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Updated: July 8, 2014 03:48 IST

Iraq returnee recalls ordeal at worksite

Vidya Venkat
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Vijay Kumar
Vijay Kumar

“More Indians languish as bonded labourers in the war-torn country’’

“The 46 Indian nurses abducted by militants in Iraq may have returned home to safety but more Indians continue to languish as bonded labourers in the war-torn country,” says Vijay Kumar, 42, a technician, who was working in Basra till last week.

“I felt as though I was trapped in a jail. Many of us have returned but more continue to languish as bonded labourers in Iraq,” he said.

Back in the comfort of his home at Mekkamandapam in Kanyakumari, the technician, with a diploma in electrical engineering, recalled his 10-month ordeal at the worksite where he was made to work like a bonded labourer by a Korean engineering firm that employed 20, 000 workers.

“Ever since I joined work in September 2013, I was made to work for 12 hours every day without a break, and was not allowed to leave the worksite even once,” he said on the phone.

The work involved tough tasks such as erecting electrical poles, pulling cable wires across great distances and laying concrete. “Even when the temperatures soared above 48 degrees Celsius, we were deprived of breaks and made to work continuously,” he said. 

In October last, a worker from Ramanathapuram district died at the worksite but the incident was hushed up by the firm. The Indian Embassy in Iraq helped in returning the body to India, he recalled.

Threat from militants

“One reason we were not allowed to leave the worksite could be the threat from militants ,” he said, recalling that it was his wife who phoned him about the Indian Embassy’s helpline to those trapped in Iraq.

Frustrated with the harrowing experience, many Indians working with him staged a month-long protest, citing lack of safety and exploitation. Finally, the firm relented and let 65 Indian workers, including Mr. Kumar, return home last week.

Rampant corruption

“There are larger issues. Corruption is rampant in recruitment agencies. The workers, including professionals like me, are charged a hefty fee with a promise of lucrative jobs only to be short-changed later,” Mr. Kumar says.

“Several of my co-workers were paid only half of the salary promised,” he said, emphasising that the authorities looking after immigration must crack down on recruiting agencies as a large number of poor migrant workers from India and Pakistan continued to work in Iraq, especially on food supply chains, without work visas.

There are several travel agencies in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh that regularly recruit people for work in Gulf countries. “Many Indians who supplied us food at the worksite had been hired by these unregistered agencies for a fee of Rs. 50,000-Rs. 1 lakh,” he said.

Sources in the Office of the Protector of Emigrants (PoE) in Chennai said the competent authority to crack down on unregistered recruitment agencies was the police, as the PoE could only act against registered agencies as per the rules.

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