Govt needs to take concrete steps to aid expatriate workers in Gulf | opinion | Hindustan Times
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Govt needs to take concrete steps to aid expatriate workers in Gulf

he NDA government is discovering that the Indian diaspora is not merely the rich and prosperous who used to congregate at stadia to chant PM Modi’s name.

opinion Updated: Aug 04, 2016 09:19 IST
Migrant workers, who work for Saudi Binladin Group, gather as they ask for a final settlement over salary issue, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 29, 2016.
Migrant workers, who work for Saudi Binladin Group, gather as they ask for a final settlement over salary issue, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 29, 2016.(Reuters File Photo)

The NDA government is discovering that the Indian diaspora is not merely the rich and prosperous who used to congregate at stadia to chant PM Modi’s name. The Gulf expatriates, whose remittances since the 1980s have kept the Indian balance of payments evenly balanced, are the ones whose vulnerabilities are only noticed when a crisis arises.

They work and live in nations dependent on petroleum exports, thus making them subject to the boom-bust cycles that all commodity-exporting countries experience. Their livelihoods get immediately impacted when the downturn arrives. The current one is particularly significant for many reasons.

Firstly, globally the drivers of growth are themselves sputtering, with question marks over Chinese — and to some extent — over Indian growth figures. Secondly, shale gas is a significant new swing factor in global oil supply as it can go on and off stream very fast. This will perhaps ensure that the old cycles of supply-lags-once-demand-picks-up, no longer applies. Thirdly, with even Saudis beginning to tighten their belts and cut unbridled subsidies, many big projects may be hit in that country or other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members.

Read | Gulf labour crisis: Is India prepared for the returning NRIs?

Thus there may progressively be even greater number of expatriate workers out of work in months to come. The question then arises as to whether the Indian government’s flurried approach to crises with ministers rushing in is the correct approach to the problem.

In the past, too, whenever economic downturns in GCC countries led to lay-offs, embassies and consulates adopted ad hoc measures, like using well-off Indians and associations of Indian diaspora to chip in with funds and manpower.

Concomitantly in Delhi, policy options were debated, like building a fund from fees charged by the labour ministry when approving job contracts or granting emigration clearance for covering emergent situations like the present one or one caused by unforeseen conflict akin to the crisis in Kuwait when it was attacked by Saddam Hussein. Discussions were then even held with insurance companies to cover the risk of expatriate workers losing life, limb or job.

The government now must consider a number of steps, besides rescuing the current lot of workers in Saudi Arabia. The ministry of external affairs has always had a consular section, which used to work under joint secretary dealing with passports and visas. Now the three charges have been divided amongst separate joint secretaries. The consular division needs to be energised.

Next, the long-talked-about safety net for workers must be established so that no worker leaves Indian shores without an insurance cover. Lastly, GCC nations should be pressed to negotiate with India agreements on worker emigration so that their rights are known and justiciable in those countries.

At the moment, some GCC countries are moving towards being more transparent and equitable in spelling out rights and obligations of expatriate workers. Perhaps it would be useful to begin with whoever is willing so that moral pressure then builds on the laggards. However, basically the tendency is to side with the local employer rather than abstract principles.

Ultimately, as I articulated on BBC, as a rising power India has to plan to wean itself off the expatriate remittances. There is no justification in 21st century for India to let its citizens undertake menial jobs, under adverse conditions. Indian economic success will be judged on whether it is able to absorb surplus workers in India.

The author is a former secretary, ministry of external affairs