What happens when you combine an economic downturn with insensitive governments and employers? More stories like the one announced by India's Ministry of External Affairs this weekend, when it emerged that as many as 10,000 Indian workers in Saudi Arabia were left starving until embassy officials managed to intervene. India might say it is ready to bring back these workers, but there are thousands more like them across the Gulf.
Early Sunday morning, the Indian consulate in Jeddah announced that it had managed to get food distributed to citizens in five different Saudi Arabian labour camps. According to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, many of these workers had been laid off without their back wages being paid. This has made it hard for the workers to return to India – while also creating a humanitarian crisis, as in the case of the thousands of workers who were without food.
In the Jeddah case with things looking particularly bad, the ministry mobilised embassy officials and called on the Indian diaspora to help get food to the camps where workers have been without jobs or salaries for some time now. Eventually the Jeddah consulate announced that more than 15,000 kgs of food was distributed across five camps.
An unidentified official told The Hindu that the government is attempt to arrange exit visas for the workers and ensure they make their way back home. Swaraj has announced that Minister of State for External Affairs VK Singh will travel to Saudi Arabia to look into the matter, while the other junior External Affairs Minister MJ Akbar will take up the issue with authorities.
Singh's immediate concern will be dealing with the welfare of the 10,000 workers whose case has come to light, but they are not alone. Ever since oil prices began falling, putting the economies of the Gulf states under severe stress, the effects have been felt most harshly by foreign workers. There are 7 million Indian citizens in the region. Anecdotal evidence suggests hundreds of thousands have been affected by the economic downturn, although the opaque nature of job markets in these countries means it is hard to pin down an actual number.
The fortunes of the Binladin group offer a useful example of what is happening in the region though. One of the country's largest employers, said to have over 200,000 employees, the construction company laid off as many as 50,000 workers earlier this year.
Although the company reported granted its foreign workers a permanent exit visa – a necessary document within the draconian legal systems in the Gulf without which requires permission from an employer before an employee is allowed to leave the country – thousands refused to go, saying they hadn't been paid. Despite the repressive nature of the state, which doesn't look kindly upon those dissenting in public, the sacked workers took the the streets of Mecca, setting fire to buses outside the Binladin group's offices.
There were already concerns for the 3 million-strong Indian population in Saudi Arabia after the Nitaqat laws came into effect, part of the kingdom's efforts to reduce its reliance on foreign workers and assure more employment to locals. Similar indigenisation efforts are taking place across the Gulf with Qatarisation in Qatar and Emiritisation in the United Arab Emirates.
This has been exacerbated by the economic downturn over the last few years, a direct result of plummeting oil prices that have seriously affected the Gulf nations. Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia posted average fiscal deficits of 12% over the next few years, with Saudi's deficit ballooning to a record $98 billion last year. The construction industry, which employs a vast number of foreign workers, has contracted by as much as 80% and the non-oil economy is actually in recession.
What makes matters worse is the callous attitude that the Gulf governments and local employers have always deployed with foreign workers. Despite their crucial position in propping up these economies, foreign workers have to deals with some of the world's most draconian regulations in the Gulf, including rules that human rights organisations have compared to slavery.
When combined with layoffs, this turns to apathy – which is how 10,000 workers can be left starving. Other cases may not be as severe, but as Swaraj admitted with reference to labourers who have been laid off without wages being paid in Kuwait as well, they are no less problematic. Oil companies and state-linked firms across the region are continue to lay off massive numbers of people, and with most other jobs also connected to the petroleum industry, nothing is secure. The downturn will also potentially have a massive impact on the Indian economy, considering Gulf Non-Resident Indians remit around $33 billion to India every year.
The Indian state, utterly dependent on the Gulf for its energy needs, has rarely done a good job of speaking up for its citizens. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to change that, even lunching with labourers while in Qatar, and Swaraj has deputed VK Singh to handle the matter. Even if New Delhi can't do much to address human rights abuses in the Gulf, a process that begins with unscrupulous agents in India, it can at least use its leverage in the region to ensure they get paid and find a way home.