Four years ago, Azhar’s business as a recruitment agent in Mumbai channelling workers from India to Gulf countries was booming. For lakhs of Indians seeking semi-skilled and unskilled jobs, countries in the Gulf are attractive destinations that promise higher wages than they can hope to receive at home.

But since 2015, these jobs have dried up. Azhar, whose name has been changed at his request, explained just how badly his business has been hit. Each recruitment company is allowed to submit a maximum of 60 passports a day to the Ministry of External Affairs’ Protectors of Emigrants offices for emigration clearance. This clearance is necessary for Indian citizens who have not cleared their Class 10 exams have to get government approval before they travel to 18 countries.

“Four years ago, we would get up to 70 passports daily and had to decide which 10 to cut down,” Azhar said. “Now we feel lucky to get even three.”

The government says that the decline in emigrants is because of a slowdown in the Gulf economy related to falling oil prices. But recruitment agents channelling workers to Gulf countries and prospective employees pin the blame elsewhere – on a digitisation initiative by the Union government that was meant to make the emigration process smoother and safer for citizens, but has instead increased paperwork for foreign employers.

Riyaz Umar, a resident of Kurla in Mumbai, spent eight years working as a carpenter in Abu Dhabi. Since 2015, Umar says, these jobs have dried up, leaving vast numbers without employment in India.

“If you look in villages anywhere along the entire Konkan coast or in UP [Uttar Pradesh] and Bihar, you will find carpenters, masons and electricians sitting in their villages without work,” Umar said. “These are people who could have earned good money going to the Gulf.”

Instead, recruitment agents like Umar and Azhar say that these jobs are going to workers from Bangladesh – which has less stringent rules. Azhar said he knew of around 30 to 40 recruitment agents who had surrendered their licences since the website was launched.

Official figures from the Ministry of External Affairs reflect this reading, with emigration clearance to Gulf destinations registering a significant drop since 2015. According to a ministry official, Protector of Emigrants offices issued 8 lakh emigration clearances in 2014. In 2017, this number dropped to around 3.9 lakh clearances.

Neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh do not have such a high standard for due diligence and have become attractive recruitment choices for Gulf employers. Emigration from Bangladesh to the Gulf rose in 2016 and 2017. In Pakistan, emigration registered a considerable increase in 2015 though it has dropped since.

The website

The Union government launched its e-migrate website in 2015, after years of delay. The website was supposed to shift the application process for emigration clearances entirely online, which, as the government said in 2014, would help increase the speed of processing applications from around 4,000 per day to 10,000 per day.

However, recruitment agencies say that the speed has instead slowed down, with each Protector of Emigrants office managing to handle only around 100 applications daily. There are only 10 such offices in the country.

“The biggest problem with the website is the design itself,” said Qureshi Athar Salim, a recruitment agent and former general secretary of the Indian Personnel Export Promotion Council, which has been coordinating closely with the government with suggestions on how to improve the website.

Salim said that the problem is that the website was designed according to a 1984 manual of emigration, which has long become redundant after decades of executive orders altering parts of it. While several initial teething problems with the website have been solved, there are still some aspects that continue to cause delays.

One such complication, which hit Azhar’s company, was a disproportionately high amount of paperwork for individual employers who might hire only a few workers. These employers provided around 20% of his business, Azhar said, but ever since the e-migrate website was introduced, they shifted to recruits from other countries.

On August 3, the ministry announced that it would rationalise the foreign employer registration process to allow recruitment agents to recruit Indian workers on behalf of individual employers. But the individual employer will be able to employ no more than 10 people in their lifetime, which recruitment agents say could still be restrictive. The website is yet to be updated to allow for this new process.

Recruitment agents say that this is only a part of their problem.

Emigration process

Unregulated migration, lax paperwork and restrictive labour laws in Gulf countries make semi-skilled and unskilled emigrants vulnerable to being trapped in situations of bonded labour without the means to return home.

It is not typically easy for aspiring emigrants to immediately get a job in a Gulf country given the amount of paperwork and contacts required. Several layers of middlemen and contractors, from village sarpanches to businessmen in cities, pass on information of potential candidates to recruitment agencies that contract with businesses in foreign countries to supply them with a certain number of workers.

The government issues two kinds of passports to Indian citizens, indicating whether they need to get cleared for emigration. All those who have not cleared their Class 10 school examination automatically get a passport stamped with “ECR”, or emigration check required. (This incidentally was the passport that External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had proposed to issue with orange-coloured jackets in February, to general outrage.)

People with passports with the emigration check required stamp, who travel to 18 countries for work, including to those in the Gulf, have to first get a clearance from any of the 10 Protector of Emigrants offices in the country. These offices scrutinise their employment documents and contracts. They also ensure that the recruitment agencies, if any, are registered with the government.

Once cleared, the government pastes a sticker on their passport, which will then be checked by emigration authorities at airports.

Website woes

The e-migrate website, developed by Tata Consultancy Services, complicates this process, recruitment agents say.

The second United Progressive Alliance government issued a request for proposals to build this website in March 2010. Tata Consultancy Services won the bidding process and signed a master service agreement with the government in December 2011. Though the website was supposed to be completed within 58 weeks – a little over a year – it was finally launched almost three years after schedule in 2015. The website cost the government Rs 92 crore at the last estimate.

The website increases the documentation requirements of all stakeholders in the process, including foreign employers, emigrants and recruitment agents. Foreign employers, which did not need to share any details with the Indian government earlier, now have to register details about their business and submit a bank guarantee of $2,500 to the Indian government. Around 2 lakh foreign employers have registered with the website, the ministry official said.

Once registered, foreign employers then have to register their demand for employees and how much they will pay them, upload details of each emigrant and also of every employment contract they issue to Indian citizens. Each contract then has to be printed and signed individually instead of being processed in bulk if the employer is hiring multiple people for similar roles.

The Indian embassy in the recruiting country attests each contract – for which they charge fees around Rs 5,000 per contract. Recruitment agents claim that far more is charged off the table. This expense is more often than not passed on to the emigrants, explaining Umar’s indignation at the 10-fold rise in travel costs for recruits.

“Foreign employers are being troubled to do things we used to do for them with power of attorney,” said Sandeep Kapoor, a recruitment agent from Delhi. “For instance, the authorised signatory of a company is required to sign every employment contract. In large companies, this is usually the managing director. Will this person waste his time signing 200 documents or will he opt for manpower from another country?”

Despite storing digital signatures of emigrants and foreign employers alike, the website still requires physically signed copies of every contract to be submitted at the Protector of Emigrants office while applying for emigration clearance. This increases the paperwork burden of officials even as they struggle with slow internet connections.

Tata Consultancy Services did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Illegal emigration up

There is indeed a need for more documentation in the process given the risks workers frequently face. However, it is not clear whether the website can provide this safety net. Just in July, reports emerged that 600 Indian construction workers in Qatar had been denied their salaries for around six months after their employer hit a rough financial patch. Qatar is incidentally the country with the highest number of labour-related complaints from Indians.

With the demand for these jobs in India remaining the same if not increasing, recruitment agencies and workers alike are seeking illegal and undocumented means to continue to work abroad.

“Instead of going through registered recruitment agents like us, people are now submitting fake 10th standard certificates to get their passport category changed,” said Kapoor. “Or they go to ECR [emigration check required] countries with a tourist visa and pay there to change their visa category. So any way you look at it, people’s costs go up. This problem has not been solved for the past three years and now, e-migrate is being bypassed each and every day.”

The government has admitted that it has no data on those who travel illegally.

“Data relating to Indian workers, who have been sent abroad illegally is not available with the Government because they bypass the system established by the Government,” the ministry said in a Lok Sabha reply in August 2017. “Therefore, information of such Indian workers undergoing imprisonment is also not available. Only data relating to Indian emigrants, holding Emigration Clearance Required (ECR) category Passport and legally proceeding to 18 notified ECR countries for overseas employment, is maintained in e-Migrate system.”

Said Azhar, “Four years ago, no recruitment agent would have spoken to you. Now we are speaking freely – that is how bad the situation is for us.”