Indian Migrants in Qatar and Narendra Modi’s Predicament

05.20.14

Indian Migrants in Qatar and Narendra Modi’s Predicament

05.20.14
Imre SoltImre Solt

While campaigning for prime minister in West Bengal, Narendra Modi stated that illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh posed a threat to India’s security and stressed, “(they) must prepare to return (to Bangladesh).” Narendra Modi, despite facing steep criticism for issuing similar remarks in his election rallies, invoked the Indian Supreme Court’s observation that illegally entering India is considered an act of aggression. Nevertheless, Narendra Modi, widely seen as a foreign policy hardliner, was quick to differentiate between illegal economic migrants and Hindu refugees, recognizing the latter as “family” escaping religious persecution in Bangladesh and calling for their appropriate rehabilitation. Bangladeshi immigrants were accused of “capturing land and jobs” thus posing an adverse consequence on employment levels across India.

According to a report from the Press Trust of India that quoted Narendra Modi, Modi promised to do away with detention camps housing Hindu migrants. Importantly, he was also quoted as saying that India has a responsibility towards Hindus who are harassed and who are the victims of suffering. Issuing a clarification on Narendra Modi’s statements, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s spokesperson, Siddharth Nath Singh, referred to a United Nations Refugee Policy that allows minority groups to be granted the status of “refugees” in the event of discrimination on religious grounds. In this context, he said that since Hindus are a minority group in Bangladesh, they should be accorded refugee status in India. Bearing in mind that the BJP is considered more aggressive than Congress with respect to its foreign policy, it remains to be seen how the issue of migrants, illegal or otherwise, national or international, shall be dealt with.

India currently is the largest contributor, 22%, to Qatar’s national workforce which itself stands at 94% foreign. In March 2013, The deputy chief of mission at India’s embassy in Doha wrote to the company in charge of constructing the Ras Laffan Emergency and Safety College expressing his disappointment at the poor treatment being meted out to Indian labourers. As a result, in July 2013, all stranded workers were able to fly home, but without having been paid. Qatar, in preparation for the 2022 football World Cup, has faced criticism from the international media over the rising number of migrant deaths. India’s embassy in Doha confirmed 237 deaths in 2012, 241 in 2013 and a further 24 deaths in 2014.

Interestingly, India’s embassy in Doha refused to share the transcripts of any correspondence between the embassy and the Congress-led UPA government. Officials at both India’s embassy and the Qatari government held the view that the number of deaths of Indian labourers was “normal” in proportion to the size of the community – roughly 500,000. Further, both parties failed to investigate or provide information on the root causes behind such deaths, a revelation that may indeed be far from normal given Amnesty International’s report from November 2013 detailing the living conditions of migrant labourers. Despite numerous “body bags” being transported to India, the government did not even acknowledge the situation until Nepal took Qatar to task for the 385 bodies it received in the same time frame.

Amnesty International’s report from November 2013 titled “Treat Us Like We Are Human,” migrant workers in Qatar claim that labour systems prevalent in Gulf States, known as kefala, create an excessively unequal power relationship between the employer and the employee resulting in forced and bonded labour, exploitation, widespread abuses and trafficking. Such a system prevents employees from changing jobs or leaving the country without permission from their employers. Moreover, existing labour laws in Qatar excluded certain categories of labourers such as domestic workers, thereby failing to hold accountable any employer accused of abuse. Further, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in March 2012, observed that the sponsorship law – part of the labour law – increased the dependency of the workers on the sponsor making them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

The fact that Qatar has failed to ratify ILO Convention 189 calling for decent workplace conditions for domestic workers creates several problems for workers across the nation who are also victims of domestic violence and abuse. In response to growing international calls for reform, Qatar’s Ministries of Interior and Labour released plans at a joint press conference aimed at reforming Qatar’s labour laws and easing restrictions on foreign workers. The proposed changes seek to abolish the sponsorship system and exit permits for workers. Abolishing the sponsor and exit permit systems, ones that keep employees bound to their employers for the entire duration of their stay and requires employees to seek the consent of their employer before leaving the country, would arguably grant greater levels of freedom to migrant workers.

However, the changes fall well short of the more fundamental changes, according to James Lynch of Amnesty International. However, Muhammad Ahmed Al Atiq of the Ministry of Interior and Labour said that the implementation of such a plan depended upon the evaluation and approval of the government’s legislative branch, the Shura Council. Such a system will be applicable to everybody working in Qatar.

Qatar’s economy, at least among the Gulf Cooperation Council members, is said to be the fastest growing, largely driven by gas exports. According to the IMF, in 2011, the per capita income in Qatar stood at a $100,000, with its GCC counterparts not too far behind. Despite their respective economies being driven, and arguably controlled, by their migrant workforces, GCC nations have not been able to establish labour laws and employment policies for economic migrants.

Most employers are accused of withholding passports, refusing to pay wages for months, preventing their employees from changing jobs (khiraj) and systematically abusing them in the process. The salaries and pay packages for employees perhaps reflect the abysmal condition of migrant labourers in Qatar, and other Gulf nations. The marginal labour class – comprised of cleaners and construction company workers – constitute the largest class of labourers and yet are paid not only erratically, but also the least ($150 to $250 a month), in comparison to others who work in ‘blue collared’ (self-employed) or ‘white collared’ (teachers, accountants, bankers, engineers etc.) jobs who are paid anywhere between $2,000 to $20,000 a month.

Although the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs lists a catalogue of Bilateral Labour Agreements that have entered into force with various nations, it seems to be doing little for Indian nationals who are part of overseas labour industries facing human rights abuses. One would expect, given Narendra Modi’s aggressive approach to foreign policy, that Indian labourers abroad, Hindu or otherwise, will have something to rejoice about. However, this may not be the case. India has long been criticised for engaging in “strategic autonomy” rather than providing a “strategic direction” where its foreign policy is concerned, citing the former where it deems suitable which results in what has been widely recognized as “policy paralysis.” Some claim that India’s foreign policy under Narendra Modi is not expected to change drastically as it has remained the same for nearly five decades, adopting several different styles and communication methods with changing governments.

Several analysts have, however, compared a Narendra Modi-led NDA government’s foreign policy to the 1999-2004 Atal Behari Vajpayee-led NDA government’s assertive foreign policy that arguably brought India to the centre-stage of world politics. TP Sreenivasan, a former Indian diplomat says that Modi’s emphasis on economy and development could force him to adopt a “soft” approach towards “rich” nations. Furthermore, given Modi’s track record of adopting policies to attract foreign investment in Gujarat, it is speculated that he may “federalize” India’s foreign policy, allowing BJP-ruled states to call the shots where relations with other nations are concerned.

In such a scenario, what may be most interesting will be Narendra Modi’s approach to tackling economic development vis–à–vis human rights taking into account India’s policies regarding economic migrants, domestic and international. Will the newly elected prime minister be willing to apply the diplomatic pressure required to safeguard the rights of vulnerable groups in strategically important nations like Qatar, irrespective of religious backgrounds? Only time will tell.

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