New Delhi’s decision to sign bilateral pacts with Bahrain and Oman to protect the interests of Indian workers there couldn’t have come sooner. Similar accords signed earlier with Qatar and Kuwait prompted the government to ink these new agreements. The deal with the UAE, signed in 2006, in particular, seems to have effectively checked contract violations by employers. These bilateral agreements spell out safeguards like specified duration of contract, conditions of employment, leave entitlement and annual passage to India. This will provide legal cover to the thousands of Indians in the Gulf who are employed in trades not covered by labour laws.
Three quarters of Dubai’s 1.5 million residents are immigrants, and many are construction workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China who provide the low-wage muscle for its building boom. They have helped transform the emirate from a primitive town 50 years ago to the gridlocked metropolis that it is today. This success story, however, has a seamy downside: the abuse of low-paid workers by employers. With few legal protections and no minimum wage, workers often toil in the extreme heat, and many of them live in military-style desert camps. Denial of wages is the most common abuse, as contracting companies typically wait to pay workers until they themselves get paid. Conditions appear to have gone from bad to worse of late because of the oversupply of skilled, better-trained, and cheaper human resources from other developing countries. No wonder hundreds of Asian workers in Dubai — angered by low salaries and mistreatment by employers — recently went on the rampage, smashing up cars and offices on the site of a building meant to be the world’s tallest skyscraper.
The new pacts will make conditions a lot better for Indian workers in the Gulf, as they allow New Delhi to become a co-signatory to every single contract abroad, which, in turn, will give the government a locus standi in labour cases. Another good move would be for all Indian embassies to make it mandatory to register expatriate Indian workers and provide legal cells to assist them. The government could also provide pre-departure training for migrant workers to educate them about their rights and responsibilities in the countries they work in.