Saudi dash after stupor

Remittances from Saudi Arabia had shrunk by January. The layoffs increased soon after. By March, Riyadh's appetite for imported goods from India had dropped visibly.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 2.08.16

New Delhi, Aug. 1: Remittances from Saudi Arabia had shrunk by January. The layoffs increased soon after. By March, Riyadh's appetite for imported goods from India had dropped visibly.

But it took a public message from a starving Indian worker to trigger New Delhi's latest relief and rescue effort.

Indian diplomats and officials in Jeddah have over the past three days delivered over 30,000kg of food packets to 2,450 retrenched workers who haven't received salaries for eight months and are struggling for survival in five camps.

Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, who is supervising the efforts from here, is tomorrow sending one of her deputies, V.K. Singh, to Riyadh to negotiate an airlift of these and another 7,500 jobless workers and squeeze out some of the past wages due to them. Sushma's second deputy, M.J. Akbar, will fly later this week to Kuwait, where a similar challenge is brewing.

In Parliament today, Sushma promised she would ensure that every jobless Indian worker abroad would receive government assistance to survive and return home.

But an admission that she learnt of the Jeddah retrenchments only on Saturday has sparked questions over how India missed multiple signals that could have better prepared New Delhi for its latest humanitarian crisis.

"This was going to happen, every observer of the region knew that," Jamia Millia Islamia professor Anisur Rahman, who has researched on Indian migrants in West Asia for the past two decades, told The Telegraph. "But instead of preparing in advance, we wake up only when there's a crisis."

Jeddah, where all the 2,450 retrenched labourers worked for a firm called Saudi Oger, is only one element of the challenge the Narendra Modi government faces as it grapples with images of hungry workers spreading across social media.

In Riyadh, officials here said, 3,172 workers haven't received their salaries for at least six months, though unlike their counterparts in Jeddah, these workers have been supplied basic food ration by their companies. Another 4,800 Indian workers - some of them working for the Bin Laden Company, owned by Osama bin Laden's family - spread across Saudi Arabia are also either unemployed today, or haven't been paid wages for months, officials here said.

The food supplied to the five camps hosting the Jeddah workers is expected to last between eight and 10 days, officials said. In this period, the foreign office plans to structure an evacuation plan for the workers - flying them out by Air India at government cost. Without salaries for months, these workers cannot afford their own tickets.

On Friday, Imran Khokhar, an Indian in Saudi Arabia, had written to Sushma on Twitter, alerting her about the starving workers.

But the crisis over these 10,000-odd Indian workers was in the making for months now, analysts said, and is rooted in the consistently low oil prices globally that have rocked the economies of Saudi Arabia and many other Gulf countries.

Over 3 million Indians work in Saudi Arabia, another 2.2 million in the United Arab Emirates and more than 2 million in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman.

With the low oil prices, migrants were expected to emerge an easy target of any economic belt-tightening exercise.

Since 2013, Saudi Arabia has led campaigns followed by other Gulf nations to make it harder for companies to hire foreign workers - not just blue collar labourers but even skilled workers. This was aimed at reducing local unemployment, a rising source of social tension for the sheikhs ruling the region.

But by late 2015, these countries also began slashing subsidies - for education and other social services - that forced many Indian workers to send their families back home.

With expenses rising, Indians in the Gulf - who till 2015 contributed 50 per cent of India's inward remittances from its expatriate population - started cutting back on the money they could wire back home.

By January, Indian officials posted in Saudi Arabia, and bureaucrats tasked with monitoring remittances at the Reserve Bank of India, were cautioning about the drop - a first after six years of steady increases. Over the 2015-16 financial year, remittances from the Gulf dropped by over 2 per cent over the previous year, but analysts warned the decline could become steeper.

The foreign and the commerce ministries also knew by March that the economy of Saudi Arabia, the largest in its neighbourhood, was bleeding from its overarching dependence on oil exports that account for 90 per cent of the country's revenues.

India, a major importer of crude, has for years sold refined petroleum products to Saudi Arabia and other West Asian nations, partially offsetting its trade deficit. But Saudi Arabia's imports from India dropped by 40 per cent over the past year - signalling the crisis in Riyadh.

Also, by March, many of the workers now struggling to survive in Saudi Arabia had already not been paid for months. By May, some workers took the uncommon route of publicly protesting. Saudi Arabia bars such protests and quickly arrested the workers.

A key challenge Sushma and her deputies are tackling - a Saudi Arabian legal requirement for an employer's "no objection certificate" for an employee to leave the country - isn't new either. Other Indian workers mistreated by their employers have for years complained about this challenge.

But India has only signed a labour rights agreement with Saudi Arabia covering domestic workers - and not the vast majority of Indians in the country who work in the oil and construction sectors, or as nurses and managers.

"I'm sure the government is trying, but successive governments haven't shown the political will to push a truly all-encompassing agreement through with Saudi Arabia," Jamia professor Rahman said. "If we had such an agreement, we probably wouldn't be dealing with this crisis today."