The United Arab Emirates, one of the largest employers of Indians in the Gulf, has raised a red flag with the Ministry of External Affairs over the government’s flagship eMigrate programme over what it terms as “sovereignty issues.”
After hundreds of complaints from workers about mistreatment, the MEA’s Overseas Affairs department (then a separate ministry) had in 2015 set up a database initiative called the eMigrate programme, that gathers extensive information on emigrants as well as foreign employers, their companies and recruiting agents.
“India wants to build a databank to extract information about these companies in the UAE. We consider this a breach of our sovereignty,” UAE Ambassador to India Dr. Ahmed Al Banna told The Hindu in an interview, confirming that he has raised it with the MEA’s Secretary for Overseas Indian Affairs Dnyaneshwar Mulay earlier this month.
Dr. Banna also met with the Prime Minister’s Principal secretary Nripendra Mishra on May 15, where several outstanding issues were discussed.
According to the UAE Ambassador, the concerns are not restricted to India’s database of foreign employers in that country, but includes the eMigrate programme’s mandate to inspect premises of UAE companies, which they want stopped immediately.
“Some information only the UAE government or concerned ministry is allowed to [collect]. It is also not in the Embassy or Consulate’s ambit to conduct inspections, and we have taken strong objection to that. This is not India’s work, this is ours. We have offered Indian authorities that we will give them the information they desire,” Dr. Al Banna added.
The MEA did not respond to several attempts by The Hindu to seek a response, and has not replied to a series of questions based on the Ambassador’s comments until this story went to press. Other Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, had also raised issues with the eMigrate system as soon as it was launched in July 2015.
Glitches in implementation of the programme brought down the speed of clearances. The issue was also raised with Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visited the UAE in August that year .
But the UAE Ambassador’s ‘sovereignty’ concerns are only one part of a much larger worry for the government as India has seen a job crunch in the Gulf markets in the past few years.
According to a World Bank study on emigrants and remittances worldwide, published in April 2017, while India retained the top position as a recipient of remittances, it saw the biggest year-on-year decline of 8.9% in 2016. In 2014 India received $69.6 billion in remittances, which dipped to $68.9 billion in 2015 and fell to $62.7 billion last year.
While the timing may seem coincidental, given global job-loss trends, many say India’s decision to enforce more protective measures for its labour force through the eMigrate programme in 2015 and a system of Minimum Referral Wages (MRW) in 2014 have made Indian labour much more difficult to hire by foreign employers. And India’s loss has been its neighbours’ gain.
“Gulf sponsors on projects requiring construction labour etc. are not quite tech-savvy, as they would rather not use the internet and put all the information required online. And when other countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, etc. don’t put similar restrictions, recruiters and contractors find it easier to just go with them,” says Asif Nawaz at the Jamia Milia University in New Delhi, who has studied labour trends in the Gulf. He estimates that India has lost mainly to Bangladesh, which has increased its share of the labour output to the Gulf many times compared to India and Pakistan.
In 2015, of the three countries, Mr. Nawaz says, India accounted for 37% of the labour, Pakistan accounted for 44%, while Bangladesh accounted for just 19%.
However, in the first three months of 2017, Bangladesh has reversed that trend and now accounts for 51% of the South Asian labour output to Gulf countries.
When asked, the UAE Ambassador Dr. Al Banna said he hopes the government’s issues over the eMigrate system would be resolved soon in order to stem that trend.
More than five million Indian nationals work in Gulf countries with a majority of them hired as blue-collar workers in labour intensive sectors including construction, industrial sector, transport, supply and service sectors.