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Pact to protect domestic hands in Saudi

A scene from Gaddama, a gut-wrenching Malayalam movie in which actress Kavya Madhavan (in picture) plays a maid in Saudi Arabia who was kept captive and tortured by her sponsors, framed on charges of adultery after she escapes, caned and eventually deported. The word ‘Gaddama’ is a colloquial version of Khadima, which means servant in Arabic. Kavya won the Kerala state best actress award in 2011 for the role, rated as one of the best in her career

New Delhi, Jan. 1: Nearly seven million Indian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia will soon get something that was denied to Sangeeta Richard in the US — the full support of the Indian state in cases of alleged exploitation by their employers on foreign soil.

India and the Gulf kingdom will on Thursday sign an agreement to protect domestic workers travelling to Saudi Arabia from this country for work from fraud agents, exploitative employers and police harassment — the first such pact between the nations.

The plight of some domestic hands in Saudi Arabia, captured in a critically acclaimed Malayalam movie in 2011, and the information so far available about the alleged treatment of Sangeeta in the US cannot be compared.

But the agreement also highlights a tightrope walk on labour concerns at a time India has refused to accept claims of victimhood by Richard, the nanny of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade who was arrested in December on charges of underpaying the housekeeper and committing visa fraud.

“We need to keep in mind the simple fact that there is only one victim in this case,” external affairs ministry joint secretary and spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin had said on December 19, although a case is still pending before an Indian court.

“That victim is Devyani Khobragade — a serving diplomat on mission in the United States.”

The foreign office response to a statement by US attorney for New York Preet Bharara questioning India’s silence on the alleged violation of Richard’s rights contrasts with the move to protect domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.

Key differences between the nature of Indian employees in the US and Saudi Arabia may partly explain the distinct responses, officials said, while accepting that what some here are beginning to refer to as India’s “nanny foreign policy” remains a work in progress.

Although the phrase “nanny foreign policy” is used only informally, it reflects an acknowledgement that India has so far not devoted much attention to the treatment of millions, especially from Gulf-dependent states like Kerala, who go abroad to work as maids and chauffeurs.

Saudi labour minister Abel bin Mohammed Fakieh, who will ink the pact with overseas Indian affairs minister Vayalar Ravi, represents a country that depends on Indian domestic workers to run millions of households.

Nearly a quarter of the 28 million Indians in Saudi Arabia are domestic workers — maids, nannies, chauffeurs and personal nurses — representing the largest such population of Indians anywhere abroad.

Most Indians in the US work in a variety of service sector jobs ranging from driving cabs — a job largely taken over by Bangladeshis and Pakistanis — to IT and financial services, with the numbers of domestic workers far lower.

“That’s why, in terms of a priority, a law to protect the rights of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia is a far more important task than responding to concerns of the community in the US,” an official said.

Saudi Arabia has also introduced a number of strict new labour-related laws — like the Nitaqat that empowers Riyadh to limit the number of foreign workers in local firms.

The ministry of overseas Indian affairs, headed by Ravi, is also specifically tasked with protecting the rights of Indians working abroad — unencumbered by larger geopolitical, strategic or diplomatic concerns that the foreign office needs to worry about.