In a significant development, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj told the Rajya Sabha on Thursday that the King of Saudi Arabia has given instructions to help thousands of Indian workers stuck in the Gulf kingdom, including giving them a free passage back home. “The Saudi King has instructed his officials to solve the problem in two days. General V.K. Singh (MoS External Affairs) is there. He met the Labour Minister there yesterday (Wednesday), he said instructions have been given to give the Indian workers exit visa; they will send them back in their own flights, at their own expense,” Sushma Swaraj said. On the question of dues, the minister said every worker will file their claim with the labour office, and that the claims will be settled even after they came back. The Saudi King’s intervention comes at a critical time.
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 and Saudi officials in Jeddah have reportedly distributed food and other essential items to the workers in five different Saudi labour camps. In the past year, many Indian workers have been 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 at labour camps.
The shocking state of affairs for Indian workers in the Gulf isn’t surprising. 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.”
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 to 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.