The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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For now, workers march to Baghdad

New Delhi, June 17: Never mind the silence over Indian troops to Iraq, the labour ministry is sending workers to rebuild the war-ravaged country.

At a news conference here today, Union labour minister Sahib Singh Verma said his ministry had allowed domestic and foreign companies to hire workers in Iraq. “We have given our permission,” he said.

The US has cornered the bulk of contracts and India a large chunk of sub-contracts in post-war Iraq. The decision to allow Indian workers to go to Iraq marks a departure from 1991 when the numbers heading there slumped following the invasion of Kuwait.

But the ministry has laid down certain guidelines to protect workers’ interests. Only companies and not individuals can hire workers. Also, recruiting agencies will have to ensure minimum wages, proper working conditions and medical facilities.

The labour ministry has consulted the external affairs ministry before making a decision. Foreign companies hiring Indian workers will have to get the sanction of the Indian embassy in Baghdad. The embassy will verify the firms’ antecedents.

An estimated 14 million South Asian workers, most of them semi-skilled or unskilled, have gone abroad in search of jobs. Half of this number are in Gulf countries.

Over the years, as the flow of workers to the Gulf, Singapore and Malaysia has increased, so have incidents of exploitation by placement and hiring agencies. Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia top the list of countries attracting Indian workers.

“We have heard private recruitment agencies are charging a lot of money from workers looking for jobs abroad,” Verma said. “To put an end to this, the government has decided to amend the Emigration Act. The amendments will streamline recruiting agencies as well as provide a safety net for migrant workers,” the labour minister said.

A West Asian church team surveying the condition of migrant workers has said the illegal status of some workers makes them vulnerable to abuse. Often they are not paid proper wages and undergo short stints in jail.

Even the International Labour Organisation has expressed concern over the deteriorating status of migrant workers.

According to the church survey, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis dominate the construction industry in the region. This is in contrast with the mid-1970s when South Asians had been elbowed out by Koreans, Thais, Filipinos and Indonesians.

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