Gotta Keep On Movin’ May 2019: A Tribute to the Global Indian Labourer

India Migration Now
May 7, 2019 · 7 min read
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It was on May 1 1923 when India celebrated Labour Day for the first time after the Labour Kisan Party of Hindustan initiated it and Comrade Singaravelar helmed the celebrations. A day to mark the contributions of the working class!

In this blog we talk about:

  • Contributions of the Indian labour force in GCC countries
  • The scale of Indians workers moving to EU countries
  • India Migration Now Podcast Ep 7: Pardesi Mazdoor
  • Is the migration superpower doing enough for its migrants?

From the pastures of Europe to the bazaars of Kathmandu, whether at the construction sites for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar or the oil rigs of Saudi Arabia, the Indian worker is contributing relentlessly, often in punishing circumstances, to the world economy. In this edition of Gotta Keep on Movin’, we want to pay tribute to their labour and struggle. We document their contributions in the Gulf, Europe, and Nepal. And in the process, get a deeper understanding of the networks being formed by these worker migrants in different parts of the world. Observing these networks gives us clues about migrant decision making and future migration trends.

The Sustainable Development Goals 2030 call for protection of labour rights, promoting safe and secure working environments for all workers, including migrant workers, particularly women migrants, and those in precarious employment.

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India Migration Now Podcast Episode 7: Pardesi Mazdoor

In this episode, we look at migration from India to Nepal with longtime migrant activist Nilambar Badal, stories of return migrants from the Gulf and another excerpt from our conversation with the (until recently) Secretary of the Department of Overseas Indian Affairs, Dyaneshwar Mulay.

You can access the podcast here.

Produced by Nakul Aggarwal
Title Track by Moby

Contributions and Conditions of the Indian Labour Force in the Gulf

Around 8.5 million Indians live and work in the Gulf countries of which a vast majority are semi-skilled or unskilled workers. In 2014, highly-skilled workers constituted around 30% of Indian labour in the Gulf countries while the remaining 70% were semi-skilled or unskilled. These migrant workers constitute an important source of income for India and have been essential for the economic development of the Gulf economies.

The massive increase in the Gulf countries’ wealth has been generated by the economic activities of the millions of migrant workers, and the main beneficiaries are the natives. In 2015 the UAE’s per capita GDP was $67,616 and the average annual income of a migrant worker was $4355.

Despite their invaluable contributions, Indian workers in the Gulf face serious challenges to their labour rights.

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But what are their challenges?

Denial of Basic Labour Rights: A large proportion of semi-skilled and unskilled Indian workers in the Gulf suffer harsh conditions and are denied basic labour rights. For many workers, this situation has become worse following the economic downturn associated with the recent drop in oil prices in many energy exporting Middle Eastern states.

The Exploitative Kafala System: Most private sector employment of Indian workers in the Gulf operates within the visa sponsorship, or also known as Kafala System. While there have recently been some reforms, the kafala system still ties a foreign worker’s residency permit to a sponsor. Workers require written consent from their sponsors to change employers or exit the country under normal circumstances.

Exploitation by Employers and Recruiting Agencies: In addition to denying foreign workers the basic human right of freedom of movement, the kafala system also creates the opportunity for employers and employment agencies to exploit workers and foster a legal system that lacks basic protections for the migrant workers. For instance, sponsors can delay paying wages, confiscate passports, and deport workers without any particular reason. Meanwhile, in a lot of instances, authorities in the Gulf countries have also failed to charge and prosecute sponsors for breaking laws and breaching contracts.

Lack of Legal Protection: Indian domestic women workers, who work in family homes, in particular, suffer from a lack of legal protection. They face a range of abuses including overwork, food deprivation, and forced confinement, psychological, physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. Similarly, workers in infrastructure and development projects often end up living in cramped labour camps with inadequate facilities and harsh working conditions, barring them from having an adequate social life in the host countries.

The United Nations Development Programme affirms that foreign workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) face such challenges, noting that they stem from racism, social exclusion, lack of accountability, and abuse of power by their employers. The conditions of migrant workers in the Gulf states also regularly fail to adhere to the ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, namely the right to freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining (e.g. for better wages or benefits), and the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor.Indian Labour Force in the European Union

Tumbe (2018) in his history of migration in India describes different forms of emigration from India that have been persistent since the 2nd century BCE when Alexander the Great took many Indians back to Central Asia and Europe.

Today, a majority of India’s emigrants live in the Middle East, Pakistan, and the United States, but an increasingly large number is also moving to the countries of Europe. Despite the existence of a perception that lower skilled Indians migrate to the Gulf, while higher skilled ones choose to go to Europe, studiesshow that European countries receive both high and low skilled immigrants from India.

Punjabi workers in Belgium

Punjabis are the largest Indian community in Belgium.

They initially gained employment as fruit farmers in the Limburg region of Belgium. The fruit farm owners often hired irregular migrants, often with the implicit permission of local authorities, as they found it increasingly difficult to find native workers for the seasonal, low paid and temporary jobs — strawberry, apple and mushroom picking in summer and maintenance of fir trees in winter.

In recent years, many of the younger and recent Punjabi migrants have opened night shops or nachtwinkels in the urban areas of Belgium. The Punjabi population has also grown due to family reunification and formation. Since the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2008, some Punjabis from Southern European countries have started migrating to Belgium as well. Belgium is also a transitory destination for Punjabi migrants ultimately hoping to settle in the United Kingdom, Canada or the United States.

Socio-cultural and religious organisations, especially Gurdwaras in Belgium, play a significant role in providing facilities to Punjabis/Sikhs on the move. Nevertheless, frictions persist between the plight of hospitality and the legal consequences of hosting people in precarious positions. Adding to the precariousness of Punjabi migrant life in Belgium.

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Despite having an immigration framework designed to retain high skilled migrants and disincentivise low skilled migration, the ground reality speaks of an increasing trend of low skilled Indians emigrating to the EU, often through irregular channels. In fact, between 2000 and 2009, in Italy, Finland, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Germany, the flow of incoming Indian immigrants doubled.

Community and religious networks play an important role, not just in cementing existing trends of mobility, but also in perpetuating new ones. But the characteristics of these networks differ, while Punjabi labour migration is male-led, migration from Kerala is female-led, leading to distinct differences of lifestyle between female immigrants from the south who migrate for work and female immigrants from the north who migrate to re-join their families. In both cases, religious institutions are at the apex of disseminating useful networks helping aspiring migrants at the source.

Is the migration superpower doing enough for its migrants?

Migration is a complex and highly dynamic process with constantly evolving profiles of migrants and their destinations. Only an ex-ante — migrant rights-based approach inclusive of all Indian migrants abroad can be considerate of this and provide Indian migrants abroad with adequate security and welfare. There are a whole host of multilateral migration related treaties and conventions which can provide the necessary guidance for such an approach.

The Draft Emigration Management Bill 2019 is reflective of the government’s primary view of emigration policy as a means for managing the export of human resources rather than a humanitarian framework for safeguarding Indian migrants overseas. There is no accurate data base available of the number of people emigrating from the country.

People will always move from one place to another, and the Indian population has time and again shown how highly mobile it is. With changing times, the country and those in power are recognising the significance of its migrant labour population, especially NRIs. A proof of this is the Lok Sabha 2019 election manifesto of major political parties where the migrant labour force was recognised as an important voting unit.

Thank you for reading!

The IMN Team

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