Fragile labour: Handle with care

11:08 PM May 31, 2019 |

It isn’t immediately clear what Narendra Modi’s visit to the United Arab Emirates achieved. The Gulf royals feted him. The 40,000 Indians who heard him speak were rapturous. But it isn’t clear if there is any agreement in the public domain for the investment worth $4.5 lakh crore that the Prime Minister speaks of. He had earlier mentioned a sum of $1 trillion (or was it $3 trillion?) but this wasn’t substantiated either. As for the proposed strategic partnership and shift away from Pakistan, they are too nebulous to be counted as tangible gains. The only outcome so far seems to be Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi’s promise of land for a Hindu temple.

As TV anchors waxed ecstatic over the visit, I could not but recall what a savage blow those Sheikhs dealt some years ago to Indian bombast about being a world power. The 2006 protests by nearly 3,000 Indian workers and their meek climb-down reminded the world that any nation that exports unskilled labour is lumped as the international poor relation.


Only a thin line separates exported unskilled labourers, refugees fleeing war, hunger or some form of civil unrest and illegal migrants. The tragedy being enacted in the Mediterranean even now highlights the plight of Libyans, Iraqis, Syrians and Afghans who seek a better living in Europe. Last year, Greece rounded up hundreds of Bangladeshis and shoved them into concentration camps. Foreign workers are sometimes not treated any better in Singapore and Malaysia. French Reunion’s Hindu labourers are rediscovering the ancient religion that colonialism suppressed. Guyana became notorious when an elected ethnic Indian leader was deprived of his rights. That happened in Fiji too where Satyendra Nandan has written poignantly of the “girmit” (guarantee) pain of indentured workers. V.S. Naipaul is even better known as a chronicler of the Indian plight in Trinidad where he was born and brought up.


Indians are not alone in risking danger on distant shores because the home country is too poor to provide a living. Shiploads of illegal Chinese migrants 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 turmoil among 12 million illegal Mexicans in the United States is even more ironic for even the richest and grandest of Americans proudly reeking of “old money” like the so-called Boston Brahmins originally came from somewhere else. It quickly became the practice, as in Singapore, for yesterday’s economic refugees who have prospered to regard themselves as an established order and repulse newcomers.

West Asian Indians who send home $13 billion annually certainly merit special treatment. But do they get it? It’s not in the external affairs ministry’s culture to be too concerned about labourers. India took a strong stand against South Africa’s ill-treatment of Indians because of two factors. First, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s bruising personal experience. Second, the Indian plight there provided a political tool against white supremacists in the age of anti-colonial militancy. That was also why India championed the east African Asian demand to settle down in Britain when Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania 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 was compared with the 1961 Berlin airlift though the Indian establishment also criticized it.

Interest has been perfunctory and grudging since then. The Dubai protests brought to a head friction that had been simmering since the previous March when work stopped on the Burj Dubai, the world’s tallest tower. It was another reminder that 2.8 million Gulf Indians deserve as much attention as Lakshmi Mittal or Swraj Paul. Not only because their remittances are important to India but also because no government can claim a place at the world’s high table if its citizens migrate in search of dirty, poorly paid jobs where every tin-pot despot and dictator kicks them around and gets away with it.

Unlike Indians in Britain or the US, Gulf Indians have no chance of acquiring local nationality. As permanent Indian citizens, they are New Delhi’s permanent responsibility.

India faces a difficult task. Sheikhs who wield absolute power 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 bankrupt India pleaded with its Emir in the early 1990s for a billion-dollar deposit which he refused. The Gulf Sheikhs know that whatever wage an Indian worker gets is higher than he would earn at home, and that Bangladeshis will accept even less. They have close personal and political links with Muslim Pakistan.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime places the UAE in the “high” category as a trafficking destination. Human Rights Watch condemns working conditions as “less than human”. Dozens of Indian workers commit suicide. 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 unrest.

The only grievances the UAE recognises are wages not being paid or paid late, unhealthy working or living conditions, and absence of employer’s health insurance. The government does not stipulate minimum wages. But it has appointed public relations officers and established a permanent committee for labour affairs. Moreover, any foreign mission can try to ensure improvements within the system. Many workers are probably 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 more rigorous terms. Some agents represent bogus companies. The asbestos shacks where labourers were housed were unbearably hot without air conditioning. A local joke had it that the temperature never rose above 50 degrees because UAE law obliged employers to give their men a day off when it did! One heard complaints about food and long working hours. Even the three permissible grievances are subjective and open to interpretation. Domestic servants do not come within the government’s purview 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 won’t need to export labourers. It’s a Catch-24 situation from which there can be no escape until slogans like “Start up, Stand up” translate into minimum prosperity for all. Until then, India must rely on the vigilance of the world’s press in the impressive Dubai Media City and remind the host 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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