Uncertain Journeys – Migration from Kerala to the Arab Gulf

-- Uncertain Journeys – Migration from Kerala to the Arab Gulf

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Thursday, 31 January 2019

On January 31, Equidem’s senior India-Gulf investigator Reji Kuttappan delivered the following speech at the Strategy Workshop on Combating Issues of Trafficking in Persons and Labour Migration arranged by the Centre for Indian Migration Studies and Solidarity Center in Kochi, Kerala, India.

Indians have been migrating from the state of Kerala to the Arab Gulf for over four decades. Migrant workers remittances have helped Kerala develop in economic and social terms. The latest data from the state government of Kerala reveal that migrant worker remittances, amounts to 36 percent of the state Gross Domestic Product.[1] In the early 1970s, Keralites migrated by boats to the beaches of Dubai, Doha and Oman. Today they fly into the world’s largest and busiest airports. But for several thousands of men and women, migration for work to the Gulf remains exploitative, unsafe, and irregular.

Consider a migrant worker searching for a prospective low-skilled job in the construction, services or manufacturing sectors in the Gulf. There is a high risk that he or she could face deception and exploitation in all stages of the migration process.

And here’s what I have learnt speaking to migrant workers in Oman and other countries in the Arab Gulf: A systemic failure of pre-departure protections in origin countries coupled with exploitative employer practices spurred by the Kafala system has failed workers and push them into dangerous and exploitative employment situations.

Unfair Recruitment Practices

The lack of proper regularized recruitment processes in origin countries has led workers into situations of deception. When workers are deceived about the status of their visa, they are pushed into situations of irregularity.

According to official data from the Indian government, approximately 1,200 registered recruitment agencies operate in the country. However, I suspect the number of unregistered sub-agents – not recognised by the law -  exceed the number of registered recruitment agencies 100 to 1.

The role of sub-agents in recruitment has not been sufficiently acknowledged by the Indian government. Even, the draft Emigration Bill 2019, lacks clarity in defining who a sub-agent is, how they should be regulated and punished if they deceive or engage in exploitative practices. Even the eMigrate system[2] - the online recruitment portal brought into force in 2015 – fails to address these issues.

Recently, a female domestic worker from Kerala, dependent on a sub-agent for a job, was trafficked to the Gulf, and was rescued by an Indian social worker.

It takes less than 5 hours for a person to fly to Saudi directly from Kerala. But, it took her 20 days to arrive at her employer’s home, as the traffickers moved her from one point to other waiting for the right opportunity to smuggle her to the final destination. And when she ran away, and was rescued by the social worker and other government authorities, she had to forego her salary and employment-related benefits.

The irony is she migrated to clear her debts and worked for 18 months in slave-like conditions. But when she returned, she came home poorer and had amassed larger debts.

Estimates of the average number of Indians migrating through the eMigrate system, since its inception in 2015, ranges from 300,000 to 500,000. However, the total number of migrants, in my estimation recruited abroad in that period, exceeds at least two million people, pointing to the scale of informal recruitment in the country. Gaps in the current recruitment system facilitate exploitative practices is high recruitment fees, contract deception, which could at their worst lead to situations of forced labour.

The Emigration Bill sets out the appointment of senior emigration authorities, set up migration bureaus and nodal authorities. But I find, local authorities often lack the expertise, training and are generally unaware of realities faced by workers.

Irregular Migrant

Migrant workers trapped in exploitative situations can find themselves in further trouble if they escape their employer or are reported as ‘absconding’ by their employers. The Kafala system ties the migrant worker to their sponsor - requiring that workers only be employed by their sponsoring employer and job listed on their visa. The moment workers or employers violate either condition, they are considered irregular. Irregular workers may be detained and deported if found out. And they cannot access health care and other support facilities. If a worker becomes irregular, it’s quite hard to escape and return to their home countries.

Waiting for Amnesty

I have seen stranded workers struggling for food, depending on leftovers from butcher shops, begging on the streets and taking shelter under trees and bridges in the richest cities of the Arab Gulf.

Here too, the new draft of the Emigration Bill has no provisions to help stranded workers. Workers who seek to return home are usually required to cough up huge fines for overstaying and illegal residence in the Gulf.

The support mechanisms available at Indian embassies in the Gulf are inadequate to help stranded workers. The emigration bill does not contain provisions to strengthen the capacity of foreign missions.

Instead, stranded workers wait for government amnesties to be announced - permitting workers to return home without paying fines. And Gulf countries resort to periodic amnesty programmes to flush out irregular workers. During amnesty programmes, origin countries are also unable to facilitate the payment of unpaid dues to their nationals.

So, as I began, even after four decades, migrant worker lead uncertain journeys to the Gulf and back.

[1] Dynamics of Emigration and Remittances in Kerala: Results from the Kerala Migration Survey 2014, K.C Zachariah and S. Irudaya Rajan, September 2015, available online at: http://cds.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/WP463.pdf

[2] eMigrate, Overseas Employment Division, Ministry of External Affairs, available online at: https://emigrate.gov.in/ext/