and he alerted his colleagues to check if there was anyone in the visitor’s area who was speaking on a phone too. A quick survey of the visitor’s enclosure revealed that a man there was also on the phone. After ascertaining that the woman in the queue was in conversation with this person, both were picked up for questioning. The woman revealed that she was going for domestic work in a West Asian country. She had no idea of the formalities; she was nervous, and hence was talking to the agent who was in the visitor’s enclosure.

Travel agents like him specialise in finding vulnerable women who want to somehow escape the poverty here and make a living. He revealed to the immigration authorities that he had connections in a few cities in West Asia, and sent women to these cities. The agent was produced before a local magistrate.

Though he narrated details of his operation to the immigration officials, he changed tack once he met the local magistrate. The travel agent demanded the services of a lawyer. The magistrate acceded to his request. The agent did not spend a day in jail. Instead, he initially asked for the name of the officers who apprehended him, and when this was not forthcoming from the immigration department, he filed a complaint against “unknown officials of the immigration department” for torturing him. The case is still on.

Who are these agents?

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the police and immigration officials helped put together the profile of an unscrupulous agent. Some of the agents are returnees from the Gulf countries or Malaysia. Some of them have families abroad and send people on demand from the host country. Usually, it is an educated person who is in the know of things and has another person or a few persons working with him. Sometimes it is a husband-wife team. Sometimes the team includes a relative or someone from the native village. Most of these agents have a link in the country they send the trafficked person to.

In the case of a slightly more sophisticated operation, the women who are recruited as domestic helps are taken from India to the destination country under total secrecy. Even the travel kits, passport and documents are handed over to them only at the airport—at the last possible moment.

Once the victims land in the host country, they are shepherded to the agent’s contact. From here, the contact of the agent allocates them to different local agents. These local agents place the women in various homes as demand arises. Some are trafficked for sex work. All NGO representatives this correspondent spoke to in south India had many such case studies to share.

The tourist visa route to travel abroad for work is not cheap. Across south India the rates have come down from around Rs.70,000 to Rs.20,000-30,000, say activists. Kerala is an exception in this regard because of the awareness campaigns and because migration from Kerala to the Gulf countries began many decades earlier. But in the rural areas and urban slums of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka, families do not even share with their neighbours details of where the women are headed. Examples from Hyderabad and nearby Cuddapah show that even after a domestic worker had come back after undergoing significant trauma, the neighbours were not aware of it. This works to the advantage of the unscrupulous agent. Many organisations try to connect communities together so that the same problem does not recur in the community. The NWM’s initiative in this regard is called “Break the Silence”.

There are 41 registered agents in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The vast majority who roam the villages in search of recruits are unregistered agents. “They work on mobiles. That’s their office,” says Sr Lissy. “They [the agents] prey on vulnerable people. Earlier, they were operating in Kerala. Then they moved to Tamil Nadu. Now they have shifted to Andhra Pradesh and they target the desperate, especially women.”

Often the women are at the mercy of the agent and their employers once they leave home. This is because female domestic workers are not covered by labour laws in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. “The problem is acute with respect to women travelling on tourist visas and, subsequently, getting these visas converted to housemaid/employment visas on arrival at the destination country,” says a Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) backgrounder titled “Issues relating to migrant workers including appropriate legislative framework and skill development initiative for prospective emigrants”.

The moral versus legal dilemma has occupied many conferences of the Foreigner Regional Registration Officers (FRROs), the primary agency that regulates Indian nationals travelling abroad and movement of foreigners into India. Some FRROs take the stand that the burden of immigration officers should not be increased by making them moral custodians of citizens travelling outside—mainly because their primary job is to secure the country and keep tabs on syndicates and cross-border criminals. This job is getting tougher by the day, and getting entangled in moral questions would be a needless distraction. There are others, retired and serving from the Indian intelligence community, who feel that such a narrow view of a person being trafficked goes against the very ethos of the organisation that they serve.

“The major problems of migrant workers, including female Domestic Service Workers, as reported by the Missions are ill-treatment and harassment; long working hours; false allegations or charges by local sponsors to the police authorities; non-provision of free food, improper arrangements for boarding and lodging and physical or mental harassment/assault, etc.,” says a note by the External Affairs Ministry.

That is the reason for the many restrictions for people travelling with Emigration Clearance Required (ECR) passports to countries in West Asia for employment as domestic help: only women of age 30 and above can travel (not applicable for nurses) to these countries for employment; the foreign employer has to deposit a bank guarantee of $2,500 at the local Indian Mission; the embassy has to attest all such direct recruitment candidates; the implementation of the e-Migrate system (to register before they proceed for employment in listed countries) should be ensured; and emigration clearance has to be given only through selected agencies.

Drop in numbers

But have these been effective? The MEA data are revealing. For instance, in 2013, as many as 21,521 women emigrated to the Gulf countries to work as domestic workers through proper channels. In 2014, this number dipped to 14,962. After the e-Migrate system and multiple checks came into being, the numbers came down considerably: 1,783 (in 2015) and 6,076 (2016). In 2017, up to the time MEA statistics are available (end October 2017), this was 3,883. Most NGOs say that this only meant that more women were taking the tourist visa route to West Asia—only to be exploited in multiple ways.

According to the MEA, “since the order to make recruitment of female domestic service workers mandatorily through State government recruitment agents was issued only in August 2016, no study has been made to gauge the impact of this mechanism on exploitation of female workers”.

Initially, the recruitment of Indian nurses for ECR countries was done through the identified State government recruitment agents only—the NORKA Roots and Overseas Development and Employment Promotion Consultants (Kerala), Overseas Manpower Corporation Limited (Tamil Nadu), the Uttar Pradesh Financial Corporation, Overseas Manpower Company Andhra Pradesh Limited, and Telangana Overseas Manpower Company Limited. This was done after repeated complaints of harassment from nurses who went abroad and their families.

Later, since this recruitment was too big to be handled by just these few organisations, private recruitment agents were allowed to recruit nurses for hospitals in ECR countries. Nurses still need to obtain emigration clearance, and so far 7,190 nurses have used this route to get to West Asia.

Agents find multiple ways of circumventing the system. If they find that at one airport the immigration checks are becoming stricter, they choose another airport nearby. More often than not, they choose lean days to fly out a labourer because of the cheaper fares. The drastic drop in those using the e-Migrate system indicates that the agents are using other methods to get the labourers across borders.

When it was introduced in September 2014, e-Migrate was touted as the solution to prevent worker exploitation and trafficking. The project was rolled out in all the 10 offices of the Protector of Emigrants. For the MEA, this formed the one-stop database of emigrants, recruiting agents and foreign employers.

According to the MEA, as many as 1,20,101 foreign employers had registered on e-Migrate to recruit Indian workers until end October 2017. The rate at which foreign employers are blacklisted is disheartening: despite complaints, only five were put in the prior approval category in 2014, three in 2015, none in 2016 and 11 in 2017 (as of end October).

M. Bheem Reddy of the Migrants Rights Council says that the Government of India’s policy is not clear on allowing unsuspecting workers to travel to stations where their life and liberty are in danger.

“On the one hand, they are allowing people on visit visa without any restriction. Anybody can go to any country, particularly to these six [GCC] countries. For employment visa, there are many restrictions such as for housemaids [the age of] 30 years limit for women and the $2,500 bank guarantee and there’s a contract. For this reason, the employers are violating it. Not many are paying this deposit. Women are going on visit visa. The Government of India is not stopping them. They know very well. They are not restricting,” he said.

Asked if this was because of lack of coordination among the agencies involved, he said: “In my experience, always the government is letting them go. Because here they are unable to provide employment and they are taking a lenient view. If they want to, they can stop it in 24 hours. They go through airports. Again they are going on visit visa. Actually the Government of India and the State governments should have some coordination. Right now there is a lack of coordination because they are not sharing information.”

At the other end of the spectrum is the lack of any legal recourse for migrant labourers, especially women, when they are harassed or denied payment. “The entire process of going through the legal formalities is hostile to the migrant labour, whether it is in the country or abroad,” says Sunitha Krishnan, co-founder, Prajwala, an anti-trafficking NGO.

Filing a complaint is just one small step ahead of a long and difficult process. The labourer often has no support system, and he or she has to be present for evidence and cross-examination. The chances that a labourer lasts this process and gains out of it are remote. “By coincidence, if an NGO like us get involved, we take care of them,” she adds.

Hence, it is considered a success if a stranded or distressed worker is brought back home. “There are success stories. This year we filed 200 cases on Madad [a portal]. We file cases, try to contact the women when they are in distress and also approach the Indian Embassy,” says Sr Lissy. Since a major catchment of domestic workers is Andhra Pradesh, the NWM follows up on each of the cases with the non-resident Indian cell of that State.

Despite all the problems surrounding the conditions of work abroad, there is no dearth of dream-seekers. “Annually, earlier we had a Memorandum of Understanding with the Protector of Emigrants here [in Hyderabad]. We used to go on Mondays and Thursdays for [conducting pre-departure] orientation. There used to be 300 to 500 women on Mondays and 150 to 300 women on Thursdays,” says Sr Lissy.

That works out to a conservative 5,000 women every month going out of the Hyderabad airport alone. Going by all accounts, these numbers are only going up, though the government’s statistics do not reflect this trend. It appears that unless the host countries stop looking the other way, there cannot be any immediate solution to the problem of migrant labourers being trafficked and being forced to work under inhumane conditions.

(Originally published in the Frontline, India.)

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