Thousands of foreign illegal workers in the UAE have heaved a huge collective sigh of relief. After living in a shadowy world for years, they are now coming out into the open and returning home. An amnesty announced by the UAE government, which ends on September 1, allows them to surrender to the authorities and be deported without being jailed.
About 400,000 people, many of them Indians, have been working illegally in the UAE. They were declared illegal aliens not because they entered the country through illegal channels. In fact, they came on normal work visas. But dire circumstances forced them to run away from their original employers and work for others, a practice considered illegal in the UAE and other Gulf countries. Without their passports, which all employers keep in violation of international law, they live in constant fear of being detected. On being caught by labour department inspectors who make surprise inspections or the police, during routine checks, they face jail terms and deportation.
The illegal workers belong to the skilled and unskilled categories. And most are Asians, with Indians forming the largest chunk. Estimates put their number at about 100,000 out of the large Indian expatriate population of over 1.5 million. The others are from Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka and even China.
Almost all illegal workers run away from their employers for a single reason: Mistreatment. Non-payment of salaries for months on end is the most common form of abuse.
Consider the case of Gopal Ram, who worked in Abu Dhabi. After taking a loan from a money-lender in Gorakhpur, he paid Rs 100,000 to a job agent for a labourer’s visa. The monthly salary promised in his work contract was the dirham equivalent of Rs 7,000. At the end of the first month, he was shocked on being paid only about Rs 400. The nightmare continued for six months, as he did not get a single dirham. During this trying time, he often had to beg for food. Unable to provide for his family and repay the loan and the mounting interest, he ran away from his employer. Within days he found another job with the help of friends. And for four years, he worked night and day, to repay the loan and send money to his family. The amnesty has come as a blessing. He is about to return to India and has vowed to live the rest of his life with his wife and children.
Thousands of others share Ram’s plight. Even some big firms fail to pay on time. More than 1,500 workers of a Malaysian construction firm recently complained about not being paid for more than three months. After the UAE government’s Permanent Labour Affairs Committee intervened, they received their dues. Not all workers are so lucky. Many do not have the resources to approach the authorities. And when individuals complain, government officials often look the other way.
Non-payment of salaries for months is not the only form of abuse that workers endure. Some workers are made to work extra hours without payment. Medical benefits and paid holidays with airfare are denied to some others. Many are not paid the salaries promised in the contract. And some unfortunate people are forced to do jobs different from the ones for which they were recruited. Even women are exploited. Brought into the country as maids, many have been forced to work as prostitutes.
Some people, like Chandran Nambiar, who used to work in a Sharjah firm as a peon, have suffered in other ways. Chandran’s employer would not give his passport when he wanted to return home to marry. So he approached the Indian consulate in Dubai for help. Despite the repeated appeals of consular officials and the immigration authorities, his employer refused to return his passport. Subsequently, the consulate issued an emergency exit certificate, which allowed him to go back.
Khadija from Kerala endured another kind of agony. Employed as a maid in Dubai, her married employer sought sexual favours from her. Fed up of resisting his pleas for marriage, she finally ran away. She is among those taking advantage of the amnesty to go back to her village in Kerala.
Some illegal workers may not be able to take advantage of the amnesty and return home immediately. Their revengeful former employers are refusing to return their passports. The labour ministry has now intervened and threatened them with fines.
Many among the 100,000 illegal Indians workers in the UAE may not go back even though they face severe punishment, which would include long prison terms and hefty fines, after the amnesty period expires. Having not fully repaid loans taken to procure their jobs visas — which cost between Rs 75,000 and Rs 100,000 — or with other commitments to fulfill, they will take enormous risks and continue working. During the amnesty offered in 2004, 50,000 Indian workers were estimated to be living illegally in the country. Only about 15,000 left.
Amnesty for illegal workers at regular intervals is common in all the Gulf countries. Bahrain has declared an amnesty from August 1. Kuwait followed suit recently. About 27,500 people left. Among them were 7,000 Indians. With an Indian expatriate population numbering nearly two million, Saudi Arabia is estimated to have the largest number of illegal Indian workers. Most of them fled, unable to endure the cruelty of their employers. Some entered the country on Haj or Umra visas and began working without the necessary residence permit.
Saudi Arabia’s illegal foreign workers will now be praying for an amnesty offer.
Joy C. Raphael is a senior journalist based in the Gulf.