Kuwait Fire Tragedy: Indian Workers Deserve A Better Deal

Although the government has been proactive since the tragedy in Kuwait, the big question is whether things will change on the ground for Indian workers migrating in search of jobs

Mortal remains of the Indians who died in the tragic fire incident in Kuwait two days ago, after being brought to the Cochin International Airport aboard an Indian Air Force (IAF) flight, in Kochi, Friday, June 14, 2024. Photo: - PTI

The plight of the blue collar worker comes into focus when there is a disaster like Tuesday’s fire in Kuwait that killed 45 Indians. Rest of the time no one cares, though the workers from the Gulf region contribute as much as $120 billion in foreign exchange every year. 

"The workers deserve much better treatment by both India as well as the host countries they serve.  What happened is unacceptable," says S Irudaya Rajan, Chair of the International Institute of Migration and Development, Kerala. He has been tracking migration for years and feels that the blue collar workers' plight is not highlighted enough in the media for governments to pay serious attention. There are almost a million Indians living and working out of Kuwait, making it the largest expatriate community in the country.

The government has been proactive since the tragedy. A special IAF plane was sent to Kuwait to carry back the mortal remains of the dead. The new junior minister in the MEA, Kirti Vardhan Singh, was dispatched quickly to Kuwait to send the message that the government cares. The Kerala government has announced a sum of five lakhs for each of the dead and a payment of one lakh for the injured from the state. Hopefully the other states will follow Kerala’s example. All this is fine and good optics but the big question is whether things will change on the ground? 

On paper everything is fine. Rules and regulations are in place but the implementation often remains tardy. India and Kuwait signed a mobility agreement as early as 2007. New Delhi has similar agreements with all the Gulf Cooperation Council nations. These agreements are to ensure that workers have a fair deal. "But agreements have to be implemented in letter and spirit. The spirit is missing,’’ says a source in the region who did not wish to be named. 

All immigrant workers have to get their stay attested by the host government. But if papers are in order, these are routinely attested with no one bothering to check what happens to the individual in the hands of employees. It finally depends on the goodwill of the employer. If the owner is kind, workers have a better deal. But if someone is out to make the maximum profit, the employee is often subjected to harassment. 

There have been numerous cases of workers being harassed and their passports taken away from them. Things come to public notice when the situation gets completely out of hand. If workers were in contact with the Indian missions in the area, the embassy could step in to help. In the run-up to the Qatar World Cup in 2022, when building activities were on at a frenetic pace, there were numerous incidents of South Asian workers being ill-treated, leading to the death of several of them.

Ambassador K P Fabian, who worked in the region in the past believes India needs to take a leaf out of the Philippines method of dealing with the large number of people working in the Gulf. Many of them work as housemaids in rich Arab households. There were several instances of harassment reported decades back. But having learnt from the past, Manila now has an excellent system in place. On arrival, the worker is met at the airport by an emissary from the embassy. The worker is briefed thoroughly by the embassy official about his or her rights and what is permissible and what is not in that particular country. So immediately on arrival, the worker interacts with the embassy and is told who is the point person he or she should contact when in need. 

Indian embassies in the Gulf should also be in constant touch with the blue collar workforce, so they can approach the embassy in times of distress. The problem is that most workers in the region have no contact with the missions and are more or less on their own. Most are at the mercy of labour contractors from India who grow fat on the earnings of India’s poor. Though there are regulations that labour contractors need to follow, they often bribe their way to exploit the loopholes. 

An Indian official working in the region, speaking on the condition of anonymity, explains that as most white collar workers go to the Gulf to provide a better life for their family back home, they try to cut down on their living expenses. The idea is to save as much as possible for the family. "So instead of renting a room for himself, he would rather share the rent with three other workers and save money. They make this sacrifice in order to keep personal expenses to the minimum."

The MEA needs to overhaul its missions in the Gulf region to make the embassy more attuned to the needs of the workers and keep in touch with the community.