As the Centre considers ways to evacuate Indian workers caught in the Iraq crossfire, there is a chance that the conditions of overseas labourers will finally get some concerted policy attention. At a conference chaired by the Union labour minister, many states pushed for a central registry of such workers, to protect their rights and safeguard them from harassment by employers. As of now, states like Kerala and Bihar, which do send large contingents abroad, have institutionalised their own facilitation centres and registries. But there is no comprehensive database for workers who have moved abroad, even for those who have been legally recruited.
It is only when crisis strikes, like the recent deaths of hundreds of workers in Qatar, that their working and living conditions draw attention. Across West Asia, migrant workers from India live in appalling conditions, with local sponsors confiscating their passports and constraining their mobility. This underclass is often forced to work long hours, for low wages, live in cramped housing and face routine discrimination, but it is the invisible force behind the Gulf’s showpiece architecture, its highways and hypercities. The UAE, for instance, has failed to implement a minimum wage, and no standard regulation exists for sanitation, safety or health. Things are worse for female domestic workers, who are even more isolated. While there are limits to what India can do in terms of extracting fairer conditions, it can help them seek redress, help them bargain collectively, and evolve a common migration policy with the Gulf Cooperation Council, while not cutting off their chances of employment.
While India celebrates its NRIs, the focus has too often been on the affluent tier that promises to generously invest back home, and rarely on the plight of workers who eke out small livings and send remittances to their families. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has declared her intention to work for their cause, and this must be proactively followed up by the labour and overseas affairs ministries. India could take a cue from other labour-exporting countries like the Philippines, which has successfully negotiated wages with Saudi Arabia, for instance, and brings multilateral conventions to bear on other nations, where possible. The new government must make a priority of the labour and human rights of Indian citizens trying to earn a livelihood abroad.