BY NIKHIL EAPEN (Researcher at Amnesty International India)

It was a cold night in June 2007 when Haroon (name changed) arrived in Ha’il in Saudi Arabia. As his airport taxi drove out of the city, the city lights grew distant before they disappeared entirely. The mobile signal became weaker before it eventually died and when the taxi finally came to a halt, Haroon found himself outside a goat farm. To his shock, he was told that this was the place where he would work for the next nine months.

Earlier that year, Haroon had borrowed heavily from his friends and family to pay close to 1, 50,000 rupees to a recruitment agent in Kozhikode in Kerala, who had promised him a job as a cleaner at a lodge in Saudi Arabia. He was assured a monthly salary of 1200 Saudi Riyals–approximately 20,000 rupees—which was more than twice of what he earned as a labourer on the tea plantations in his town.

Instead, Haroon was put to work as a goat herder. It was not the job he had signed up for, and not the conditions he expected to work in. Haroon’s passport was confiscated by his employer and he was not allowed to leave the farm. He was made to work 18 hours a day, often went hungry when his employer didn’t give him enough food, and was even beaten up occasionally. But what troubled him the most was the salary.

“I could have adjusted to working on the farm and I would have survived had I been paid my promised salary,” Haroon told Amnesty International India in Wayanad, where he now lives. “But my employer paid me only 600 riyals a month, half of what I had been guaranteed by the recruitment agent. For the first three months, I wasn’t paid anything. I had borrowed heavily from my friends and family, so I could not afford to return home with nothing in hand.”

Unable to withstand the work conditions, Haroon escaped from the farm and worked as a tailor for the next two years. He knew this was illegal but he waited. The day his debt back home was paid, Haroon turned himself in to the Saudi authorities and asked to be deported to India.

Haroon is just one among many Indian workers who travel to the Gulf every year in search of a better life and livelihood. According to data from the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, in 2012, about 82 Indian workers were granted emigration clearances to travel to the Gulf every hour.

Migrants are recruited to work as attendants in supermarkets, lay pipes and cables on construction sites, sweep streets, cook in restaurants, look after children, and serve in households as domestic maids. This ever-increasing population of migrant workers contributes to making India the largest recipient of remittances in the world.

However, for several migrant workers like Haroon, dreams come at a cost. They go into heavy debt in order to travel to the Gulf, only to be deceived about the terms and conditions of work, endure abusive working conditions and not be able to see their families for many years at a time.

To escape poverty at home, some workers are ready to go to any lengths to find a secure, well-paying job, and even consent to working under irregular arrangements in the Gulf.

The ‘free visa’ is one such arrangement, where the ‘sponsor’ of a migrant worker allows her to work for other employers in various jobs—a practice not allowed under Saudi Arabia’s labour sponsorship system. Under the ‘kafala’ or sponsorship system existing in all the six Gulf States, every migrant worker must have a specific job and a sponsoring employer under whom she works.

‘Free visas’ increase the risk of exploitation and abuse. As they are not recognized under Saudi labour law, Indian migrants working under such an arrangement have little recourse or remedy in the event of human rights abuse. Workers on ‘free visas’ cannot approach labour courts if they are not paid their wages or are exploited at work. If found out, they may instead face heavy fines, arrest and deportation. The recent implementation of the ‘Nitaqat’ programme in Saudi Arabia brought into focus the number of irregular Indian migrants employed on ‘free visas’.

Amnesty International’s research on migrant workers in Qatar found that even workers recruited on regular arrangements face serious human rights abuse – including deception about the nature of their work, payment of lower salaries than promised, and excessive (and sometimes extreme) working hours. Researchers met migrant workers who had not been paid for six to nine months, who didn’t have enough – or any – food and were unable to get out of the country.

On 18 December 1990, the UN General Assembly adopted an international treaty in a landmark step to recognise and protect the rights of migrants and their families. Each year, the UN calls on states to recognize the contributions of migrant workers and the vulnerabilities they face, and promote respect for their human rights, including the rights to life, liberty, adequate conditions of work and the freedom of movement. So far, the treaty has been ratified by only 37 countries. Neither India nor any of the Gulf countries have signed it.

Countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia that benefit immensely from its foreign labour force need to acknowledge that migrant workers in their countries are at risk, and address the serious flaws in the sponsorship system which can facilitate exploitation and abuse. They must enforce their labour laws to protect vulnerable migrants from abusive employers.

India, too, has a responsibility to ensure that its migrant workers are treated with dignity and respect. India should develop inter-governmental dialogue and cooperation on labour migration policy, and also enforce and strengthen its bilateral agreements to protect the rights of Indian migrant workers and promote their welfare.

At home, India should take immediate steps to strengthen and enforce the regulation of recruitment agencies. Rogue recruiters who deceive migrants or recruit them on irregular arrangements should be investigated, prosecuted and handed appropriate penalties. The government should establish better pre-travel training, assistance and orientation for all migrant workers, and increase the support provided by its diplomatic missions to migrant workers in trouble.

Many other Haroons are still at risk of exploitation and abuse in the Gulf. Today, on International Migrants Day, India must begin to stand up for them.