In a worrying development, the Centre on Monday asked Indian workers stranded in Saudi Arabia to return home without waiting for unpaid salaries from their Saudi employers. “When the Saudi government settles with the companies which have been closed down, your dues will also be paid,” External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said in a tweet. This indicates that the negotiations to secure their dues have not made any progress. New Delhi’s attempt to ensure dues and salaries for at least 3,172 workers, who had lost their jobs after a few Saudi construction firms closed shop, led by MoS VK Singh has become the focus of much scrutiny. “Indian workers in Saudi Arabia – please file your claims and return home. We will bring you back free of charge. Please appreciate that settlement of claims will take time. There is no point in waiting there indefinitely,” Swaraj announced through her Twitter account. Back on July 30, vast sections of the Indian media had reported that 10,000 Indian nationals were left stranded without food as they had not been paid salaries for several months. Since then, Indian consulate officials and Saudi officials in Jeddah have reportedly distributed food and other essential items to the workers in five different Saudi labour camps.
The shocking state of affairs of Indian workers in the Gulf isn’t surprising. According to a recent analysis of Central government data by IndiaSpend, “87 percent of complaints received from Indian workers at Indian missions across nine countries were from six Gulf countries, with nearly half of those from Qatar and Saudi Arabia.” Data released by the Ministry of External Affairs goes on to detail the nature of these complaints: “non-payment/delayed payment or underpayment of salaries, long working hours, inadequate living conditions, physical harassment, non-renewal of visa and labour card on time, refusal to pay for medical treatment, denial of leave and air ticket to hometown on completion of contract period, forcible custody of passport and visa and refusal of leave or exit/re-entry permits.” 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 Gulf nations like Qatar. 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 government must conclude its negotiations with the Saudi government and the defaulting companies as soon as possible.