Indian Workers in Gulf: Unsung Heroes Who Pay With Their Lives

The govt has been blind to the plight of domestic workers who are subject to rampant exploitation, sexual abuse.

5 min read
Indian workers stranded in Oman talk about their miseries, in 2017. Archived imaged used for representational purposes.

A series of RTI interventions reveals the yawning gap between fanciful perception and painful reality.

What does it say of the Indian state which prizes its NRI population in developed countries for their contribution to India’s economy, while Indians toiling away in Gulf countries remain unsung, even at the cost of their blood, and despite the huge amount they contribute in remittances?

Till now, no data or comparative analysis was available, but the result of a series of RTI interventions by Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative provides a glimpse into this sad state of affairs.

What the Numbers Say

According to the data obtained by Nayak through RTI applications and poring through the scant records maintained by the Parliament, and those maintained regularly by the World Bank and RBI, it has been revealed that, between 2012 and mid-2018 more than 24,570 Indian workers died in six Gulf countries, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Over 24,570
No of Indian workers who died in in six Gulf countries (2012-2018)

This works out to an average of more than 10 deaths per day. The same data reveals that for every USD 1 billion they remitted to India during that period, there were at least 117 deaths of Indian workers in these six Gulf countries.

A comparative analysis of the data regarding remittances received from Indians working in Gulf countries with the datasets relating to death reveals the following preliminary results:

  1. Indians working in Gulf accounted for more than half of the remittance that India received from all over the world between 2012-2017. While India received a total of USD 410.33 billion in remittances from the world over, remittances from the Gulf countries accounted for USD 209.07 billion,
  2. According to World Bank estimates, UAE topped the list of Gulf countries from which remittances were received at USD 72.30 billion, followed by Saudi Arabia (USD 62.60 billion); Kuwait (USD 25.77 billion); Qatar (USD 22.57 billion); Oman (USD 18.63 billion) and Bahrain came last with USD 7.19 billion.

Data Void on Deaths

On 4 April this year, the Minister of State for External Affairs Gen (Retd.) V K Singh, in reply to a question from Rajiv Pratap Rudy, said that there were 87.76 lakh Indians working in Gulf countries who have remitted USD 33.47 billion between April- September 2017. However, the Ministry of External Affairs does not maintain data on deaths of Indian workers unless questions are raised in Parliament.

So when Nayak sought data on deaths from January 2012 to August 2018, the MEA transferred his pleas to the six embassies.

While the Embassy of Kuwait replied that most of the details regarding deaths of Indian workers in that country was available online on its official website (which contains month-wise deaths since 2014 only), UAE refused to provide even this data citing Section 8(1) (j) of the RTI Act, which exempts the disclosure of personal information which may cause unwarranted invasion of privacy of the individual, or where the disclosure has no relationship to any public activity or interest.

In order to fill up the gaps in the data (between 2012-13 which the Indian Embassy in Kuwait did not display) and the data which UAE refused to disclose, Nayak's analysis of data on the websites of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha indicated that the number of deaths (24,570), in the six Gulf countries between 2012 and mid-2018, could in fact increase if the complete figures for Kuwait and UAE are made available publicly. Only the Indian Embassy in Qatar provided some information about the cause of deaths.

While more than 80 percent of the deaths have been attributed to natural causes, almost 14 percent of the deaths occurred in accidents. And almost 6 percent of these deaths were due to suicides.

A Bit Short of ‘Blood Money’

In order to get comparative data on remittances, Nayak’s analysis of the World Bank’s annual Migration Reports and the RBI’s weekly remittance data suggested that “Indians working in Gulf countries accounted for more than half of the remittance that India received from all over the world during 2012-17.”

According to Nayak, “when compared with the dataset regarding deaths of Indian workers obtained through RTI and parliamentary records, there were more than 187 deaths for every USD billion received from Oman during 2012-17; more than 183 deaths for every USD billion received from Bahrain and 162 deaths for every USD billion received from Saudi Arabia”.

While UAE was the source of the highest amount of remittances from Indian workers during the years 2012-2017 (USD 72.3 billion), it also had the lowest deaths per USD billion remitted to India (a little more than 71 deaths).

Conversely, Bahrain, which came at the bottom of the list in terms of total remittances during the same period (USD 7.19 billion only), stands at second place in terms of the number of deaths of Indian workers per USD billion remitted (a little more than 183 deaths).

In other words, every USD billion earned by Indian workers remitted from Bahrain cost much more in terms of deaths than a similar amount remitted from UAE.

Blue-Collars Add More to India’s FOREX

The data suggests that that blue-collared workers are contributing more to India’s FOREX kitty than the white-collared workers in the developed countries. Indian workers in the UAE remitted USD 72.3 billion between 2012-2017, while remittances from Indians in USA were only USD 68.37 billion during this period.

Remittances from the UK at USD 23 billion and a mere USD 17.3 billion from Canada compare poorly with the remittances that Indian Workers sent from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman and Kuwait during the same period.

However, because of the disproportionate political influence wielded by Indian expatriates and NRIs in the developed countries, the workers in the Gulf countries go unsung and unacknowledged, despite their sweat, blood, and toil.

Indian Govt’s Apathy

The Indian government hardly recognises, let alone acknowledges the contributions of Gulf workers, and efforts to help them are scant. In 2014, the MEA tried putting in place a slew of “welfare measures” but as this Brookings study of November 2017 notes, the efforts are piecemeal, fragmented and sluggish, not taking into account the harsh reality of the widely prevalent Kafala (sponsorship-based contractual labour) system which the International Labour Organization has termed as a “contemporary form of slavery” and the severe and rampant violations of labour rights, especially those of unskilled and semi-skilled labourers who go to work there.

Apart from that, the government has so far also remained blind to the plight of domestic workers who are subject to rampant exploitation and sexual and mental abuse.

And, despite the high amount of remittances, the Indian workers in the Gulf are hardly acknowledged in the annual Pravasiya Bahratiya Sammelans , which fete and recognise only powerful business magnates and educated professionals, mostly from the developed countries, and rarely from the Gulf nations.

Nayak is loathe to call the Gulf remittances “blood money”, but expects the Indian government to be much more cognisant of the plight and contributions of Indian workers in the Gulf countries than it cares to do at present.

(Saurav is a journalist, columnist and researcher based out of Delhi. He tweets at @SauravDatta29. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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