by Moiz Mannan
In what can be seen as another significant step forward in improving relations with the Gulf countries in matters pertaining to migrant workers, the Indian cabinet has approved the signing of an agreement with Saudi Arabia.
The agreement is aimed at addressing the problems being faced by around 600,000 Indian expats employed as domestic workers in the Gulf kingdom. Agencies have quoted officials in the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) as saying that under the provision of the agreement, employers in Saudi Arabia will have to clearly inform Indian authorities about terms and conditions of the contract as well as working environment. Overall, the new pact is expected to improve the working conditions for domestic workers and help quick and equitable resolution of disputes by Saudi authorities.
This is being seen as an initial move towards finalising a broader pact to protect interests of around 2.8 million Indians working in the country. India and Saudi Arabia in April had agreed to set up a joint working group to address “all immediate problems” facing the Indian community including issues related to overstaying of Indian workers and the Kingdom’s nationalisation policy and rules.
India has signed labour agreements with Jordan and Qatar, and memoranda of understanding (MoU) with the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Malaysia and Bahrain. The MoUs are designed to enhance bilateral cooperation in management of migration and protection of labour welfare.
According to top MOIA officials, including Minister Vayalar Ravi, the highest number of complaints regarding working conditions from Indians working abroad was received from the Gulf countries last year.
The Ministry has accepted that protection of migrants against exploitation and abuse is not possible without the commitment of the Government of the host country. To secure such commitment, India signed labour agreements with Jordan and Qatar in 1980s. However, no further progress was made in this direction for many years.
After its creation in 2004, the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs has been trying to enter into agreements with the major labour receiving countries for bilateral cooperation towards protection and welfare of the country’s migrants.
An MOU with the United Arab Emirates was signed in December 2006 and with Kuwait in April 2007. An additional protocol to the existing labour agreement between India and Qatar was signed in New Delhi in November 2007 to address mutual concerns. An agreement was also signed with Oman during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to that country in November, 2008. Similar MOUs have been signed with Malaysia and Bahrain as well.
The broad framework under which the MoUs work include declaration of mutual intent to enhance employment opportunities and for bilateral cooperation in protection and welfare of workers. The host country assures to take measures for protection and welfare of the workers in unorganized sector. The agreements spell out the broad procedure that the foreign employer shall follow to recruit Indian workers. The recruitment and terms of employment are agreed to be in conformity of the laws of both the countries. Further, the MoUs provide for the setting up of Joint Working Groups to ensure implementation of the provisions and to meet regularly to find solutions to bilateral labour problems.
Thousands of Indians face the prospect of forced return from Saudi Arabia after working there illegally for several years. One recent estimate says that nearly 75,000 emergency certificates have been issued to Indian workers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The ‘Saudi-isation’ programme, announced in June 2011 in the wake of the Arab Spring, was to have taken effect in April this year. But King Abdulla decreed a three-month extension. So far, the Nitaqat policy has been extended twice — first to July 3, 2013 and then to November 3, 2013.
There are said to be more than two million Indians working, legally as well as illegally, in the kingdom. The illegal workers from India are of two kinds: those who arrived on a ‘free visa’ and those who arrived on a ‘visit visa’ and overstayed. Under Saudi law, every foreign worker has to have a ‘sponsor’; he cannot work for another. A worker hired for a particular job cannot change his profession.
But violations of these rules are common. Many workers jump sponsors and professions, and are hence illegal migrants. In the run-up to the deadline, the authorities have also launched a drive against illegal workers.
It is hoped that once the labour agreements are in place, not only would the process of dealing with illegal migrants be streamlined, but it would also prevent such practices from taking place in the future.