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India: Migrant workers exploited and abused in Saudi Arabia

The lack of effective regulation of visa brokers and rogue recruiting agents make Indian migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, Amnesty International said today in a new report focusing on migrants from the Indian state of Kerala working in Saudi Arabia.

The report, Exploited Dreams: Dispatches from Indian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, highlights cases of migrant workers from Kerala who were deceived about their jobs, wages and working conditions by Indian visa brokers and rogue recruiting agents. The workers went on to face abuse in Saudi Arabia, including forced labour. Migrants reported working 18 hour days, being beaten, threatened and prevented from returning home by their employers.

Saudi Arabia has attracted more low-paid Indian migrants over the last 25 years than any other country in the Gulf region. Every day, close to 1,000 Indian low-wage migrant workers are provided with emigration clearances to travel to Saudi Arabia.

They are recruited to work in cafeterias, supermarkets, construction sites, and guest houses; they sweep streets, cook in restaurants, and serve in households as domestic workers. Together, they send close to 500 billion INR (approximately £5 billion) back to India every year.  Remittances to Kerala account for nearly a third of the state’s net domestic product.

Amnesty interviewed migrant workers who ended up working in Saudi Arabia in jobs different from the ones they were promised.

Migrant workers reported working regularly for between 15 to 18 hours a day, without a day off, and without being compensated for overtime. Some were subjected to threats and beatings by their employers, had their passports and residency permits confiscated and were denied exit permits to return home.

A third of the migrant workers Amnesty interviewed reported facing problems with wage payments – including wages being arbitrarily deducted, underpayment, late payment and even non-payment.

In some cases, migrant workers said they were not paid for months, or were not paid at all, and were told by their employers to continue working if they wanted to be paid someday.

Migrant workers, when they begin their jobs, are usually burdened by the debt they have accumulated to buy their visas, and can also face the additional burden of being expected to support their families in India.

Ananth Guruswamy, Chief Executive of Amnesty International India, said:

“Migrant workers send billions of dollars in remittances every year to India and sustain thousands of families. Yet the Indian authorities continue to let them down when they are abused.

“Migrant workers are vulnerable because of individual acts of deception, but also because policies and laws that regulate their recruitment are poorly designed and implemented.

“Systemic violations need to be met with systemic changes. The government must draft a new emigration law that is consistent with international human rights standards and aligned with progressive emigration management systems.”

Few sought any remedy after they returned home, or were aware of their rights under law or existing mechanisms for redress. Virtually nobody had attended any training programmes before they left India.

Amnesty found evidence of recruiting agents violating emigration laws and policies, including by failing to conduct due diligence to ensure that migrant workers are not deceived.

Visa brokers, who are used by most potential migrants, are both unregistered and unregulated, and function outside the law. Migrants’ reliance on brokers to facilitate the recruitment process often left them vulnerable to deception, exploitation and indebtedness.

Under the ‘Kafala’ system in Saudi Arabia, workers need the permission of their sponsor to return to their country of origin.

This means that if workers arrive in Saudi Arabia to find that they have been deceived about the terms and conditions of their work during the recruitment process, or are subjected to abusive working or living conditions by their employer, the question of whether or not they can change jobs depends on their employer – the very person responsible for their abuse.

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