MANPOWER recruitment suffered a serious setback in 1994 after the outbreak of plague in September led to a month-long suspension of flights to the Gulf. Thousands of newly recruited workers were unable to take up their jobs and those who had returned home for a holiday found themselves stranded. Gulf employers were also prevented from coming to India for selection interviews.

‘The recruitment has considerably slowed down,’ says Subhodh Navalkar, president of the Recruiting Agents Association of India. However, some 2.5 million Indians continue to be employed in the Gulf, 1 million of whom work in Saudi Arabia, and the number is unlikely to change significantly in the near future.

Emigration formalities have been relaxed in recent years to facilitate the movement of workers. Those possessing professional qualifications no longer require permission to emigrate.

The protection of migrant workers remains a sensitive issue. The Indian 1983 Emigration Act was designed to protect their rights. Recruitment agencies have to possess a registration certificate which is only granted after they have demonstrated financial solvency and sound working practices. But enforcement has proved difficult. The Protector General of Emigrants office of the Labour Ministry has to try and regulate the activities of more than 2,000 registered recruitment agencies. Also, there are no barriers preventing a company which has had its registration revoked, re-registering under a new name.

Recruitment officials are confident that labour demand from the Gulf will remain steady. The declared intention of Gulf states to replace migrants with local labour does not worry them. ‘One factor is the preference of locals to work in the cities,’ says NS Duggal, executive director of Mantec Consultants. Indian workers are happy to work in remote areas and for wages that local people would shun. Furthermore, a readiness by Indians to accept lower wages than Europeans mean that they are beginning to take high-level managerial positions. Professional salaries are starting to climb in India, especially for the employees of foreign companies, but this is unlikely to reduce the allure of work in the Gulf where salaries are usually three to four times as high as those at home.