For workers who have lost their jobs or been cheated of their wages, the journey back home is accompanied by uncertainty about the future. The feelings of nostalgia and romance that usually accompany homecoming are replaced by heightened anxiety and palpable tension.
Many migrant labourers coming back home have lost their jobs and not received their salaries, in some cases for many months. In August 2017, two batches of workers from a company in Oman landed in Hyderabad and Visakhapatnam, after struggling for months without salaries.
Their stories are similar: despite not receiving salaries for a few months, they continued working, hoping that the salaries and back wages would be given soon.
When this did not happen, the workers were unable to manage. In this case, 18 persons from Itchapuram, Andhra Pradesh, did not receive their salaries for more than four months. It was after this, and with the support of local Telugu organisations that the workers approached the Indian Mission, which helped them return to India. As many as 50 others landed in Hyderabad in August 2017. In all, as many as 800 labourers were rendered jobless and penniless after the company shut down.
This is not an isolated case. A note from the MEA made available to the Parliamentary Standing Committee in 2017 says:
There are some reports of retrenchment of Indian workers and loss of jobs resulting from closure of companies as well as premature termination of existing contracts. Instances of unpaid dues/ salaries have been reported from Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman in recent months. Kuwaiti authorities have imposed a hike in [rates in] availing medical treatment, charges for obtaining residency, etc., in respect of expatriate workers. The recent GCC crisis involving Qatar has created financial pressure on companies undertaking infrastructure projects and may have potential adverse consequences for Indian workers.
In all the above scenarios, rescuing migrant workers from conflict or distress situations, getting the paperwork done to allow them to board a flight to India, and ensuring their safety in the interim is the responsibility of the MEA. But the questions begin to mount once these rescued persons reach Indian airports. In most cases, government intervention ends there.
In the case of those who landed at Hyderabad from Muscat, one local NGO persuaded the state government to give them some cash so that they could reach their homes, further in the interior of the state. “It was just a gesture on the part of the state government. We suggested and they came forward to help,” said M Bheem Reddy, vice president, Migrants Rights Council, an organisation that provides pre-departure awareness to those leaving abroad for employment. It also helps those in distress abroad, in partnership with the Indian Missions and other NGOs.
What happens to those coming back to India after they lose their jobs? Reddy says:
This was not a new phenomenon. Labourers have been coming back for the last twenty-five years... But the problem is that there is no return and reintegration programme by Government of India or by the state governments. There is no clear-cut policy for rehabilitation. When the people are coming from Gulf, they have skills. While going, they might have just gone as labourers. But when they come back, they are coming with some skills and experience. Sometimes they also have some money too. If the government provides some support, they will be gainfully employed and we can provide some jobs to them such as plumbers, masons, and electricians. The government should give some institutional support.
While the Government of India could take pride in bringing back 90,000 persons, the question remains whether it can convince their former employers in alien lands to give them their back wages. Invariably, before a company shuts down or before the onset of a conflict, wages have not been paid for several months.
Many people come back with empty hands [...] The Indian Embassy can file cases in the labour court for the recovery of the wages. These migrant labourers can give power of attorney to the Indian Embassy and it should take care of the court proceedings. This is very important. The affected party, a migrant labourer, will not be able to stay on in a foreign country and fight a court battle. They are also not in a position to engage an advocate. So the Indian Embassy could help them with legal aid. There have been cases where the labourer comes back and commits suicide because there is a debt which they are not able to pay back.
On average, about 5,000 workers die in foreign countries each year. “The government does not give them an ex-gratia,” Reddy points out.
Many of them have worked for years, sending or bringing substantial amounts of foreign exchange to India. Reddy feels that this entitles them to some government consideration. “It is their right,” he says, adding that those sending back huge amounts of money to India are not white-collar workers in Europe and the US; a vast majority are poor labourers from West Asia. “So should it not be a responsibility of the State and Central governments to look after them?”
Non-resident Indians remitted $69 billion to India in 2017, says a World Bank estimate, topping China, whose residents sent back $64 billion the same year.
One of the more organised returnee rehabilitation schemes is that of Kerala, from where a large number of people migrate every year to work in the Gulf. According to the state government, there are about 22,00,000 international migrant workers hailing from Kerala, of whom as much as 90% are in the GCC. The state government set up the Department of Non-resident Keralite’s Affairs (NORKA) in 1996 – the first such state body in India.
While the model has shortcomings, there is no parallel at this scale worthy of study, barring one from the Philippines. The Kerala Government’s rehabilitation package, NDPREM (NORKA Department Project for Returned Emigrants), brings together all stakeholders and helps the displaced person make an informed choice. Under this scheme NORKA Roots ,which is the field agency of Norka, entered into Memoranda of Understanding with several major banks, namely State Bank of India, South Indian Bank and Union Bank. According to the Kerala government’s website, the Kerala State Backward Classes Development Corporation and Kerala State Pravasi Welfare Development Co-operative Society [PRAVASIS Ltd.] have also signed an MoU and are associating themselves with the project.
The primary working factor in this is that the nationalised banks sanction loans for starting modest enterprises to the returned Keralites. NORKA Roots releases a capital subsidy of 15% of the project cost (up to a maximum of Rs 20,00,000[US$27,228]) and an interest subsidy of 3% for the first four years, to those beneficiaries who do not default on payment. In case of defaults, the benefit can be availed only if the beneficiaries clear any outstanding dues. NORKA Roots also conducts orientation and training camps prior to screening and selection to inculcate managerial capabilities in entrepreneurs.
Another crucially important facility provided by NORKA is the issuing of identity cards to those from Kerala working outside the country.
The identity card can be filled up in the local language, Malayalam, since most migrant workers will not be conversant with English. Once the application is verified, the individual gets an identity card, and the government of Kerala gets data on where a particular Non-resident Keralite is located, which is useful both while they remain overseas and when they return.
Returning migrants can also register their bio-data on the NORKA Roots website, which also has a database of experienced persons in foreign countries. Job-seekers can register to connect with jobs overseas or in India, if they are returning. Around 31,000 people have already registered in the site.
Another service that NORKA offers Non-resident Keralites abroad is the identification of credible NGOs working towards the welfare of Keralite migrant labourers in the destination countries.
NORKA Roots has identified 47 credible NGOs in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Brunei, Israel, Australia and the United Kingdom, the majority being in the Gulf countries. If there are repeated issues with any such organisation, NORKA cancels the recognition awarded to the NGO and puts up a public notice on its website.
On June 27, 2018, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, offered to help the over-worked and understaffed Indian Embassies in the GCC. “If the External Affairs Ministry permits, Kerala is prepared to open NORKA cells in Indian Embassies in countries where there is a large population of Keralities,” he told the Press Trust of India, a widely trusted Indian wire agency. This is easier said than done because the same kind of demand could be voiced by many other states of the Indian union. There is also the possibility of turf wars breaking out at multiple levels because the External Affairs Ministry is the agency tasked with the welfare of Non-resident Indians in general. Questions will be raised on the need for another agency in the embassies, when the issue is the brief of the External Affairs Ministry.
NORKA is merely a single state organisation that assists returnees. But although elected representatives and the Government of India are aware of the issues faced by returnees, not much else has been done.
A question about the problems faced by migrant workers upon their return to India was raised by a member of the Standing Committee on External Affairs in early 2018. In response, the MEA said that the government had launched a State Outreach Programme (Videsh Sampark series) from May 2017 to generate awareness at a state level, and that resettlement and rehabilitation would be taken up at a higher level during conferences held by this programme.
The reality is that returning migrants face many challenges. The MEA has itself identified some of the problems, including the inability of states to absorb the returnees and offer employment because of the already high unemployment rate. The economic and employment situation in many states is also not strong enough to introduce social programmes and sociocultural reintegration of the returnees. The lack of state-government-level systems that can guide returning migrants in an integrated and comprehensive manner is a serious concern. It is evident that all the systems in place are not geared to help a barely-literate migrant labourer, and there are no options for so loans or financial benefits that prioritise returning blue-collar migrants.
This situation forces many a migrant labourer to remain in the destination country, even if the conditions there are less than favourable. The woes of the returning migrant workers invariably get back to others in the GCC, due to the strong bonds that migrants develop with the other workers that they have stayed and worked with for years. Many that I spoke to decided that it is better to just wait out a few more years in their current situations, given the uncertain job scenario back in India.
Excerpted with permission from ‘A Return to Nothingness’ by RK Radhakrishnan from Uncertain Journeys: Labour Migration from South Asia, edited by AS Panneerselvan, Speaking Tiger.