The high suicide rate, especially among blue-collar workers, in West Asia must push the government to explore labour-friendly solutions

The West Asia or the popular Gulf region is bestowed with a wealth of resources (predominantly oil & gas), that translates to a significant amount of deployable capital for economic and industrial activity, but the region is heavily dependent on imported labour to develop and sustain its economic activities. According to a 2010 World Bank Report, the Gulf nations Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Saudi Arabia featured in the top 10 immigration countries with immigrants as a percentage of the total population at 86.5 per cent, 70 per cent, 39.1 per cent and 27.8 per cent respectively. Indian nationals form a significant part of the Gulf workforce and India and the subcontinent remain suppliers of huge labour pools — both blue- and white-collar workers.

The Gulf country where I live and work has registered its 31st case of suicide a few days ago, by an Indian national (by far the highest suicide rate among immigrant foreign nationals). Most of them are blue-collar workers who venture out to this part of the world for better wages. We are halfway through the year and this is a shocking and a deeply worrying statistic, and for just one country in the Gulf region. It’s a rather well-known fact that most of these workers beg, borrow and sell all they have to make their way to these countries of promised prosperity (mostly by fly-by-night bogus recruiting agencies). More often than not, the reality is a lot different from what they were told or picture it to be.

Abuse, restrictions

Among other factors, working conditions tend to be harsh especially if you are a construction worker. Some unscrupulous employers (and not all) delay or don’t pay wages on time, physically abuse workers, retain passports to restrict labour mobility. Other employers have gone bankrupt due to worsening economic conditions, thereby leaving many workers stranded with no jobs, shelter and money. This and other factors could have prompted these workers to resort to the extreme step of taking their lives. It is important we address this serious issue associated with the immigrant workforce, especially in the blue-collar category. Several other countries are taking them rather seriously. Indonesia, for example, has taken some positive steps to address the issue of maid abuse in this part of world. The Indian embassies in these countries are pretty much the only place these workers can turn to but the embassies have their hands full with passport, visa and other related matters and they don’t seem to have adequate resources to be of any help. There are non-governmental organisations that are trying to be of help but they too could be overwhelmed.

Need for counselling

The Indian government should consider ways and means to protect its nationals working abroad and set up a fact finding mission to analyse and understand the problems faced by the immigrant workforce. The Gulf Indian diaspora should be actively engaged in exploring solutions. Indian nationals venturing out for menial or low-wage paying jobs should be sufficiently counselled and made to understand the economic and legal implications of working abroad. They should also know the avenues for legal recourse should their employer default on salary payments or mistreat them. In select countries, where there is a high degree of blue-collar immigration, the government should actively consider posting a resident counsellor in the Indian embassies or setting up a workers welfare centre which can be a venue or platform to bringing up, discussing and resolving some of the issues. A combination of work and family related issues (such as separation from loved ones for several years) result in several psychological problems (depression, anxiety, and trauma) and these could also be addressed by reasonably well-equipped welfare centres.

Through bilateral agreements with countries which rely on the Indian immigrant workforce, the government should ensure worker rights are protected and a mechanism in place to deal with repatriation should the worker get stranded with no financial resources. A subsidised insurance scheme offered by State-owned institutions like the LIC or the GIC could also potentially act as a safety net. Such agreements and steps send out a strong message that the government is serious about the life and well-being of its citizens working abroad and could prompt host country governments to have stricter rules (and their enforcement) for employers employing Indian workers. Some such initiatives could already be underway but there should be a sense of urgency in implementing such initiatives.

Remittances

According to World Bank estimates, in 2011, Indians working abroad would have remitted about $58 billion, topping the list for the second time in a row. Of the total remittances, Indians working in Gulf nations that include Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar would have contributed a third of the total remittances. Non-resident Indian (NRI) workers send home precious foreign exchange to financially support their families and establish economic interests in India (by buying hard assets, investing in businesses, etc) in the fond hope that they can secure their financial future and one day return to their home country to join their loved ones. They deserve a support system that understands their needs, protects their interests and well-being.

(The author is an NRI living in the Gulf. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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