In July 2016 reports emerged that up to 40,000 Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and Filipino migrant workers had been laid off construction sector jobs in Saudi Arabia. Most of these workers were employed by a large construction conglomerate called Saudi Oger Limited (SOL). This followed reports from May that the Middle East’s largest construction firm, Saudi BinLadin Group, laid off 77,000 of its 200,000-strong workforce.
In both instances workers had not been paid wages for up to eight months, and had not been issued exit visas by the employers despite wanting to return home. For others, returning without their well-earned wages was not an option. Outstanding loans to recruiters needed to be repaid, and many felt that there would be no legal avenues to recover unpaid wages once out of Saudi Arabia.
Laid off workers decided to stay in Saudi Arabia despite evidence that SOL had stopped providing food, electricity, maintenance and medical services at several migrant worker camps. In late July, India’s NDTV raised the spectre of a brewing ‘humanitarian crisis’ within the camps, with over 10,000 Indian workers in Saudi Arabia facing severe food shortages. By early August, footage emerged of SOL workers staging protests in North Jeddah only to be quickly transported back into isolation, where some still remain.
It is rare that large groups of citizens—with the stated protection of their national governments—remain in limbo on foreign territories for long periods of time. The vagaries of the Gulf’s kafala system enable this reality. Allowing employers full control of workers’ immigration status, mobility rights and basic welfare conditions has long engendered a culture of systematic abuse towards migrant workers. Human rights organisations have consistently reported unscrupulous recruitment practices, squalid living arrangements, slave-like work conditions, sexual abuse in domestic work settings and hundreds of deaths per year on construction sites. Violence and abuse are part-and-parcel of a migrant worker’s experience in the GCC, and this extended limbo is no different.
The Indian government’s response to the migrant worker strikes reveal much about how it prioritises national interests above protecting citizens and upholding human rights principles, particularly in the context of the kafala.
India has always chosen not to politicise the treatment of its workers in the Gulf. No Indian government has made public statements, threatened economic consequences for continued abuses or raised the issue in forums such as the UN Human Rights Council. Although Narendra Modi has raised concerns about Indian migrant workers’ welfare on recent state visits to the Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, India has been reluctant to wield its growing global influence to force reform.
In aftermath of the Saudi Oger strikes, India moved swiftly to alleviate immediate grievances, minimise public controversy and reaffirm its strong relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Its on-the-ground response consisted of a large-scale crisis aid operation in which the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) distributed 16,000 kgs of food to the camps and arranged free flights home for stranded workers.
Indeed, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was adept at utilising so-called humanitarian operations to foment national unity and win political points. During the recent food-aid operation, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj implored the India’s Gulf expat population to ‘help your brothers and sisters…[and demonstrate] the collective will of the Indian nation’. More broadly, the Twitter hashtag #NoIndianLeftBehind became a popular social media expression of the government’s operational successes.
Low-key bilateral diplomacy on the kafala system is safe policy because it puts some pressure on GCC governments without jeopardising increasingly important bilateral economic and counter-terrorism relationships. As the world’s fourth largest energy importer, securing stable and sustainable sources of crude oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) is a core element of India’s medium term foreign policy framework. 58% of its crude oil and most of its liquified natural gas (LNG) already comes from the Middle East, and the Gulf’s proximity to a number of big Indian ports means that energy imports are more easily and safely transported than from elsewhere.
In addition, too much public advocacy may further isolate Indian workers, and drive Gulf employers to cheaper labour sources and less powerful countries of origin, such as Nepal. After all, close to 7 million Indians work in the Gulf and remit approximately $36 billion or half of all India’s remittances annually. In this context, the Indian government is arguably doing its population a greater service by avoiding antagonising Gulf revenue sources over human rights principles. India needs this.
This close economic relationship makes the recent layoffs even more concerning for India, particularly if they are indicative of the Gulf’s inevitable post-rentier transition. The layoffs originate in an average 60% drop in oil prices since late 2014. This has resulted in significant budget deficits, thus forcing widespread subsidy cuts and delays in contract payments to companies. The construction industry has been particularly hard-hit, with Saudi Oger, for example, reportedly owed close to 30 billion Saudi riyals for completed or ongoing government infrastructure projects. This is not to say that migrant labour will be irrelevant to Gulf societies in the short to medium-term, or that oil prices will not rebound. However, it is plausible to say that scenarios similar to the one above may occur in the coming years. And should this happen, it’s hard to see the Indian response changing.
Nishadh Rego is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.