Saudi Arabia’s decision to enforce the provisions of its Nitaqat labour law has raised concerns not only in India, but also in the rest of the subcontinent. The law specifies that one out of 10 employees in every business establishment should be a Saudi national. The fallout in terms of displacement could affect many among an estimated three lakh low- and semi-skilled workers from India. More specifically, almost a fourth of all Keralites who work in the Gulf countries are in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s drive to expand job avenues for its own nationals by means of the localisation initiative — that had actually come into effect in November 2012 — is unexceptionable in itself. It is also clear that those expatriate workers who are in Saudi Arabia through legally compliant processes have nothing much to fear from the latest crackdown. The issue then boils down to the need to curb the activities of unscrupulous recruiting agents who prey on the anxieties of unskilled or semi-skilled emigrants who somehow want to get to the Gulf region in search of work. In spite of awareness drives initiated by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, illegal and irregular migration continues. This has to end. Kerala has now sought diplomatic intervention to obtain assurances from Saudi Arabia of a six-month amnesty for the affected expatriates. It has also requested that those who are returned are not sent through the deportation route, that would result in an entry ban being imposed on them by other Gulf countries. These appear to be reasonable suggestions. The State government claims to have extracted a promise from the Central government to bear the cost of travel of migrants returning from Saudi Arabia.
Any impression that the Saudi Arabian move is meant to target Indian workers specifically may be off the mark and unfair. Among the countries of the region, Saudi Arabia is the biggest employer of foreign workers in terms of absolute numbers. These numbers are accounted for by the big three labour exporters of South Asia: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. For the latter two, Saudi Arabia is the biggest market. Sri Lanka is also a player. Reports that the enforcement of Nitaqat is part of a larger Saudi strategy of tightening the screws on the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh for its secular policies are certainly far-fetched. If Saudi Arabia has set its mind to cleaning up the emigration scene and achieving a better balance in the profile of its labour force, that is not a bad thing for the expatriate labour market in the Gulf region as a whole. But Riyadh should soften the blow now.