You are here:

The slavery of Gulf workers: Why we don't give a damn!

Last year, an Indian worker jumped off the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest tower, a glittering symbol of Dubai's prosperity. Little attention was paid to his death in the Indian media.

Guardian writer Nesrine Malik, however, took note:

The man, apparently an Indian cleaner who had been denied a holiday, was scraped off the floor on which he landed on and life went back to normal. Tourists and expats lapped up the luxury and sunshine, while workers from south Asia, little moving dots on the facades of the buildings under construction throughout the city, were ferried in buses to and from their living quarters. A couple of days later, another Indian man jumped from Jumeirah Lake Towers.

It's hardly news that far too many Indian workers in the Gulf are subject to horrific working and living conditions. A new UN report  confirms that the lot of women (who constitute nearly half of the Indian migrant population) is no better than the men.

“The working conditions and the nature of occupation of the women laborers in contemporary Gulf migration expose them to a variety of vulnerabilities which are not dissimilar to those faced by women in the 19th century plantations,” claims the authors.

Gulf countries treat Indians like modern-day slaves. And yet this situation provokes little outrage.

AFP

"There are over 5.5 million Indian workers in the Gulf, of which about 1.75 million live and work in UAE alone. We are very grateful to the UAE Government for the warm welcome they have received in the country," gushed President Pratibha Patil on her visit to the UAE.

The awful truth is that we have our own double standard on racism. We care little about the plight our fellow citizens in the Gulf, and for a number of reasons that don't reflect well on our government or on us.

One, they're not PLUs. We are quick to take offence when a student is attacked in Australia or a techie is killed in Britain. We rush to condemn the Norwegian government when a nice, middle class couple loses custody of their kids. And yet the ongoing exploitation of ayahs and construction workers in the Gulf barely registers in the national consciousness.

Such indifference is bred by our own attitudes toward the working poor. Anything that goes down in Dubai is just as likely to occur in a household in Delhi. If they don't deserve protection within our borders, why would we protest on their behalf abroad? Besides, didn't they choose to put themselves in this position by working in the Gulf? Of course, the very same argument can be made for students and software professionals alike, but never mind.

Two, we're ashamed of them. The only kind of NRIs we want to acknowledge are those who do us proud: scientists, corporate tycoons, engineers, actors, politicians et al. Any time a person of Indian heritage – we don't care if you've never once visited the country – does something of note, we scramble to bask in their reflected glory. The blue collar drones, on the other hand, are a national embarrassment, a reminder of an India that is still poor, whose citizens are the mazdoor to the world.

Our own government has an elitist NRIs We Like criterion. As Firstpost contributor Minal Hajratwala observed, at a black-tie event designed to woo NRIs, the officials touted the high levels NRI investment, while carefully to avoiding all mention of its largest contributors: "This narrative of success relies, of course, on a very broad definition of NRI that includes labourers in the Gulf (27 percent of remittances). None of them, as far as I know, made it to the ballroom."

And that brings us to reason number three: it's all about the money, baby. Those Gulf workers may be a wee bit embarrassing, but they're the reason why Indian foreign remittances ($54 billion) are the highest in the world. There's no way the government is willing to sacrifice this cash cow — either by putting pressure on the Gulf states or by restricting the export of labour.

When the Gulf economies crashed in 2009, the returning Indian workers were greeted with dismay, especially in states like Kerala which had grown fat off their slave labour. A Guardian article unintentionally connected the dots:

The concern is not just that mass unemployment will lead to unrest, but that local economies will suffer as remittances from expatriates dry up. About two million people from Kerala work abroad, almost 90% of whom are in the Gulf and in Saudi Arabia. Many are poor, semi-skilled labourers who... work 12-hour days... earn between £500-£1,000 a month, and send most of the money home. Every year migrant workers remit some £5.5bn to Kerala, money that has helped transform the state...

For all our chest-thumping, we've come to rely on these workers and their indentured labour.

So, we'll give you 24-hour hotlines, pre-departure orientation workshops, and arbitrary bans on female workers under 30. None of it will help – as the UN report underlines – because we know you are desperate to earn a decent wage just to ensure a decent life. And that's just fine with us.

As a parting shot, here is a Times of India editorial opposing efforts to crack down on female trafficking to the Gulf:

That's not to say that Indian women employed abroad may not encounter harsh work conditions such as nonpayment of salaries, long work hours, poor living conditions,physical and sexual harassment, refusal of leave or exit permits. But such conditions are not restricted to Gulf countries or to women, let alone women below a certain age. The way out is to educate migrant workers about the risks they face abroad and raise their awareness about the conditions they may actually encounter. After that it is up to them to make an informed choice.

It's a free world, after all – except for some of us.