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Editorial: Indignity of labour

There are over 88 lakh Indians employed in various roles in Gulf nations. Kuwait happens to be one of the richest countries in the world, and 21% of its population is made up of migrants, around 11 lakh people.

Editorial: Indignity of labour
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Kuwait fire accident

KUWAIT: The Kuwait fire tragedy that claimed the lives of as many as 45 Indians, including 23 from Kerala and seven from Tamil Nadu, has once again turned the spotlight on the subhuman living conditions in which emigrant labourers from India, and elsewhere are compelled to subsist in Gulf countries, for the simple requirement for earning a livelihood. The workers who remain separated from their loved ones for years together, often put up with indignities such as low and untimely wages, as well as being cooped up in claustrophobic housing units, devoid of even basic facilities like adequate sanitation and safe exits.

Parsing these numbers might help contextualise the scale of the problem. There are over 88 lakh Indians employed in various roles in Gulf nations. Kuwait happens to be one of the richest countries in the world, and 21% of its population is made up of migrants, around 11 lakh people. A majority of them are low-wage workers who lack access to social protection, or benefits on account of injury or disability, endured in the line of work (like health or life insurance).

There is an irony when you consider the pitiable lives led by Indian workers in the Gulf and the prosperity enjoyed, not just by the host nations, but India itself. India topped the remittance global chart last year with an inflow of $125 billion, or 3.4% of our GDP. While that implied a direct spike for the income of millions of families, it cannot be disputed that a significant number of beneficiaries owe their good fortunes to their kin – blue-collar workers.

One of the reasons why workers are vulnerable to exploitation is the large availability of unskilled, semi-skilled and daily wage labourers, who are willing to work for ‘less than minimum wages’, with no safety net, so to speak. A big chunk of them arrive in the Gulf via sponsorship programmes which bind and bond them to the employers. These business owners opt for questionable practices such as confiscation of passports, withholding, delaying, or non-payment of salaries, fully cognisant of the helplessness of the worker – who has no access to legal assistance, or interpreters to help out.

Encouragingly, the government has undertaken a few steps to alleviate the woes of Indian workers employed overseas. India has signed MoUs with a few West Asian countries, including Kuwait, with an aim to streamline processes for recruiting workers and offering them legal protection. The government’s Pravasi Bharatiya insurance policy offered to all emigrant workers in Kuwait has a coverage of Rs 10 lakh in case of accidental deaths or permanent disability, and it also bears legal expenses in case of disputes. Telangana, Haryana and Jharkhand have joined the ranks of Kerala, and rolled out initiatives to match the needs of overseas employers with job aspirants in many areas, including skilling.

There are also growing calls for the appointment of a standalone minister for emigration, who will be tasked with liaising with the MEA, the skill development ministry and states. Having said that, India also needs to develop a long-term strategy to retain workers here through the creation of a business-friendly milieu, to inspire entrepreneurship and job creation. It will be a stain on our conscience if we remain mute spectators to the exodus of our workers, and they continue seeking employment abroad risking life, limb and dignity.

Editorial
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