The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- India's difficult task with its unskilled labourers abroad

The United Arab Emirates dealt a savage blow last week to Indian bombast about being a world power. It's not that the UAE is at all unfriendly. But protest riots by nearly 3,000 Indian workers and their meek climb-down were a blunt reminder that any nation that exports unskilled labour can expect to be lumped as the international poor relation.

It's the same old story in French Reunion whose Hindu labourers are rediscovering the ancient religion that colonialism suppressed or Guyana where an elected ethnic Indian leader was deprived of his democratic rights. V.S. Naipaul has written of the Indian plight in Trinidad, Satyendra Nandan of the 'girmit' (guarantee) pain of indentured workers in Fiji. Britain, Singapore and Malaysia demonstrate aspects of the same quandary. So does Afghanistan where three Indians have paid the supreme price, and more than 1,300 others fear for their lives.

They are not alone in being forced to hazard danger on distant shores because the home country is too poor to provide a living. Shiploads of illegal Chinese migrants always seem to hover over the horizon of American and Australian waters. Filipino servants sustain gracious lifestyles from Hongkong to Honolulu. Bangladeshis are thick on the ground in Barcelona, Sri Lankan Tamils in Oslo. Demonstrations in Washington over Kashmir testify to the number of working-class Pakistani migrants.

The current turmoil among 12 million illegal Mexicans in the United States of America is even more ironic. Everyone there ' American Indians to New England's 'old money' ' came from somewhere else. But it quickly became the practice, as in Singapore, for yesterday's economic refugees who have prospered to regard themselves as an established order whose security the newcomers threaten.

India took a strong stand against the ill-treatment of Indians in South Africa only because of self-interest boiling down to two factors. First, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's bruising personal experience. Second, Indian workers provided a political tool against white supremacists everywhere. That was also why India championed the East African Asian demand to settle down in Britain when Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania regimes made life uncomfortable. No one spared a thought for overseas Indians as a stranded community that needed protection until August 20, 1991, when Inder Kumar Gujral dropped in on conquered Kuwait. The rescue operation he started has been compared with the 1961 Berlin airlift. It was as significant as the Don Pacifico incident when Britain threatened to go to war because a British subject's property was vandalized.

Since the Gujral initiative, interest has been perfunctory and grudging. An Indian worker in Saudi Arabia was spared blinding only because of the coincidence of the Saudi king attending the Republic Day ceremonies. The death sentence passed on another Indian who killed his employer in Kuwait three years ago was ignored. So was the eve of May Day episode when masked men set fire to three trucks and a car in a compound in Bahrain that housed 200 foreign labourers.

The Dubai protests ' bringing to a head friction that has been simmering at least since March last year, when work stopped on the Burj Dubai, which will be the world's tallest tower when completed in 2008 ' were another reminder that 2.2 million Gulf Indians deserve as much attention as Lakshmi Mittal or Swraj Paul. Not only because their remittances form such an important part of India's foreign exchange reserves but also because no government can claim a place at the world's high table if its citizens must migrate in search of dirty, poorly paid jobs and if every tin-pot despot and dictator can kick them around and get away with it.

Gulf Indians are especially valuable because they have few alternative outlets for their savings. Also, unlike Indians in Britain or Singapore, they have no chance of acquiring local nationality. Just as they are permanent Indian citizens, they are New Delhi's permanent responsibility. Therefore, there should be far better interaction than is evident from the claim by India's ambassador to the UAE that the Dubai protests, when damage was estimated at the equivalent of about Rs 450 lakhs, took the embassy by surprise. By all accounts, the consulate-general in Dubai was better informed. It was also closely involved in trilateral negotiations with labour ministry and permanent committee on labour affairs officials. Apparently, no foreign government compares with the Philippines in looking after the interests of 200,000 Filipino workers. That recalls President Carlos Romulo appealing to Singapore for the life of a Filipino maid who had been sentenced to death. The woman was not saved but it was clear that Manila cared for its own.

India faces a difficult and delicate task. Sheikhs who wield absolute power do not take kindly to intercession by poorer Asian governments. They are sensitive to the fact that locals account for under 20 per cent of the population. Many big employers (like the Dubai construction company whose workers rioted) have royal links. Abu Dhabi may not have forgotten that India pleaded with its emir for a billion- dollar deposit. It knows, too, that whatever wage an Indian worker gets is higher than he would earn at home, and that he is conscious that Bangladeshi labourers are poised to accept even less.

But it is also on record that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime places the UAE (with Australia, France and Britain) in the 'high' category as a destination for victims of trafficking. Human Rights Watch condemns working and living conditions as 'less than human.' Eighty Indians committed suicide last year against 67 in 2004. Workers of all nationalities die from workplace injuries or because safety measures are neglected. A Gulf News survey found that 81 per cent of respondents blamed 'employer exploitation' for the recent unrest.

The only workers' grievances the UAE recognizes are wages not being paid or paid late, unhealthy working or living conditions, and absence of employer's health insurance. The government has announced it has no intention of stipulating minimum wages. But it has appointed public relations officers and established a permanent committee for labour affairs. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions welcomes signs of a plan to concede the right of peaceful assembly to workers. However, any foreign mission can try to ensure improvements within the system. The last booklet on the rights of foreign workers was published in 2002. Many workers are not aware of the Dubai police hotline for grievances.

Contracts are sometimes in Arabic which few foreigners understand. Sometimes, the contract that the recruiting agent presents abroad is superseded on arrival by a fresh contract with far more rigorous terms. Some agents represent bogus companies. The asbestos shacks where labourers are housed are unbearably hot without air conditioning.

A plea for night shifts was rejected because employers already work their men night and day. A joke has it that the temperature never rises above 50 degrees because UAE law obliges employers to give their men a day off when it does. There are complaints about food and long working hours regulated by a punching system. Even the three permissible grievances are subjective and can be open to interpretation. Domestic servants do not come within the government's purview at all and can be underpaid, overworked and exploited in many ways.

These are all matters for negotiation. If India is strong enough to persuade a foreign government, it will not need to export labourers. The fact that it does betrays its weakness. It's a Catch-24 situation from which there can be no escape until dazzling growth figures translate into minimum prosperity for all. Until then, India must rely on the vigilance of the world's press housed in the impressive Dubai Media City and the goodwill of a host who must be reminded of the Islamic injunction that if the labourer is worthy of his hire, he should be paid 'before the sweat on his brow is dry'.

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