External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on Monday said that the Indian government is making all efforts to bring back 10,000 Indian workers rendered jobless in Saudi Arabia, besides providing them with food in labour camps. Elaborating on the situation, Sushma said: “But their payments are also due. So, I have asked the labour office that each one of them will sign a contract. Before the company pays the government’s (Saudi Arabia) dues, they should first pay these workers.”
Although the Government of India is ready to bring back these workers, there are thousands more like them across the Gulf. Last week, Indian dailies had reported that approximately 10,000 Indian workers in Saudi Arabia were left starving in labour camps. Since then, Indian consulate officials in Jeddah have reportedly managed to distribute more than 15,000 kgs of food to citizens in five different Saudi labour camps. According to the GoI, many Indian workers were laid off by their Saudi employers without receiving their back wages. In certain cases, Indian workers in a large Saudi Arabian construction company in Jeddah were not paid their salaries for the last seven months. As a result, many of these workers have been unable to travel back to India. Without money or shelter, many of them were left starving.
It is imperative to ask what precipitated this humanitarian crisis. The answer lies in falling oil prices. Ever since the price of crude oil has plummeted, the economies of various Gulf nations have suffered severe strain. Most Gulf nations are dependent on the revenue generated by the sale of oil. The impact has been severe. Saudi Arabia, for example, posted a record fiscal deficit of $98 billion last year. Suffice it to say, the effect of dwindling oil revenues and the consequent recession in the non-oil sector have been felt most acutely by foreign workers, especially those working in the once-booming construction sector. In a frightening assessment, a highly placed official of Saudi Arabia’s only publicly traded builder has estimated that the construction market in the kingdom has shrunk by as much as 80 percent.
As per recent estimates, there are close to 7 million Indian citizens in the region. Tied with the fate of these economies is the Indian economy, which receives approximately $33 billion in remittances from non-resident Indians in the Gulf every year. It has been well-documented that many of these Indian workers are subject to some of the worst kinds of abuses and horrible working conditions. They often have to work without pay or the freedom to quit their job and return home. Now they have to contend with massive layoffs. In the specific case of Saudi Arabia, there are also efforts to implement laws that seek to reduce its reliance on foreign workers and guarantee more employment to locals. Similar efforts at providing locals greater employment are taking place across Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, leaving the foreign worker in a precarious situation.
The cruel attitude of their employers across oil companies and state-linked firms, including those in the construction sector, has been well-documented. But since India heavily depends on the Gulf nations for its energy needs, it rarely speaks up on behalf of her workers. Some human rights organisations continue to describe these work conditions as akin to slavery, especially the draconian kafala system still operational in Qatar. Combined with mass layoffs, it isn’t hard to understand how 10,000 Indian workers can be found starving at labour camps. To address these human rights abuses, the Indian government could start the process at home and rein in unscrupulous recruitment agencies. Earlier this year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to change the working conditions of Indian workers in the Gulf. Now, there are more urgent requirements. The time has come for the Indian government to facilitate their journey back home and make sure that they are paid their dues.