NATIONAL

Racketeers exploit the vulnerable

MANAMA, JULY 24 . As instances of coercion that brought a large number of Indians into Iraq come to light, spotlight has turned on a trans-national "industry" that benefits from their vulnerability in foreign land.

It is now becoming clear that the three truck drivers kidnapped were not recruited for employment in Iraq. Amir Muscatwalla, the head of Oman Agencies, a Mumbai-based firm, said that the company sent the three drivers, Sukhdev Singh, Tilak Raj and Antaryami to Kuwait. While a clearer picture on how they reached Fallujah, from where they were abducted may come later, there is little doubt that local employers in the Persian Gulf countries in league with the recruiters in India have enough leverage to force emigrants to take up jobs other than the ones for which they were recruited.

It is common knowledge that Indian employees, soon after landing, have to deposit their passports with their employers. " In 99 per cent of the cases the workers cannot retain their passport," says Rajesh Kumar [not his real name], a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh who works in a grocery store here. Once the passport is in the hands of the employer, the worker effectively loses his freedom of movement.

"We are immediately brought under the thumb of our employer who can, if he wishes, manipulate us in any way he wants," Mr. Kumar adds.

Many workers who wished to travel home to attend emergencies have experienced difficulties in doing so because access to their passports was denied. Most workers are either too poor or diffident to take recourse to local legal channels, approach the Indian Embassy or access some of the "helplines" which a few better-off expatriate volunteers in some of the Gulf countries have established.

`Free visa'

The practice of working under a "free visa" has also landed many poor Indians in trouble. Mr. Jameel, from Kerala, explained that the system worked on the basis of an "understanding" between the local employer and Indian recruiting agencies, a majority of which are based in Mumbai.

" Suppose an employer in a Gulf country has a permit to recruit 10 persons, but needs only five in his workplace, he will nevertheless bring in the 10, which is in excess of his requirement," says Mr. Jameel. On arrival, the five who are "free" will look for illegal employment elsewhere, but will have to pay the local resident who has brought them in, a monthly fee of around Rs.2,500 for "lending" them a work visa.

With average monthly salaries for the unskilled not exceeding Rs.9,000, the "free visa" holders have to bear a substantial financial loss. Besides, local law enforcement authorities sometimes arrest them for it is unlawful to work outside their assigned workplace, which is recorded on their travel documents.

Burden of loans

The financial liabilities incurred in India to pay for the heavy expenses that emigration involves also makes Indians vulnerable to coercion.

"Many of us have sold our properties or taken up loans to come to the Gulf. Whatever be the conditions, we simply cannot go back till the loans are repaid," Mr. Ibrahim, a driver with a subsidiary of a Saudi Arabian company, said.

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