Two new reports reveal that debt bondage and deceitful recruitment agencies in India are as guilty of exploiting vulnerable labour as employers in West Asia.
Stories about the treatment of labour in the Gulf countries abound. Qatar, especially, has been singled out in the international press for its human rights record, which came to global attention once it won the bid for the FIFA World Cup in 2022. But little is said about the conditions that provoke blue-collar workers into leaving their homes and the way recruitment agencies handle them. A couple of new reports now suggest the exploitation begins long before they reach West Asia.

“Critics of human and labour rights violations most often shift the blame to Qatar in a rather generic manner,” writes Ray Jureidini, a professor of sociology at the institute for migration studies at the Lebanese American University, in his report compiled for the Qatar Foundation. “Far less attention has been given to the violations by the migrants’ own nationals in their countries of origin, in addition to those who are complicit in Qatar.”

Jureidini was commissioned to work on the report as part of the Qatar Foundation Migrant Worker Welfare Initiative. The Qatar Foundation is run by the royal family of the state.

The report claims that the problem begins with loans that low-skilled workers take in their home countries so they can pay recruitment agencies, some of which are unscrupulous, to secure employment in Qatar. This leads to debt bondage, a situation where workers have to hold on to their jobs just so that they can pay off the loans, giving employers in Qatar much more leverage over the labourers.

“The phenomenon of debt bondage is in large part the reason why migrant workers in Qatar are insecure and vulnerable to exploitation,” the report says. “In other words, the way recruitment of migrant workers is conducted sets the stage for the experience of migrant workers through the migration cycle and whether they are able to enjoy their human and labour rights.”

Jureidini’s research revealed that, while the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs stipulate a maximum of around Rs 20,000 as a charge for recruitment, agencies generally charge three to four times that amount — with workers having little idea of what the fees go toward. These extra fees are often used by the agencies to pay bribes and kickbacks to companies in Qatar to ensure that they get more lucrative recruitment contracts.

“This means that the poorest, most low-skilled workers are paying for the monetary kickbacks that go either directly into the pockets of HR managers and other middle managers who travel to the sending countries for skills-testing and to decide on who will be hired,” the report said.

An Amnesty International India study into recruitment practices suggested that the situation in Saudi Arabia was even more worrying. A third of workers Amnesty interviewed for its report, Exploited Dreams, said they had been deceived by employment brokers in India, whether it involved details of their work conditions, their wages, nature of employment, the legality of their arrangement or about the fees they had to pay.

“During the recruitment process, migrant workers sold their work tools, their family gold, their land and cattle in India and borrowed heavily from banks, friends and family members to buy employment visas to travel to Saudi Arabia,” the report said. “Sums of money sometimes amounting to as high as Rs 250,000 were paid to deceptive recruiters (visa brokers and recruiting agents) who made false promises about jobs and prospective working conditions.”

Both the reports also turn their sights squarely on the governments of the home countries for being as responsible for the plight of their citizens in the West Asian countries as the local governments. The Amnesty report calls on the government to replace the Emigration Act, 1983 with a new law that takes into account the way recruitment practices have evolved, and to plug loopholes.

Jureidini’s report calls on the Qatari government to work with sending countries’ governments – the Philippines, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, in addition to India – on standardising labour, financial and recruitment policies. It also calls on Qatar to insist on the use of certified ethical recruitment agencies , preferably government-run ones, to ensure that the supply of labour is coming through known sources.

“The Government of India has failed to meet its international obligations to protect the rights of migrant workers and prevent trafficking and forced labour. It has not adequately regulated and monitored recruitment agents and brokers who deceive migrant workers and abuse their rights,” the Amnesty report concludes.

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