Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in the middle of another foreign visit, this time to Jordan, the Palestinian territories, the UAE and Oman. His trip to Ramallah, after a transit stopover in Jordan and meeting with King Abdullah II, is an attempt to undo the diplomatic hara-kiri he had committed in July 2017 during his visit to Israel by not meeting then Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the King of Jordan Abdullah II Bin Al-Hussein, in Jordan. Credit: PTI
Modi's visit to Palestinian territories during this trip and India's vote in the UN General Assembly in December 2017 against the US decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem and recognising it as the capital of Israel are primarily due to pressure from the Arab countries, particularly in the Gulf, that form the main source of India's oil imports and remittances.
Modi's visit to the Middle East includes meeting Oman leader Sultan Qaboos bin Said and attending the annual World Government Summit in the UAE, where India is a guest country of honour. As usual, Modi will address NRI gatherings in Oman and in the UAE. Elaborate arrangements have been made to ensure that the supportive faction of the diaspora comes out in large numbers to attend the gathering and keep away those who might raise dissenting voices. Modi will also take advantage of his second trip to Abu Dhabi to lay the foundation stone of a Hindu temple and that is sure to give him enough favourable TV coverage.
The ongoing visit is Modi's sixth trip to the Middle East region and fourth trip to Gulf countries as India's prime minister. India not only imports oil and gas from the Gulf but also exports significant labour force to the region. Seven to eight million Indians work in the Gulf countries and constitute the main source of India's remittances. In 2016, these blue collar workers who were almost going to get orange passports had sent home more than $35 billion in valuable foreign exchange.
However, most of these Indian workers, who work in the Gulf are untrained or semi-trained workers and face innumerable problems in an increasingly hostile environment in the host countries. Prime Minister Modi has a duty to forcefully ask Gulf countries to provide Indian labour force basic human rights and treat them as per the International Labour Organisation (ILO) rules and principles.
Currently, Saudi Arabia and UAE are the largest recipients of migrant workers from India. However, the policies of the Gulf countries unlike the European and North American countries give priority to providing short-term work permits to the young migrant workforce and bar them from settling permanently. Most of the Indian workforce in Gulf countries is constituted by temporary migrants with limited legal rights in their host countries. The working condition is so harsh that many end up committing suicides.
Gulf countries are currently grappling with falling oil revenue, high unemployment among their nationals and the lingering threat of domestic unrests. As a result many of these countries have started streamlining the process of recruiting foreign workers. Saudi Arabia's Nitaqat policy clearly aims at "Saudising" its workforce. From November 2013, Saudi authorities have started deporting "illegal" foreign workers in a nationwide campaign after years of overlooking the legal procedures. Restrictive changes in the Saudi labour laws affect not only the Indian workers but also their dependent family members in India.
Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE is also a popular destination for both low- and high-skilled temporary labour migrants particularly from India. To meet its labour demand, the UAE introduced the Kafala Sponsorship System in 1971. The system allows nationals, expatriates, and companies to hire migrant workers from India. However, these workers usually get lower wages than UAE nationals and are forced to work under adverse conditions and for long hours. Under pressure from the native population, the UAE government has time to time used restrictive immigration measures and even imposed temporary bans on migration. Moreover, there have been widespread concerns about the appalling treatment of Indian workers in the UAE. Under the Kafala system, Indian workers are excluded from the protection of national labour laws.
Since 2004, UAE has also created a system of preferences for its own nationals in the labour market. This Emiratisation policy includes a set of rules that protect its own nationals, known as Emirati, from open competition with foreign workers in both public and private sectors. Due to the increasing popular unrest, the UAE government launched a new "Absher Initiative" in 2012, which aims at further improving Emiratis' chances in the job market. These restrictive policies against foreign workers, of course, create serious problems for Indian workers.
This is when UAE is relatively more open than other Gulf countries and at least makes some cosmetic attempts in addressing human rights concerns of the migrants. Qatar, which is slated to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, has brought in a large number of migrant workers under the Kafala system from India to build its stadiums and other infrastructure. Though the country has attracted huge international condemnation for its failure in improving migrant workers' rights and working conditions, there is very little open criticism of Qatar from Indian authorities.
Other Gulf countries such as Oman and Bahrain with large numbers of migrant workers from India have also taken several measures to regulate temporary labour migration over the past several years. While some have restricted migration inflow from India and carried out deportation of "illegal workers", others are openly giving priority to increase the native-born share of their workforces at the cost of Indian workers. In 2013, Kuwait announced it will cut down the number of migrant workers in the country by one million over a 10-year period. In the Gulf, policies aimed at forcing more locals into the job market have accelerated in recent years as the fear that high local unemployment might bring a new round of so-called "Arab Spring".
India has reasons to worry because the Gulf countries, instead of improving working conditions and providing Indian workers rights under labour laws, are creating newer hardships and imposing restrictions on the entry of new migrants.
This trend will not adversely impact the inflow of remittances but also add to the increasing unemployment in the country. Thus, Prime Minister Modi's regular travel to the region should not be only limited to receiving civilian honours from the kings and princes and addressing his drooling diaspora groups.
An India worker in the Gulf does not need a temple for his gods as much as he needs protection of his basic human rights. But, who cares for the poor and needy, when the god and media are on the other side.