According to media reports, there are about 10,000 Indians in Saudi Arabia facing the challenge of hunger for the last few days following denial of payment of wages by their employers, including cases where the wages have not been paid for around nine months. The workers were mostly employed by Saudi construction companies, and were laid off amid a slowdown in the industry due to low global oil prices.
The hardships by the migrants came amid rising protests about working conditions in Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of foreign workers at a construction firm staged a public protest in Jeddah to demand 7-10 months of unpaid wages. The Minister said the workers’ wages have not been paid by factories that have closed down. There are several people who were relieved of their duties and lack the funds to travel back to India.
The Consulate General of India in Jeddah also posted pictures of Indians queuing up to collect the food packets.
“About 10,000 Indians stranded in Saudi Arabia will be evacuated and no one will go hungry as ration has been distributed to them”, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj recently informed the Indian Parliament. She said she was told that over 800 jobless Indians have been starving for days in Jeddah, and the Indian Embassy there has been asked to provide food for them in Jeddah. These Indians were employed by Saudi Oger, a construction company that has workforce of over 50,000 in Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, the Indian government has also taken the support of expatriate Indians in Saudi Arabia to provide food; the country is also in the process of airlifting such trapped people, on high priority basis. The government has send the Minister of State for External Affairs to Saudi Arabia to try to bring back the 10,000 workers who were laid off their jobs. The Minister of State for External Affairs held extensive talks with Saudi Labour Minister Mufrej Al Haqbani here who promised urgent action to resolve the difficulties being faced by the Indian expats. India has reportedly sent 16,000kg of food, which was distributed in front of the India’s consulate in the port city of Jeddah.
Moreover, the government has also held parleys with the Saudi authorities to clear the salaries dues of Indians stranded in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi government says it will investigate any complaints of companies not paying wages and if necessary, obliges them to do so with fines and other penalties.
The Indian consulate in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah has already prepared records of 2,500 Indians engaged in work in various labour camps. The Indian government is hopeful that more Indians will come forward and share their details to arrange for their exit visas once the evacuation programme becomes well known.
About six million Indian migrant workers in the Middle East has been facing scrutiny by government authorities. Indian workers are mostly employed in blue collar jobs such as construction labour and have been facing several hardships including work in extreme temperatures and staying under deplorable conditions for very small pay. In some cases, labourers have been physically abused and their passports forcibly taken to limit their movement.
Moreover, thousands of Indians have died while working under such harsh conditions. In 2015, some 5,900 Indians have faced death in the Gulf countries with reported deaths from Saudi Arabia (2,691) and the UAE (1,540). In Qatar, which is hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, there are about 500 Indians deaths since 2012 after being made to work in extreme heat.
According to United Nations data on migrant movements, there are nearly 3.5 million are employed in the UAE, while some 1.9 million are in Saudi Arabia out of the total five million workers. Many of the Indians are lured by promises of relatively higher salaries in oil-rich countries such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Iraq, besides Saudi and the UAE. Indians working in the Gulf region send $30 billion to India every year equivalent to about half of the country’s total remittances.
However, Saudi Arabia has reduced on governmental spending after an economic crisis due to low crude oil prices since last year. Local construction firms, which mainly recruit Indian migrant workers, have been impacted adversely. The Kingdom has also implemented the ‘Nitaqat’ law that forces the companies to employ locals while making it difficult to recruit foreign labourers. The UAE and Qatar are also in the process to come up with similar laws. It would result in an abrupt end to the Indian migrant dream that commenced in the late 1960s. However, for many it has already become a bad dream.