By Neha Gupta*
Saudi Arabia is home to thousands of migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. Being a major economy in the Middle East, the requirement for workers has been high in this country. But since the fall in oil returns have sent shockwaves through the whole of Middle East, the economies of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have witnessed erosion of many jobs, shutting down of companies, and resultant immense joblessness amongst the thousands of immigrants there.
Hundreds of thousands of Indians workers are engaged in the Gulf kingdoms and are frequently grinded in slave-like situations, incapable of changing employers and afflicted with extensive racist and religious intolerance. The grievances against the employers today are at an all-time high, with reports of physical assault as well as psychological trauma amongst the unpaid wage workers coming out in the public more than ever.
Out of impoverishment back home, many Indian workers are compelled to move to the Middle East each year for better-paying employment opportunities. They work as labourers, electricians, drivers, or are engaged in other such menial jobs. Their condition of living in these foreign lands is also substandard.
The current reason behind their loss of job and non-payment of their wages for months has been attributed to the slowdown of industries in the Gulf due to falling global oil prices. Low oil prices have strained the Saudi government to cut the expenses since last year, placing immense stress on local construction firms which were highly dependent on state contracts. The workers who have lost their jobs were mostly employed in Saudi construction companies. Although the condition in Kuwait is relatively under control, issues are much worse in Saudi Arabia. The cause behind joblessness of labourers is not merely associated with low oil prices but they are also connected to the widespread social apathy that continues to breed there on religious and other grounds. The problem was initially located with the construction giant Saudi Binladin Group, where a massive number of Indians work, especially Keralite Indians workers. This company was suspended from undertaking new contracts by the Saudi Arabian government as it was blamed accountable for the accident at Mecca’s Grand Mosque that killed 107 people. Salaries that were not paid for months further added to the woes of this jobless lot. A similar case was witnessed with the Indian workers employed in Kharafi National Company in Kuwait who to were not paid salaries on time.
The workers were left with no money to purchase food or move back to India and hence, were asking for Indian government’s aid. The government has in return initiated the repatriation process by fixing the exit documents for those workers who desire to return to India. The government of India has planned to evacuate thousands of Indian workers who have lost their jobs in Saudi Arabia and cannot manage to pay for a flight back home. The Indian government on its part has accordingly started to provide food aid to thousands of jobless and starving Indian workers in Saudi Arabia and stressed on the Indian Embassy in Riyadh to look that no unemployed worker went without food. Moreover, the Indian community there has been tasked with the responsibility of handing out the food supplies.
The biggest problem the Indian government is facing in the process of evacuation is the stringent laws of Saudi Arabia that do not permit an emergency exit visa in the absence of a no objection certificate from the employers. Unfortunately, the employers have closed down their factories without signing the no-objection certificate and have left the country, leaving the Indian labour force stuck in foreign country. The setback additionally lies with the non-responsive nature of the Saudi’s authorities that showed no accountability towards the rights of foreign workers, eventually abandoning them all to an industry slowdown.
The adversities tolerated by Indian migrants came to the forefront with mounting protests about working conditions in Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of migrant workers at construction firm Saudi Oger took out a public protest in Jeddah claiming seven months of unpaid wages after their attempt to contact their employers on telephone and emails did not yield any return.
The Saudi government, however, has assured that it would look into the situation and, if required, would punish the companies for their delinquency with fines and other penalties. But, it needs to be acknowledged that investigation will take long and that the need of the time is to look into the problems of the workers who are starving and are unpaid. Giving them assistance in the form of food is a short-term aid; a long-term, permanent solution is needed to overcome this crisis and to avert something of a similar sort from arising in the future.
The responsibility of the Indian government has increased insofar as they would not only have to safely bring the workers back to India, but they will also have to ensure that the workers get their due income for which they had been made to slog in slave like conditions for long. Besides, the government will have to take measures to ensure that the thousands who will be repatriated find jobs in the country.
The Indian officials would also have to converse with the Saudi authorities to see that the awaited salaries are given to the unpaid workers. Furthermore, the Indian government should push the Saudi government to take action against the companies that violated labour laws and troubled the economic, social and human rights of both the countries simultaneously. Right to work and move freely is a universal right; curbing them from getting adequate wages would be against this fundamental human right. It is undeniable that the Indian workers have faced human rights violations by their employers in Saudi Arabia and have been abandoned without money, legal documents and in a condition that has had them starving for days together. Governments of both the countries should uphold the legitimate rights of these workers not only because their employers are contractually bound to do so, but also because right to a life of dignity is a fundamental human right that no one should be stripped off.
*Neha Gupta is an MPhil Student at Dibrugarh University, Assam. She can be reached at: [email protected]