Indian housemaids and other domestic helps are working in "often distressing" conditions in West Asia, Commissioner for NRI Affairs (Goa) Eduardo Faleiro said after a visit to Kuwait and Qatar.
"We received complaints of physical torture and abuse, non-payment of salary for several months and filing of false cases against them," Faleiro, a former Indian minister of state for external affairs, said after last week's visit.
Goa, which has been exporting human capital for three or more generations, has for the first time appointed a former politician to specifically address the issues of expatriates.
Faleiro said his visit was aimed at meeting Goan expatriates, identifying their grievances and studying the labour market there. The visit was organised by Indian embassies in those countries and ambassadors accompanied him to the meetings.
"At my meetings with senior officials of both the governments they remarked that though Indians constitute the largest group among expatriates, Indians create the least problems," Faleiro said.
The Indian communities in Kuwait and Qatar are estimated to be around 600,000- and 200,000-strong respectively. Of this, the Goan community is estimated to be more than 40,000-strong in Kuwait and about 9,000 in Qatar.
"Of late, there has been an increase of highly qualified Indian experts in high tech areas, especially in the software and financial sectors in the Gulf countries," Faleiro said.
"Yet, a significant percentage of Indian expatriates, including a few Goans, are unskilled and semi-skilled workers," he noted.
Faleiro said unskilled labour was not covered by the labour laws of the Gulf countries.
He said he would meet the ministers of external affairs and of overseas Indian affairs and submit a report on his Gulf tour. He said he would also be visiting Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates in the first week of December.
"Many of the problems troubling our unskilled and semi-skilled expatriates are created by recruiting agents. Some such agents have a very elastic view of ethical standards. They charge exorbitant amounts, which are much above the norms fixed by the government of India, and offer terms which are highly unrealistic and which they know are not going to be honoured," Faleiro said here.
He blamed agents for sending out people on visit visas, which are not legal for employment purposes in the Gulf. Last April, he said, he had himself brought to the notice of Vayalar Ravi, the minister of overseas Indian affairs, 17 such "spurious" recruiting agencies operating in Goa and being investigated by the police.
The Indian government is already in the process of amending the Emigration Act for this purpose, he pointed out.
Faleiro said he was himself informed that "some male domestic workers" were taken by their employers to Saudi Arabia and abandoned in the desert without proper papers, no food and water and no medical attention.
"It appears that the law of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allows the citizen of a member country to take his employee to another member country to work in his estate. The GCC law does not require the employer to bring the employee back. This lacuna in the law causes a lot of human suffering," Faleiro added.
"Many of the local people appear to consider a housemaid as a commodity to be used and abused at will. As a result, Pakistan has banned the export of maids a long time ago. Nepal banned it six years ago," Faleiro noted.
The government of the Philippines has set enforceable conditions in all such contracts that ensure a fair treatment to housemaids and empower their embassy to enforce the contract. Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi maids face a situation similar to Indian maids.
"The government of India could provide a system similar to that of the Philippines to safeguard the dignity and safety of Indian domestic workers," the former union minister said.
But he said that Indian expatriates, including those from Goa, are "generally a happy and contented lot." He felt that the negative cases "may be the exception rather than the rule." But he said there are too many such exceptions and "the government cannot remain unconcerned about them."