The Indian indenture system, a form of debt bondage replacing slavery, resulted in the transport of 3.5 million Indians to various European colonies to provide labour for sugar plantations. Devised in 1836, by Lord Stanley, secretary of state for the colonies, a civil contract for five years confined indentured workers to their estates and paid a pitiful sum of one shilling per day, with contractual breaches resulting in two months’ imprisonment or a fine of $5. Recruitment, under false pretences, was common, while planters often confiscated travel documents and forced labourers to renounce their claim to free passage back home. If labourers did not work, they were not paid or fed and were simply starved. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UAE, the time has come to shine a light on such unbecoming sinkholes.

Migration across national boundaries in South Asia is a historical fact. Over 30 million Indians have emigrated since 1834, a scale as large as the European migration to the Americas. Emigration for unskilled workers remains a nightmarish experience, beset as they are by fleecing through middlemen and inhuman treatment by dishonest employers working under indifferent foreign governments.

Saudi Arabia’s Nitaqat programme (2011) found that of the 2.8 million Indian expatriate workers, half did not have proper legal documents, overstaying or working as huroob (ran away from sponsors). More than 700 Indian migrant workers have died working on Qatar’s World Cup construction projects in the last two years. Throughout the Gulf’s construction industry, sleeping 12 to a room is common, while many are forced to work without pay and left begging for food. Indenture, it seems, never went away.

International migration from independent India has followed two major streams — people with professional experience and/or technical skills migrating to the West as permanent migrants; unskilled/semi-skilled workers migrating to West Asia on temporary contracts. The oil crisis of 1979 led to a growth in demand for cheap, unskilled foreign labour in the oil-exporting countries of the Gulf, with labourers migrating in large numbers — 2.8 million by 1980. Three states — Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu — together contributed the largest (60%) while covering 20% of India’s remittances (upwards of $71 billion).
We need to understand the scale of our international labour migration better. Appropriate migration information systems on international emigration need to be created, enabling better surveillance and emigration management. Making the registration of entry by migrant works mandatory in Indian embassies would help bolster the quality of out-migrant data.

We need to utilise our Skill India Mission in this regard by evolving a detailed labour migration policy with Saudi Arabia, the only Gulf Coordination Council country with which India has not yet signed such an agreement. We should seek to undertake a detailed study of the labour market dynamics in Gulf countries, helping us formulate a better emigration policy to train and prepare a workforce that can compete globally for jobs. A living wage formula should be evolved through negotiations with host countries.

While the Emigration Act (1983) was introduced to safeguard the interests of Indian migrants by stipulating emigration clearance and registration of recruiting agents, significant challenges remain. Other problems associated with most migrants include premature terminations of job contracts, a change in contractual clauses to the disadvantage of the worker, salary payment delays, violations of minimum wage standards and the denial of permission to keep one’s own passport. Those courageous enough to complain can only eventually see their employer and recruiting agent blacklisted by the local embassy. Foreign employers, governed by the laws of another nation, can generally not be touched.

Our emigration regime requires significant change. A labour market monitoring authority that can negotiate on various labour contracts and analyse emerging skill requirements remains necessary. A ‘welfare fund’ for Indian workers abroad, with contributions from Indians working abroad, could be utilised for a wide range of welfare measures concerning both the migrant workers and their families. Tax relief and insurance scheme incentives should be linked with contributions to such a fund. A government-backed system offering low interest rates to less well-off emigrants to finance outmigration could ensure that such migrants resort to formal banking channels to transfer their remittances back home.

Embassies should be transformed into visible and accessible representatives of the Indian government and not elitist and aloof centres. Officials should be encouraged to periodically visit labour camps and work sites to evaluate how workers are being treated.

The Gulf crisis has highlighted the notable role played by various Indian associations and bodies in safeguarding the interests of Indian migrants during emergencies.
A pre-departure orientation programme, run by respective associations, could provide context to the socio-economic and political conditions of the target country, the do’s and don’ts, the contract of employment, the respective duties and responsibilities, remittance procedures, dispute-addressing mechanisms and other travel tips.

India should also seek to utilise its soft power and influence with the governments of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and the UAE to extend standard labour protection to domestic workers, change immigration laws that make it difficult for workers to change employers, and ensure compensation for workers who suffer abuse. As indentured workers, emaciated Indian emigrants were responsible for maintaining the high profits of the British Empire, building railways and ports in Kenya and Malaysia. One hopes its modern version is different.