Equipping and empowering our migrants to deal with the complications that arise at various stages of migration is no more an option. The pain and ordeal of these migrant workers is unimaginable,

Telangana, the 12th-most populated State in India as per the 2011 census, sends about 1.5 million of a total 8.8 million Indian expatriates to the Gulf. These labourers have played a crucial role in transforming the Gulf States from “camel to Cadillac”. Similarly, the Gulf migration has impacted the upward social and economic mobility of migrant households and strengthened Telangana’s economy through remittances they send home.

Northern Telangana, especially Karimnagar, Rajanna Sircilla, Nizamabad, Adilabad and Warangal districts, has witnessed widespread migration to Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Beginning from the second half of the 1980s, people from the Telangana region migrated to the Gulf as a response to the perpetual droughts, lack of irrigable water and the resultant agricultural distress, as well as the heightened naxalism and police encounters. The Gulf oil boom of the 1970s and the tremendous infrastructural development in the region spurred the demand for labour that acted as a pull factor. Since then, the migration of people of all ages, classes and skill levels from the Telangana region to the Gulf is uninterrupted.

Antilogy of Gulf Dreams

Poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunities, local entrepreneurial environment and debt from agriculture force many to seek jobs in Gulf countries. Expatriates from Telangana mostly work in low-paid, semi and low-skilled unorganised sectors of construction, retail, driving, sanitation and domestic work. A few work in the skilled sectors of care services, hospitality and hotel management as well.
Severe hardships they endure in the hostile terrains of Arab lands are yet to be studied and documented by academia and public intellectuals. They are the “precarious proletariat” in the true sense of the term coined by the renowned economist Thomas Piketty, working in 3D contractual jobs (“dirty, dangerous and difficult”) under the much-criticised kafala system in the alienated Gulf societies.

Stagnated wages are an ignored ill-face of blue-collar jobs in the Gulf. They live in overcrowded labour camps or so-called “bachelor” houses, taking up multiple jobs or overtime in arduous work environments with bare minimum facilities for sending some extra money home. They are deprived of social safety nets and labour rights.

Women domestic workers and caregivers who work in the least regulated environments of their sponsors’ houses are often subject to inhuman treatments, gender-based violence and exploitation.
Financial strains and resultant stress, uncertainties related to the temporary contract visa, emotions of loneliness for being away from the family for years together, and concerns about the wellbeing of the family left behind add to the vulnerability of these migrants. Many suffer from serious health problems, and the instances of death due to health complications and suicides are yet to be addressed in our public discourses on migration.

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Today, the Gulf dream for many is shattering due to the changes in the tax system, nationalisation and labour quota policies intended to reduce expatriate labourers, such as the Nitaqat in Saudi Arabia. The Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated their sufferings, and many are facing the threat of job loss, over-work and reduced salaries or have already lost their jobs.

Return and Re-migration

Unlike the earlier waves of return migration during the Gulf War (1990s), the oil crisis and the economic depression (2000s), or the labour nationalisation (2010s), the pandemic-induced return is unprecedented. The prospect of re-migration is bleak, especially for the low-skilled, with Gulf labour markets moving forward with rigorous migrant labour reduction programmes as a response to the economic fragility, demographic transition and rising unemployment among natives. Parallelly, India is going through an alarming phase of rising unemployment and declining economic growth. It is in this context that these jobless migrants are returning, feeling dejected and disillusioned.

It is estimated that over 75,000 migrant workers in the Gulf from across Telangana are terminated from their jobs and hurriedly returned without procuring salary arrears and end-of-service benefits such as bonus, PF, gratuity, and so on. This serious issue of “wage theft” is not entirely a new pandemic-induced phenomenon, but several employers are taking undue advantage of the current situation. Hence, returning penniless and abashed, they are forced to borrow money or sell assets that they have hard-earned from the Gulf jobs for their sustenance and clearing off previous loans and debts.

Owing to the lack of alternative livelihood opportunities and a supportive reintegration and rehabilitation policy, many returnees, especially between 20 and 45 years age group, are left with no option other than to re-migrate to the Gulf. But, it is more difficult and expensive to re-migrate now due to the long waiting period for Covid-19 vaccines in India, ever-changing entry rules and travel bans in the Gulf, and uncertainty and diffidence around finding new employment or joining back in the earlier Gulf job.

Indian expatriates, including the Telugu people, are taking various transit routes via Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Armenia and Uzbekistan to enter the UAE, Saudi, Oman, and Kuwait as direct entry is barred to these countries. They spend around  Rs 1.5 lakh for these journeys, booking chartered flights, 14-day quarantine in transit countries and PCR tests before entering the final destination. Desperate to get back to the Gulf, these migrants take bank loans or borrow money from private lenders, further falling deep into the debt trap.

Deceptive Agents, Issue of Trafficking

Even though the bona fide channel of migrating abroad for work is through recruitment agencies licensed by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), many approach or are approached by fraudulent agents to facilitate an easy path to the Gulf. The existence of only fewer than 25 registered agencies in the entire State of Telangana makes running an illicit recruiting and travel agency lucrative. The State government established the Telangana Overseas Manpower Company Ltd (TOMCOM) in 2016 to ensure safe, legal migration.

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However, taking advantage of high demand from the unemployed and circumstances of those who wish to migrate, the nexus of fraudulent recruiting agents continue to thrive, bypassing all valid emigration procedures. They often dupe job seekers with visit visas or the notorious “free visas” instead of proper employment visas and “push” them through emigration procedures at the source and destinations.

The recent news reports of Telugu women trafficked by promising “high-paying” domestic worker and caregiving jobs in Arab households encapsulate the issue’s gravity. Widespread irregular practices exclude migrants from the official databases and make them susceptible to exploitation and abuse by recruiters, sponsors and/or employers. Their dubious immigration status and lack of proper documents also make it hard for the destination countries’ labour courts to issue legal directions and the Indian government to assist them if they land in any trouble.

Proactive Approaches

Emigration is not often a joyous affair, even though most people migrate voluntarily to the Gulf land of plenty to materialise their dreams of becoming rich, buying land, building secure houses, and saving money for a better future for their family and children. It is necessary to equip and empower them to deal with the complications that may arise at all stages of migration.

Pre-departure orientation and skill training needs to be vigorously imparted to all aspirant migrants to provide them better bargaining power in the destinations, along with a detailed awareness programme on the available Centre and State-level welfare schemes. Likewise, empowering them digitally will equip them to resort to various government portals, like the MADAD, for grievance redressal and verification of the credibility of their visas.

Existing public mechanisms, including the Telangana State Skill Development Mission (TSSDM), National Academy of Construction (NAC) and Industrial Training Institutes (ITI), need to be roped in effectively for skilling and skill upgradation training for aspiring migrants to meet the latest labour and technology adaptation demands. The Institute of Driving Training and Research Centre (IDTRC) in Sircilla is a laudable initiative, which too can be roped in.

Similarly, those who have returned during the pandemic should be directed to register themselves with the SWADES portal of the government  of India to find job opportunities in Indian and foreign companies. There should be policies to incentivise returnees above the age of 50 to start micro, small and medium (MSME) businesses to better utilise their savings, skills, international exposure and experiences.

Migration related awareness creation should be TOMCOM’s top priority of the, along with skill development, training, and overseas recruitment. Operations of unregistered recruitment agencies need to be curbed to ensure safe, orderly and regular migration from the State. Migrant-specific welfare schemes that include migrant families and returnees to its fold need to be initiated at the Centre and State levels.

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The scope of some of the existing schemes can be extended, for instance, the Pravasi Bharatiya Bima Yojana, the emigrants’ insurance scheme launched in 2003, to cover deaths by diseases. There also needs to be a special fast-track arrangement in the State for the Gulf migrants to get Covid-19 vaccines to head back when the travel bans are lifted.

Emigration Bill, 2021

The proposed Draft Emigration Bill, 2021, requires further deliberations before passing to ground it on the realities and diversities of emigration of Indians abroad as well as their return and reintegration. Limited availability of data and the discrepancy of available statistics are major stumbling blocks in formulating evidence-based policies and their effective implementation. Hence, creating a consolidated database on migrants and returnees should be the priority of Central and State governments.

For instance, eMigrate initiative of the MEA records only 15 unregistered recruitment agencies in Telangana, which is a gross underestimation. A comparative understanding of best practices and the emigrant welfare programmes implemented by different States governments can be mutually beneficial, and the Telangana government should take formal initiatives and establish permanent bodies in institutionalising such exchanges between other State governments and their agencies like the NORKA in Kerala.

Indian embassies in the Gulf region need to be strengthened to ensure proactive interventions when our expatriates are in need, like providing legal aid or pro-bono lawyers for “wage theft” cases and filing claims on behalf of returned migrants in the Gulf labour courts. Likewise, considering the migrant numbers, initiatives to set up more consulates of the Gulf countries in different parts of the Telangana region can promptly address the issues faced by the migrants in the destination.

The crucial role of civil society and grassroots level organisations based in Telangana and the Gulf for the welfare of emigrants in normal and emergency situations should not be missed. Their advocacy prompted the MEA to roll back its recent circulars on minimum referral wage (MRW) reduction.

The Sircilla-based Telangana Gulf Joint Action Committee, Hyderabad-based Emigrants Welfare Forum, Gulf Telangana Welfare and Cultural Association, Pravasi Mitra Labour Union, and the Dubai-based Indian People’s Forum are a few to mention. The proactive intervention of KT Rama Rao, Minister of IT & NRI Affairs, and KR Suresh Reddy, MP from Telangana, is worth mentioning in the MRW issue.

Bheem Reddy Mandha, president of the Emigrants Welfare Forum, says, “Telangana migrants in the Gulf are sending about Rs 27,000 crore per annum as remittances, and it is, directly and indirectly, boosting the economy. The government should reciprocate by allocating Rs 500 crore in the annual Budget for the welfare of Gulf migrants and their left-behind families”. We should listen to our migrants and their needs, as it is our responsibility as a progressive society to extend solidarity to them during these testing times. #KhabarLive #hydnews