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Labour migration from India to Gulf nations: Issues faced by migrants in host countries

By Satish Kumar and Anjali Mehra | Issue 23

Photo by Mohamad Babayan on Unsplash.

International labour migration has become vital in policy initiatives for many countries of the world. The increasing movement of people from countries of origin to destination for employment has led to constant issues of inequality, human trafficking and exploitation by recruitment agencies/agents and violations of migrant labour rights in host countries. With approximately 17.5 million migrants worldwide, India ranks first among countries of origin for immigrants. There is a rapid growth rate of 79 % in the Indian migrants who migrated to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries over the last two last decades since 1990; the Gulf countries are the main destination for up to 9.3 million migrants.

Large numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled Indian labour migrants moving to Gulf countries is a current phenomenon. It has been observed that from 2014 to 2019 Indian migration to the GCC declined by 62 % due to some major issues faced by migrants in their host country. Violations of the labour rights of domestic workers in the Middle East are rooted in the Kafala system of recruitment and sponsorship, which gives employers extraordinary power over migrant workers. In addition to abusive and deceptive recruitment practices and the high costs associated with labour migration, there are other issues and challenges faced by migrant workers in the region.

A case study

My interview with Gopi is a glimpse into the lives of many Indian migrant workers in the Gulf countries. India is one of the major origin countries of domestic workers to the Gulf, especially from the South Indian states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana, in addition to the Northern states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Punjab. As Gopi’s case shows, migration to the Gulf is a livelihood strategy for many illiterate, less-educated or unemployed migrants from India.

Mr. Gopi, a 28-year-old from Amritsar, Punjab, hailing from a Below Poverty Line (BPL) family, faced financial constraints that prevented him from completing his bachelor's degree. In October 2017, he travelled to Saudi Arabia (GCC) for a driving job promised by an agent, but he ended up performing domestic work against his will. His kafeel seized his passport and documents, and he endured harsh conditions, often without proper meals, and faced harassment from his male sponsor. After disagreements, he was transferred to shepherd cattle.

Gopi was worried about his job and begged with one Muslim from Malerkotla, Punjab (India) who lived at the same place in Al Dabeyah (Saudi Arabia) for help, to give him temporary accommodation and food in exchange for a promise of help in domestic work. Mainly, he wanted to return to India. But one day Mr. Gopi was informed that his kutcha house was demolished due to heavy rain and his family members were sitting under a tarpaulin (waterproof canvas). 

Gopi, motivated by the desperate state of his family, worked as a shepherd by day and a warehouse guard by night, enduring exploitation without overtime pay. After two gruelling years, he returned to his native Punjab, refusing to work in GCC nations due to exploitation. Now, he works as a contract cleaner at an Indian international airport, finding happiness with his family.

Way forward

This study also tries to understand the role of migration policies and migration management and regulation adopted by the Indian government. Indian states can choose from a variety of non-exclusive policy alternatives to address the many barriers that migrants encounter in receiving healthcare and other social protection benefits. Every migrant worker must be issued an identity/biometric card by the Indian authorities. With this card, they can also vote as a Non-Resident Indian (NRI), use it for banking, and confirm their identification during an evacuation. Indian labourers struggle with communication and lack the funds to pay for their return trip. When there is a crisis, Indian authorities should instruct the local banks to give workers emergency loans secured by their identity cards for the trip back. A 24-hour embassy helpline might be very useful for migrant workers.The Indian government should coordinate with the host nations to improve the conditions for the labour migrants. A change in the kafeel system can bring relief for the India emigrants to the Gulf.

Satish Kumar is a Research Scholar with a PhD in Economics, currently at the Guru Nanak Dev University in Punjab, India. He has completed a Master Degree in Economics from Vardhman Mahaveer Open University, Kota (Rajasthan) in 2019 and UGC-NET in 2020. He is presently working on Transnational and Diaspora Studies related to international labour migration from India to GCC states.

Dr Anjali Mehra is an Associate Professor in Economics and Head School of Social Sciences at Guru Nanak Dev University Amritsar in Punjab, India. With 30 years of teaching experience, she has around fifty-five papers published in various journals and one edited book. Her research areas include: Economics of Education, Infrastructure and, currently, Migration Studies. She has successfully guided 5 PhD research scholars.


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