Indian Laborers in the Gulf


Dr. Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

Last month, while waiting in Abu Dhabi airport for my flight to Jaipur, I had an opportunity to meet some of the Indian laborers. I had extensive talks with two laborers – Prakash from Rajasthan and Azad from Bihar. Praksh resigned from his job in a labor supplier company in UAE and was coming back to his native place after two years. He was excited to meet his family, particularly his two grown-up sons, on his return. His face revealed a lot. Sun-hardened, Prakash worked for a labor-supplier company ten hours a day. He was working as a sweeper, assistant to engineers in an oil company, and also as a construction laborer.

His journey from India to UAE was filled with dreams which turned sour. He paid an agent 60,000 Indian rupees (INR) to get a job in the Gulf. He showed me his passport in which there is a stamp displaying the company for which he is doing the job and the amount of salary he is getting – 1200 UAE Dirham per month. But he never got 1200 per month. He got 900, about 15,000 Indian rupees. I asked, did not he or his co-workers complain this to the Indian embassy in UAE? He replied the embassy people know all this, but they are silent because they are paid by the companies. Prakash contemplated many times to return back but he was in a catch 22 situation. If he returns back, who will recover the money he paid to the agent? Besides, the contract for the job is so stringent that if a laborer leaves a job in between in violation of the contract he has to pay lot of money back to the contractor. That is too much for a poor laborer. So, he languished and worked for two years away from family.

How was the condition in the workplace? The laborers work ten hours every day, there is no excuse, no sick leaves, etc. The employers are hard task masters and if a laborer is late by one hour, they will straight cut 200 or 300 Dirham from his salary, no question asked. The company bus picks and drops the laborers from the campus to the work site, and provides basic food items such as rice or bread. The laborers have to prepare items curry, daal, etc. They get around 4 to 5 hours sleep in a room that accommodates six to eight laborers. He gave me this estimate – two hours up and down to the workplace, 11 hours at work place (including one hour lunch break), and getting fresh, cooking, fetching rice or bread from the community kitchen, eating, washing clothes, etc. take around three to four hours. They have rare occasions to celebrate festivals when the group joins in revelry with some alcohol, cheap banter and merrymaking. To my lighter question, whether he saw camel race, the lives and styles of the Sheikhs, he said he never had time for this, the daily load of work and the conditions of work left time for nothing.

Out of INR 15,000 Praskh got as his salary, he saved about 10,000 every month and sent the money to home. He told me he is happy that he is coming back to meet the family. While seeking my help in filling up the Customs department form required at the Indian airport, he revealed how he bought some gold ornaments for his wife, jackets for his brothers and relatives, chocolates for the kids. Most of the laborers are illiterate or semiliterate, and that is a disadvantage for them as they become victims to the exploitation of the contractors.

To my question about the relationship between the owners of factory and Indian laborers, Prakash told me the relations are highly asymmetrical. Factory owners, mostly from Egypt (Misr, as the laborers would call it – an Indian version of the name) are very demanding and dominating. As they are well versed in the local language and English, they exploit the laborers a lot. He mentioned how some of the laborers were beaten by the owners as they complained against poor working conditions. Even small errors, mistakes, may provoke a beating from the owners. He narrated how six Indian laborers went against their owner to a court against exploitation. The court issued a warning to the owner. Intimidation, bullying, shouting at the laborers, and occasional beating, are common incidents and are taken for granted by the laborers, as if part of their job.

The hot desert conditions do not suit many Indian laborers. Working in summer months are really tough. They have usually three hours break during day time during lunch, but 10 hours work they have to do. Prakash confided, had he been aware beforehand the deplorable working situation, he would have preferred to stay back in India and earn much less and live with family, than living under draconian conditions of daily intimidation and deadly labor.

Like Praksh, Azad resigned from the job. He resigned after 15 months. Unmarried, aged 28, Azad is of the same view as that of Prakash about the labor conditions in the Gulf. He said like him most of Indians are resigning from their jobs after few years and returning back to India. But there are thousands of Indian laborers working in the Gulf. The returning laborers’ jobs are filled by the fresh youths from India, and the process continues. While the Arab dream fuels the young illiterate and semi-illiterate Indians’ dreams, the recruited Indians mind veer towards their homes. The laborers are mostly motivated by the concerns of recovering the money given to the agents and earn some money to save their face in their community and save some money for family.

This is the second time I waited in Abu Dhabi on my way from Germany to India. Besides Abu Dhabi, I had waited earlier in some other airports in the Gulf during transit. When I look at these airports, I come across many South Asians, mostly Indians, working as cleaners of toilets, security guards, helpers, etc. Usually I start talking to these people. Some of them are very young, say about seventeen or eighteen year olds, and some are in their 30s or 40s. I did not come across old people. It is understandable for hard labor young people are required.

I am puzzled at the Indian government’s apathy at the deplorable situation of Indian laborers in the Gulf. A significant part of India’s foreign money come from these laborers in the Gulf in the form of remittances, like the ones regularly sent by Prakash and Azad. Why does not the government of India take a note of this situation, and raise the issue with the governments of the Gulf countries with which it has diplomatic relations? Particularly, why it does not focus on the issue of the promised salary of 1200 as mentioned in the passport of laborer and the actual amount he gets? Besides, checking corruption in the diplomatic ranks in the embassy of these countries, India also needs to bring its diplomatic skills to devise a strategy with these countries so that the Indian laborers are not treated as slaves. It is unfortunate that the factory owners and contractors maltreat the laborers. Why should not the government keep a strict eye on those agents who dupe the poor Indians with the lure of a bright future, which actually turns into a slavish nightmare? Why can not the government use the public diplomacy networks to highlight the designs of agents/contractors so that the unemployed youth become aware of them? I did not come across any laborer in Abu Dhabi enjoying his job. They are just surviving and want to come back.


Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a member of TRANSCEND network. He is also a fellow at the Center for Peace, Democracy and Development at the University of Massachusetts Boston.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 3 Nov 2014.

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