Indian Migrants in Gulf Countries – Challenges and Way forward

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The recent case of deaths of over 40 Indian migrant workers in a fire in Kuwait has once again brought attention to the lack of safety and deplorable living conditions of Indian migrants in Gulf Countries. There have been similar incidents in recent past such as- the harsh working conditions and human rights violations during the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, the rapid development of infrastructure for the Dubai Expo, and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on migrants in Saudi Arabia due to cramped living spaces.These tragic incidents necessitate immediate action from Indian government.

In this article, we will discuss the challenges faced by the Indian migrant workers in Gulf countries and steps that can be taken to ensure the fulfilment of human rights of migrant workers in Gulf Countries.

What is the status of Indian workers in Gulf countries?

1) Indian Diaspora in GCC Nations-The Ministry of External Affairrs stated that about 8.88 million NRIs live in six Gulf nations. Specifically, 3.41 million NRIs reside in the United Arab Emirates, 2.59 million in Saudi Arabia, 1.02 million in Kuwait, 0.74 million in Qatar, 0.77 million in Oman, and 0.32 million in Bahrain.
Indians constitute the largest expatriate community in the GCC nations, making up around 30% of the total expatriate workforce in the region.

2) State wise trend of migrating workforce-Kerala Migration Survey (KMS) 2023 estimates that 2.2 million people from the state have migrated, with 80% residing in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.
Off late,Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have begun replacing Kerala, which was a significant contributor of the blue-collar workforce, from India to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region.This has been highlighted by UAE-based organisation, Huntr.

3) Profile of the migrating workforce

A) Age -Most workers going to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are between 20 and 40 years old, the prime working age.

B) Gender-Historically, men dominated this workforce, but the Huntr report shows increased participation of women, particularly in hospitality.

C) Education-Workers vary in education from minimal formal schooling to vocational training, with some having job-specific skills. Many come from low-income families hoping for better financial prospects in Dubai.

4) Job Composition-Around 70% of Indian migrants in the GCC are blue-collared workers (low or semi-skilled workers).

What is the significance of Indian Migrants workers for India and Gulf Countries ?

1) For India-

A) Economic Contribution-Remittances from Indians in the Gulf is one of the major sources of foreign exchange remittances to India. Their remittances account for more than a quarter of the annual remittances from the Indian diaspora.

B) Skill Development-Migrating to Gulf countries help Indian workers to acquire new skills and gain experience. When they return to India, they can bring back valuable knowledge and expertise that can help different sectors of the Indian economy.

C) Enhance India’s Soft Power-The presence of a large Indian diaspora in Gulf countries strengthens diplomatic and trade relations between India and these nations. The diaspora serves as a bridge for cultural exchange, investment, and business partnerships between the two regions.

2) For Gulf Countries-

A) Labor Supply-Indian migrant workers fulfill labor shortages in various sectors of the Gulf economies especially in construction, infrastructure, healthcare, hospitality, and domestic services. For ex-In Kuwait Indian workers constitute nearly a fifth of the country’s workforce.

B) Diversity and Multiculturalism: The presence of Indian migrant workers adds to the cultural diversity of Gulf countries, enriching society through the exchange of customs, traditions, languages, and cuisine.

C) Economic Growth: Indian migrant workers help Gulf countries grow economically by boosting important industries, creating jobs for locals, and increasing consumer spending.

What are the challenges faced by the Indian workers in Gulf countries?

1) Exploitative Labor Practices-Migrants, particularly those employed in low-skilled or unskilled job sectors, experience exploitation from employers who might hold back their pay, offer inadequate working conditions, or disregard labor rights.

2) Recruitment Malpractices-Recruitment agents impose exorbitant fees on migrants, who also face contract substitutions with altered wages or job roles upon arrival.Further,there is an additional risk of passport confiscation by employers or sponsors.

3) Legal and Visa Issues-Concerns regarding visas, work permits, and legal status expose migrants to the risk of deportation or exploitation by employers who may use deportation threats to suppress their rights.For ex-the visa sponsorship or “kafala” system, which binds workers to their employers, limiting their ability to seek better living or working conditions.

4) Poor Living Conditions– Migrants often live in overcrowded and substandard accommodations, which can have negative impacts on their health and well-being.For ex-the labor camp in Kuwait where the recent fire occurred was overcrowded and lacked proper safety measures like fire exits and firefighting equipment.

5) Lack of Data and Invisibilization of Migrants-There is a lack of data on migrants, both at their origin and destination countries which acts as a major challenge in addressing their issues. For ex– In Qatar, the lack of clarity and uniformity in data from different agencies made migrant workers, especially those in low-wage jobs, less visible.

6) Legal Frameworks and Redressal Mechanisms– The extended legal procedures, associated costs, and absence of legal aid and interpreters compound the challenges faced by the vulnerable migrant community.

7) Language and Cultural Barriers– Language barriers and cultural differences can pose challenges in communication and integration into the local community.This leads to social isolation and difficulties in accessing support networks.

8) Discrimination and Racism-Ther are subjected to discrimination and racism, both within the workplace and in society at large.This can affect their living and working conditions and opportunities for advancement.

9) Mental Health Issues:-The stress of migration, coupled with other challenges can contribute to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation among Indian migrants.

10) Strain in Family Relationship-They have to endure long separations from their families due to strict sponsorship rules and expensive family reunion processes. This separation can strain family bonds. Additionally, many migrants feel compelled to send remittances, which strains their finances and makes them more vulnerable to exploitation..

What are the initiative taken by Indian government to ensure welfare of migrant workers?

Emigration Act The Emigration Act of 1983  provide the legal framework to regulate emigration of Indian workers.It mandates recruitment agencies to register and follow regulations on emigration procedures.
E-Migrate SystemAn online system that facilitates skilled and semi-skilled workers to get emigration clearances and track their immigration status.It  prevents exploitation by recruiting agents and unregistered subagents.
Labor Mobility PartnershipsIndia has signed several labor agreements and Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with GCC nations like UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain to enhance protection for workers.These agreements cover areas like employment contracts, model labor policies and worker rights.
Pre-Departure Orientation Programs (PDOS)It focuses on improving the soft skills of Indian migrant workers, especially those heading to the Gulf region and Malaysia. This includes understanding the culture, language, traditions, and local laws of the destination country.
Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF)Established to provide emergency financial support to Indian workers in distress abroad.It can be used for repatriation, legal assistance, accommodation in shelters, and medical assistance.
Indian Workers Resource CentreIt has been set up at Dubai and four more IWRCs have been approved in Sharjah (UAE), Riyadh and Jeddah (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), to provide guidance and counselling on all matters pertaining to overseas Indian workers.
Awareness CampaignA  campaign called ‘Surakshit Jaaye Prasikshit Jaaye‘ (Go Safe, Go Trained) was launched to promote safe and legal migration.

What should be the way forward?

1) Strengthening legal frameworks:-India should work towards finalizing and implementing the draft Emigration Bill 2023 to provide a stronger legal framework to protect migrant workers’ rights.

2) Improving regulation of recruitment agents:There should be strict monitoring and regulation of recruitment agents in India to prevent exploitation like charging exorbitant fees, contract violations etc.Further, registration with the eMigrate system should be made mandatory for all migrant workers.

3) Setting up robust grievance redressal mechanisms:-There is a need to expand the scale and effectiveness of initiatives like the MADAD portal for workers to file complaints.

4) Enhance Diplomatic Efforts: The government should enhage in dialogue with Gulf countries to advocate for the rights of Indian migrant workers and promote bilateral agreements that protect their rights and provide avenues for legal recourse.For ex-reform of the Kafala sponsorship system

5) Leverage Global Platforms for Advocacy

A) If bilateral diplomatic efforts don’t work, India could consider making careful statements at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s review sessions.

B) India can push for change by referencing international agreements like the UN Human Rights Convention and the ILO’s Declaration on Workers Rights.

D) India can also use reports from organizations like the ILO to highlight key issues, such as the need for better protection for workers in sectors like agriculture and domestic work in Saudi Arabia.

6) Enhancing welfare measures:There is a need to enhance budgetary allocations for the Indian Community Welfare Fund to provide more emergency assistance. More Indian Workers Resource Centers in Gulf nations should be set up to provide support services.

7) Promoting skill development-The goverenment should offer skill training and certification programs for prospective migrant workers.This can improve their employability and access to skilled job opportunities.

8) Promote Financial Literacy- Migrant workers should be provided financial literacy to help them manage their finances effectively, avoid debt traps, and make informed decisions about remittances and investments.

9) Promote Social Integration: There is a need to promote  social integration initiatives that encourage interaction between migrant workers and the local community.These initiative may have language and cultural training programs, community outreach initiatives, and recreational activities.

10) Encourage Family Reunification: The government should streamline visa processes and reduce financial barriers to facilitate family reunification so that migrant workers coulld bring their families to join them in Gulf countries.

Read moreOn Strengthening of India’s Ties with the Gulf
UPSC Syllabus-GS Paper-2-International Relations-Effect of Policies and Politics of Developed and Developing Countries on India’s interests, Indian Diaspora.


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