Sunday , 17 February 2019

Indian international workers need protection

By Dr D M Deshpande

Sometime back the Indian Prime Minister visited three West Asian nations on an official tour. It was widely acclaimed as path breaking, exceptional and highly symbolic. It was indeed a path breaking visit, for, no other Indian PM has visited Palestine. In another sense too, the visit was a historic one; for the first time India succeeded in de-hyphenating our age old policy of ‘balancing’ relations with Israel and Palestine and allowing it to flow on parallel tracks. The reason why the visit has been described as symbolic is because the PM visited 125 years old Shiva shrine at Oman.

It was hailed as an exceptional visit because the King of Jordan accorded a special status and elevated the transit visit of PM to high level talks. Without doubt the PM’s visit was fruitful viewed from geo-strategic and economic angles .But, for a large Indian diaspora, the high profile visit did not do anything to mitigate their sufferings.

According to the World Migration Report 2018 of International Organisation of Migration, Indian diaspora is the largest in the world, estimated at 15.6 million strong. And NRIs and others top the list of remittances from abroad globally. In India, we have always given higher emphasis to Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) at the policy level. Perhaps, there is now an urgent need to revisit this policy thrust. The NRIs and the international wage earners deserve a better deal particularly in view of their enormous contribution. Just to put things in perspective, in 2013 and 2014 total remittances from Indians working abroad totalled $70 billion annually. Thereafter, there was a fall due to loss of job opportunities in the wake of continuous fall in global crude oil prices; in 2016 remittances fell to $62.7 billion. With oil prices looking up, there is no doubt that the remittances would pick up in course of time.

‘Financial Times’ estimates that for the year 2017, remittances would increase to $65.3 billion.  As against this, the flow of FDI into the country was only $35 and $44 billion respectively in the years 2014 and 2015, according to UNCTAD World Investment Report 2016. While FDI is important especially in view of huge investments required for funding infrastructure projects, it should not mean that the Indian workers working abroad do not deserve policy attention. Sustainable development is not possible without catering to the needs of migrant workers. Economy of Kerala took a hit of 36 per cent in the wake of job losses abroad, according to Financial Times. The state has the third highest unemployment rate in the country.

The smaller state of Goa too, is dependent upon remittances from abroad.  We have divided workers going abroad for work into legal and illegal emigrants. Generally speaking, manual workers are less educated and endowed with less resources. Most of them are treated no less than criminals by officials of embassies abroad. The practise of confiscation of passports from wage earners is quite rampant in the Gulf. The ILO estimates that nearly 15 per cent of Indians in Gulf belong to the category of ‘forced labour’. This leaves the hapless workers to the mercies of their employers and touts who specialise in providing fake documents every time the worker wants to switch job or nation. Even in times of personal emergencies, they are exploited to the hilt. That is why it was found that out of 158 persons travelling on that ill fated Dubai-Mangalore flight (all of them died) in May 2010, 12 of them were with invalid passports.
The government for the first time had created Ministry of Overseas Indians in 2014.This agency was showing all signs of good work but one of the first things the present government did in June 2014 was to merge this with Ministry of External Affairs. This was not only a retrograde step; it also created a sense of alienation in the minds of migrant workers. Had the nation focussed on well being of all Indians working abroad irrespective of their legal status, we probably would not have faced the problem of 39 missing workers in Mosul in June 2014.

There is at least one country which we can follow as a model in order to give total protection and encouragement to workers going abroad. They have enacted ‘Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act in 1995’. The Act has been amended in 2016 to provide for regulation of recruitment fees, compulsory insurance for workers and their families. No discrimination is made between legal and illegal workers; out of 10.5 million foreign workers, 1.07 million are so-called irregular employees. The later have sent $26 billion in remittances in  2016!Not surprisingly, therefore, while Philippine gets ‘demographic dividend’, we end up getting ‘demographic  nightmares’.

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