Friday, 6 November 2015

India must do more to protect its citizens who work in Saudi Arabia

According to media reports, Saudi Arabia has officially sanctioned more beheadings this year than the Islamic State. There are arguably social costs for the State-inspired tolerance of the macabre. The Saudi Arabian employer who recently chopped off the hand of an Indian employee is asking the Indian authorities to withdraw the case of assault in return for granting an exit permit that will allow the victim to return home to India.

This is an unconscionable demand. Saudi Arabia is cash-rich and uses its clout to violate global norms on a range of issues. Tales of excesses from the Saudi elite surface periodically; news that a diplomat subjected women to sexual slavery at Gurgaon came to light recently — and the offender expectedly escaped to Saudi Arabia. India should maintain a firm line in the case of the maimed worker but should also make a concerted effort to help migrant workers where it can.

The outflow is not inconsiderable. Around 1,000 Indian low-wage employees secure emigration clearances every day to work in the kingdom but working conditions are horrifying. Amnesty International India reported on what Indian workers experience in its report. It said a third of the workers face problems with wage payments; many are overworked, underpaid and subject to late or deducted wages. Employers routinely confiscate passports and deny workers residence permits, without which workers cannot work or access healthcare. Indian workers cannot leave the country without the permission of an employer.

The Saudi authorities are exploiting the fact that Indian labour is desperate for better prospects. They have little incentive to change their approach. But the Indian government should press the kingdom to sign international conventions to protect migrant workers and reform national labour laws.

While that is likely to be a tough battle, India can certainly be more proactive about protecting its citizens.

Amnesty suggests steps for the government to adopt. These include a tighter regulation of unregistered and unregulated visa brokers who recruit the majority of migrant workers. Brokers and recruiting agents should be made aware of their legal obligations, lest they be party to trafficking. Governmental efforts to make migrants aware of overseas employment and emigration procedures should be scaled up to avoid dependence on intermediaries. Pre-departure briefings of workers are crucial.