It is hard to miss S Seran in a crowd given that he always carries a black suitcase with the words “I have reared cows in foreign lands” written on it. “Fifteen years back, I was sent to the Middle East by an agent who promised me a job as tailor. After landing there, I found that I was expected to rear goats. I was not paid any wages and was only provided with meagre food everyday,” says Seran.
Seran’s story is one of many similar stories. “There are as many as 10,000 agents who operate in Tamil Nadu who dupe people promising jobs abroad. They operate with the help of sub-agents, the majority being in the Ponnamaravathi-Pudukkotai region,” says S Sivasomasundaram, secretary of Meetpu Trust, an organisation which works to rescue and rehabilitate workers who are duped by agents and are made to work under inhuman conditions abroad.
The sub-agents target households with widows as well as men who have a lot of loans to repay. They are then asked to pay anywhere between Rs.30,000 to Rs.1 lakh for their visa and passport.
N Alagarsamy from Kariapatti has not heard from his son A Jayaprakash in the last 11 years. “I’ve warned people in my village not to send anyone abroad,” he says, showing a copy of the letter his son wrote to him from Malaysia.
“In the first year there, he wrote to me saying that he was paid only Rs.4,000 while he was promised Rs.15,000. His correspondence abruptly stopped after two years. We still haven’t traced him,” he says. Malaysian Global Rescue Humanity president T Kamalanathan, who has rescued nearly 2,000 workers, says that some people are abandoned at the airports there as the agents extract the money and disappear with it. “With no way to return, they start looking for employment without a work permit. As a result, they are forced to surrender their passport and identification documents to their employers and work for low wages and under inhuman conditions,” he explains.
One of the people rescued by Mr Kamalanathan, Zakhir Hussain from Tiruchi, recalls the torture he underwent at his employers hands. “When I questioned them about my non-payment of wages, I was severely beaten” he says.
Seran, who now works with the Meetpu Trust, too worked in the Middle East under inhuman conditions for three years before his return to the country. “Parents shouldn’t get carried away by the high wages promised by agents. Awareness is needed and this is why I chose to display this message to warn people,” he says, pointing at his suitcase. “A governmental agency to address the problems of these migrant workers stuck abroad is the need of the hour,” he concludes.