For about a year and a half now, at least 150 bodies of residents of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have been rotting away in Saudi Arabia, with the families unable to get them back to India. Officials at the Ministry of External Affairs say they are helpless, and added they could do little about the ‘frigid Saudi employers who refuse to reply to emails or phone calls’.
Under the Saudi kafala’’ law, 13 different documents are required in Urdu and English, including police and postmortem reports, for a dead body to be given an “exit visa”. The lengthy and complicated legal procedure has made it extremely difficult for the Indian government to procure bodies, despite repeated communication with Saudi authorities, officials added.
Saudi Arabia has thousands of Indian workers from areas like Hyderabad, Karimnagar, Warangal and other places in Andhra Pradesh working in the Gulf region. Indian workforce, in facts, constitutes the largest workforce in the Gulf region. Reports of workers ill getting treated by their Saudi employers and being detained by them are heard frequently.
That migrant Indian workers face inhumane conditions when they go out to Gulf countries is widely known. But what allows Saudi government to get away with its conduct with impunity without being answerable to the Indian government? In part, it is the failure of the Indian government to put adequate provisions in the Emigration Act of 1983 to safeguard and protect the interest of Indian workers.
The absence of any legal consequences, combined with the presence of an exploitative system like Kafala, allows Gulf countries to take advantage of poor Indian workers heading out of the countries to earn money.
What is shocking, though, is the lack of active effort on the part of the Indian government to change the current situation by engaging with the Saudi government. The attitude is even more surprising if one takes into account the current government’s extraordinary effort to increase its foreign outreach. The country’s Prime Minister has visited more than 40 countries since he came to power in 2014.
In these visits, he has repeatedly emphasised the importance of Indians settled outside the country whom he calls the ‘extended family’. Add to this the fact that the Indian workers send the world’s highest amount of remittance back home, and the absence of a strong policy to protect the interest of its overseas workers is even more alarming.
That there exists no legal net or official protection for Indian workers at any stage of their journey abroad or back, has been one of the most apparent loopholes that unscrupulous employers have been quick to leverage when it comes to our migrant labourers. As per a local Non-Government Organization (NGO), the fact that it takes anywhere between ₹4-6 lakh for employers to send a body back home also becomes a factor, with most employers getting reluctant to bear the expenses.
India’s complicated regulations don’t help matters much either. India is probably the only country in the world where migration is a three-tier process managed by three different ministries. The passport is issued by the Ministry of External Affairs, emigration clearance comes under the MOIA, and departures are under the Bureau of Migration of the Ministry of Home Affairs.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has expressed keenness to address problems of migrant labourers in the Gulf region, but nothing concrete has come out of it. A well fleshed-out migration policy that addresses issues faced by workers will be a welcome step. But until that happens, the Indian government would do well to empower migrant labourers by educating them about the Gulf’s labour laws.
If India wants to be a true global economy, it is essential it stands up for rights of lakhs of Indian migrant labourers spread across the world.