In early July, on a petition seeking to create a system to assist NRIs who had lost their employment abroad and had returned to India to demand due compensation, the Kerala High Court issued a notice to the Central and State governments. The petition exposes the precarious conditions in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries for migrant workers.
The crisis has been used by employers, particularly construction companies, as an opportunity to use migrant labour without paying them salaries or allowances.
Insights on the scenario
corridor between South Asia and the Gulf is among the world's widest. There are about 15 million South Asians in the Gulf. South Asian labours are the foundation of the economies of the Gulf. Indians form the largest segment of the population in South Asia. Gulf migration is predominantly a male driven phenomenon.
The pandemic, the closure of businesses, the tightening of borders, and the exploitative nature of the Kafala sponsorship system have all intensified the plight of migrant workers from South Asia. They have no safety net, no social security, no healthcare systems, or labour rights.
- In the 1950s, the Kafala (Sponsorship) System emerged to control the relationship between employers and migrant workers in many West Asian countries.
- Under the Kafala system, the immigration status of a migrant worker for their contract duration is legally tied to an individual employer or sponsor (kafeel).
- For any purpose, the migrant worker can not enter, move or leave the country without first obtaining the express written permission of the Kafeel.
- Often by confiscating their passport and travel papers, the kafeel maintains more power over the migrant worker, despite legislation in some destination countries that declares this practise illegal. The power assigned by the Kafala system to the sponsor over the migrant worker was compared to a contemporary form of slavery.
- The Kerala government was asked to send regular drugs for lifestyle diseases in the initial days of the lockdown. Since drugs in the GCC countries are expensive. The suspension of flights, however, triggered an acute shortage of medicinal products and exposed the GCC's fragile medical insurance scheme.
- Most of the refugees are single men living in congested labour camps. In these labour camps, the COVID 19 spike was largely due to overcrowded and unsanitary living conditions.
- However, as the COVID1 9 crisis and response unfolded in the Gulf countries, migrant women domestic workers, whose untold miseries have increased in the current volatile situation, turned out to be the most overlooked segment.
- Indian missions, with their insufficient administrative staff, were unable to address the needs of migrants adequately. The situation forced the Indian government, through the Vande Bharat Mission, to repatriate the NRIs. Over 7.88 lakh NRIs have been repatriated from different destinations by the Indian government.
Challenges and actions taken by different nations
- The task of rehabilitating, reintegrating and resettling these migrant workers is now faced by various countries.
- To facilitate this, the Indian government has announced ‘SWADES’ for skill mapping of citizens returning from abroad, but the implementation seems uncertain. Kerala the largest beneficiary of international migration has announced ‘Dream Kerala’ to utilized the multifaceted resources of the migrants.
- Bangladesh has announced a special resettlement package for returning migrants that includes money on arrival, money to start self-employment projects, and compensation for the families of those who died abroad.
- In Pakistan, the Overseas Employment Corporation has issued special programmes to develop the skills of returnees.
- Meanwhile, campaigns for labour nationalisation and anti-migrant sentiment have peaked in the GCC countries.
- Countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia have provided private firms with subsidies to avoid indigenous layoffs. However, given the stigma attached to some occupations and the power of 'royal sheikh culture,' the nationalisation process will not be smooth.
- Paradoxically, countries that are sending migrant workers abroad are caught between the promotion of migration, on the one hand, and the protection of migrant rights in increasingly hostile countries receiving migrants, on the other.
A integrated migration management framework for nations that send workers as well as those who receive them is the need of the hour. There is no adequate migration policy in any South Asian country except Sri Lanka. The pandemic provided an opportunity for countries to articulate the rights of South Asian migrants.