Distressed Indian labourers abroad
MEA and state governments ought to be more proactive
Indian Minister for External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj has finally drawn the curtain over the four-year-old story of the disappearance of the 39 Indian workers in Mosul in Iraq. She admitted in Parliament on March 20 that all of them had been killed by the ISIS extremists and their bodies have been identified. This sordid story of the fate of the poor Indian migrant workers is only one part of the continuing plight of the Indian workers in foreign lands, especially in war-torn West Asia.
Thanks to an intervention by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Congress leader from Malda, Mausam Noor, 35 stranded migrant workers from Jharkhand and West Bengal have been rescued in Malaysia. They are being sent back to India in batches and should return by March end, according to Noor.
Meanwhile, there is still no official word on the fate of another 160 workers from West Bengal and Jharkhand are known to be stranded in Azerbaijan. Concern has mounted in West Bengal and Delhi, following reports that the men are under arrest. Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) officials are trying to learn more. Details are awaited about a similar incident in Saudi Arabia, too.
As for the latest incident in Malaysia, there had been many recent reports about unscrupulous agents and companies 'recruiting skilled/unskilled hands' from various Indian states on a two-year work permit. Most workers, it is alleged, are kept in sub-human conditions and paid well below their stipulated amount. If they complain, then physical assaults, isolation, food and sleep deprivation are common punishments. Their passports are held by their appointing companies.
In the present instance, 35 Indian workers recruited from West Bengal (24) and Jharkhand (11) had been taken to Malaysia by the Lead Master Engineering and Construction Company.
Details about their plight came to light only this February after they had worked for nearly ten months. Most had been paid 50 per cent or less than their stipulated monthly salary of 1,800 ringgits (1 ringgit equals Rs 16.30). Working conditions were extremely tough. They were kept herded in small cells or tents.
It was learnt through videos they had managed to smuggle out through WhatsApp on social media outlets, that during the last 3 months their employers had stopped paying their reduced salaries! Indian websites picked up their story and learnt that often a worker would be fed two pieces of bread and four bottles of water. No work, even on account of illness, meant no pay. If water ran short, workers would have to buy it with their own money. One worker reported that they often begged food from nearby mosques.
Fortunately, some of the workers' families in India came to know of their situation. Local leaders and politicians took up the matter with political/administrative authorities in Jharkhand and West Bengal.
Tanmoy Ghosh, the leader of Bangla Sanskriti Manch (BSM), was quoted by one website alleging, 'We approached the MEA officials and Sushma Swaraj in particular about the workers suffering in Malaysia. The Indian Embassy initially took little interest, but later freed the workers and kept them in a small cell, at a place about 100 kilometres away from Kuala Lumpur. Here too, they remained cut off and did not enjoy freedom of movement. As for their back pay or expected date of repatriation, they were not told anything.'
While the MEA did intervene into the matter, the stand taken by West Bengal government was most surprising. Bengal officials when contacted, according to Ghosh, hardly took any interest, although so many workers from the state had been trapped in such dire strait in a foreign country and were not getting any help!
Attempts made by the BSM to contact Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee brought no response either!
Kolkata-based analysts are equally intrigued. As one observer put it, 'West Bengal Chief Minister usually stands by the side of the distressed people all over the world, including the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar. She attacked the Centre for not allowing Rohingyas to settle in India and said Bengal would be open to them. Yet, when people from Malda or Nadia are treated like slaves or trapped in Malaysia, the Bengal government does not seem to exist!'
Noor maintains that all workers are from Malda, the area she hails from. However, there are other reports claiming that some might have gone from Nadia district as well. There has been some good news from Jharkhand in that so far two workers from the state have returned already. Quoting MEA sources, Noor says all workers should be back by the end of this month.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)