SAARC initiative and migrant labour

The 2014 South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit took an initiative on the issue of migrant labour. It sought to ensure safety, security, and wellbeing of their migrant workers in the destination countries outside the SAARC region.

This was to be done with the help of international bodies such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that are already working towards delivering a fairer deal for migrant labourers around the world.

South Asia is one of the major labour-exporting regions. Millions leave India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan in search of work. A majority of these migrants are semi-skilled or unskilled. Only a small number are highly skilled professionals. Most migrants are headed for six major destinations in the Middle East.

These generally comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Dubai, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman, besides Jordan. They work as maids, cooks, loaders, drivers, and construction and plantation labourers.

Migration to the Gulf region started around the mid-‘60s and picked up in the following decade. Recruitment agencies sprang up in many cities, particularly along the Western Coast. However, the profile of these workers differs from one country to another. Pakistan does not allow women to work in the Gulf and Middle-Eastern countries. Meanwhile, India does not allow women to migrate to Jordan as unskilled or semi-skilled labour.

In the Middle East, the kafala or sponsorship system is prevalent. Under this system, a worker needs to be sponsored by the employer. In turn, the employer is responsible for the work permit, residency permit, and renewing the visa from time to time as required. The recruitment process is to be done without the worker having to pay anything at all.

All expenses are to be paid by the employer, including the airfare. However, employers and intermediaries such as recruitment agencies often charge such fees to foreign workers. Indemnities for delays in registration are also often billed to workers. The system effectively leaves workers beholden to their employers.

Today, many Middle Eastern countries have reformed the kafala system. Strict labour laws now govern every industry, particularly for the recruitment and employment of domestic workers. In spite of all these measures, unscrupulous recruitment agencies, lackadaisical checks in home countries, and ignorance have resulted in an exploitative system where workers have no rights as migrants, once they arrive in their destination countries.

As per the laws prevalent in these destination countries, every worker has to be given a contract–one in Arabic, and another in the worker’s mother-tongue–which clearly specifies the wages to be paid, the kind of work to be done and the hours. Yet, these contracts are torn up on arrival. The worker is forced to work for a lower wage or at another job altogether.

Domestic workers are worse off. In Qatar, workers arriving from India, Bangladesh, Nepal or Pakistan to work as drivers often find themselves having to work as household labour. If these workers protest, they end up in the employers’ camel farms in the desert, living in tents in the dry heat, where they tend to camels.

The situation is similar, and often worse, in Saudi Arabia. Domestic workers employed for household work are often subject to physical and sexual exploitation in every country. Even in the comparatively modern Jordan, which has strict labour laws, it is not uncommon for maids to be denied salaries for two-three years.

It is impossible to inspect individual homes, thereby preventing the Jordanian Ministry of Labour from ensuring a better deal for domestic help.

Moreover, in spite of strict laws to the contrary, employers may often confiscate their passports on the pretext of making work or residency permits. More often than not, these permits and their visas are not renewed. In such cases, even if the worker wants to return home, he/she cannot. Instead, the accumulated overstay fines –which the worker must pay, and unpaid salaries leave the worker bankrupt. It is hence impossible for the worker, who is now trapped, to return home.

Tamkeen, a Jordanian human right and legal aid organisation, receives several complaints from migrant workers who are faced with non-payment of salaries over long periods of time. In January 2016, the media uncovered the case of 100 persons trafficked to a factory in Irbid, a place north of the Jordanian capital of Amman, where many garment factories are located.

SAARC – Differences in the composition of migrant labour

Where the SAARC nations are concerned, there is no uniformity in the problems faced or the background of the workers that go out to work in the Middle East. The workers may uniformly come from poor backgrounds but differ greatly in the literacy levels.

Where Sri Lankan workers are all literate (with some knowledge of English), the Bangladeshi is often totally illiterate and does not know any Arabic or English. Both Nepal and Bangladesh face the problem of minors travelling to work in the Middle East with forged birth certificates. Indian and Pakistani workers do have some education but are totally unaware of their legal rights.

This is where Sri Lanka and Nepal have made some headway. After a short period of banning all women from taking up jobs as domestic workers, Sri Lanka has now taken to the pre-departure training of all women domestic workers, coordinating with recruitment agencies through its Bureau of Foreign Employment.

These women are taught housekeeping skills, English, basic hygiene and their legal rights as workers. Recently, Sri Lanka has also declared that women will not take up jobs without a basic salary of 300-350 Jordanian dinars. Under a bilateral agreement which was soon followed up by several joint meetings with Qatar. Sri Lanka has also managed a withdrawal of the compulsory police clearance certificate that was a necessity earlier for all Qatar–bound Sri Lanka workers.

Nepal, too, has banned its women from travelling as domestic workers. Meanwhile, it has embarked on a pre-departure training programme for women who plan to work as garment workers through HELVETAS Swiss Intercooperation, where they learn about the culture of their destination country, working on an assembly line and language skills. In both cases, they are also briefed about their legal rights as workers, and where and how to seek help.

Common Problems Faced by South Asian workers

At the embassy–level, nearly every SAARC nation is found wanting. India, with its multiplicity of languages and dialects- needs to invest in enough interpreters or translators to help its migrant workers. Tamkeen Executive Director Diala al-Amiri recounts a case where some Indian workers at a construction site had not been paid for several months.

When they approached Tamkeen for help, it was difficult to understand them. Moreover, the Indian embassy had no one who could translate their complaints from their native language, Malayalam. Finally, Tamkeeen managed to locate another worker from Kerala in Amman, who was fluent in both English and Arabic. “It took us some time to get the facts of the case, and ultimately get them the money,” he said.

Unlike the South-East Asian countries, SAARC nations rarely possess safe shelters. In Jordan, for instance, only the Sri Lankan embassy runs a shelter for their nationals. The Indian embassy does not even have a labour attaché to look after the problems of its migrant workers.

What’s worse, Hemant Negi, an official of the Indian embassy, heading the consular section, also admitted: “The problems they (migrant workers) face is because they come through unauthorised channels.” Yet, little has been done in India to bring recruitment agencies under official scrutiny.

Nepal, of course, does not have an embassy in Jordan. Everything is coordinated by the Nepalese mission in Saudi Arabia. Although Sri Lanka has a shelter, the general tendency is to get the worker to return to the workplace.

Bangladesh, of course, has no shelter for its workers, and would rather not have one. Meanwhile, there is very little empathy or intervention the Indian worker can expect from the Indian embassy, which does not have a labour attaché. Social security is another problem, since the GCC countries did away with it for migrant workers since the ‘80s.

Not that there has been no headway by India on the matter. There have been MoUs signed with Kuwait, Malaysia, and Oman, which saw several joint meetings conducted by the respective governments in question by India’s Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs.

This culminated in some major progress- the acceptance of a model employment contract by Kuwait. SAARC nations can come together and learn from each other’s experience. Working together will allow them to secure a better long-term deal for all South Asian workers.

(Originally published in the Millennium Post, India.)

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