LABOUR is India's most valuable export to the Middle East, earning an estimated $2,000 million in remittance income every year. The prospect of becoming relatively rich from working in the Gulf exercises an enormous attraction in India. Yet, the lure of Gulf money has led to some questionable practices over the years, prompting India to slap new restrictions on the employment of Indian workers abroad, with effect from 15 January. Most expatriates prosper in the Gulf, but some of the 2 million Indians employed there have had a disastrous experience, and it is this which the Indian government is attempting to remedy.
Saudi Arabia alone accounts for over a million of the Indian workers in the Gulf, and absorbs around half of the 400,000 new migrants who head for the region every year. The next largest employment market is the UAE, with over half a million Indian residents, who are increasing in number by around 75,000 a year.
Over recent years the Indian government has eased restrictions on emigration to make it even easier for those seeking work overseas. However, a worrying increase in fraud by the employment agencies which recruit expatriate labour has accompanied the flood of Indian workers travelling abroad.
Expatriate earnings are high compared with wage levels in India but it is not all plain sailing. Indian embassies in the Gulf states often have to cope with a catalogue of social and employment problems. These range from the non-payment of wages to the premature termination of contracts and poor living and working conditions.
Problems can arise even before employment has begun: last year 137 Indian workers found themselves stranded in the UAE when the company for which they had been sent out to work went bankrupt and closed down. The employment agencies involved faced the suspension of their licences, and it is thought that the case precipitated the changes introduced in January.
The government's tougher stance has not passed unnoticed. 'A mere complaint from an aggrieved worker is good enough for licence suspension,' according to DK Trehan, the Protector General of Emigrants.
'We do not wish to strangle the errant employment firms. But we do not want them to exploit the poor workers either.
We desire the smooth flow of our workers going abroad for employment.'
From mid-January any foreign party wishing to take on Indian labour must submit contracts and employers' details to the local Indian embassy. Only with the embassy's approval will permission be granted for the worker's emigration. These rules apply to six categories of worker which have been exempted from Indian travel restrictions since 1991. Skilled and professional employees such as doctors and engineers, who are employed in large numbers in the Gulf, are unaffected by the regulations.
Some employers and recruitment agencies fear that the latest measures will impose an intolerable workload on the already overworked embassies, and put fresh obstacles in the path of those seeking work abroad. However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in New Delhi has expressed its confidence that embassies will be able to approve the required documents within 48 hours of their submission.
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