Among the unsung factors in India's near-miraculous survival of the global economic recession over the last five years were the remittances that kept coming in from our mainly blue-collar workers in the Gulf. India receives the highest amount of remittances in the world at roughly $70 billion, almost three times the amount of FDI that comes into the country.
By far the largest share comes from the Gulf countries - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE - which sent us a combined sum of $32.7 billion in 2014, almost half of all remittances received. And most of those represent the sweat and toil of laborers, masons, clerks, shop assistants, domestic workers and others.
In a recently published article, on the plight of the Indian migrant workers, Dr. Shashi Tharoor, MP from Kerala and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, said that despite their invaluable contributions to our country, many Indian migrant workers continue to face exploitative working conditions, forced labor, non-payment of wages and other forms of human rights abuse that sometimes plunge them into slavery-like conditions.
The kinds of challenges that migrant workers face often begin at the recruiting stage by visa brokers and recruiting agents. “I have heard countless stories of migrant workers landing in the wrong country and being stranded there, being jailed for having the wrong documents, finding their salary or work conditions are not what they were promised,” said Mr. Tharoor, a former UN Under-Secretary-General.
Lack of pre-departure training and authentic, timely information relating to overseas employment, recruitment agencies and emigration procedures make workers dependent on intermediaries and vulnerable to exploitation. Also the inability to access remedies compounds their plight. The power differential between workers and recruiting agents makes it difficult for workers who face abuse to secure justice. Enforcement mechanisms are not strong enough and complaints registered rarely lead to convictions.
International Migrants Day, December 18, celebrates the spirit of millions of migrants across the world. It recognizes that a large section of these men and women put their freedom and sometimes even their lives at risk to follow their dreams and aspirations. It is a good occasion for us in India to think of how we can protect our migrants better.
The Indian Emigration Act 1983, which has been used to regulate the recruitment and employment of migrant workers, has been criticized by government commissions and NGOs. Reports by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs have specified the shortcomings of the recruitment process and expressed the need to modernize the legislative framework into a more effective instrument in facilitating legal migration and empowering emigrants.
It is now time for the Indian government to treat this issue with the seriousness it deserves. When it comes to migrant workers, it should be the State's number one priority to protect their lives and dignity in a foreign country. A new law that empowers workers with adequate information and support from their home country will help reduce the likelihood of exploitation abroad.
In a country like India, with unemployment and underemployment problems and excess human resources, a robust emigration law will help fulfill the aspirations of millions of India's citizens going abroad in search of better economic opportunities.