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An insecure future for India's unskilled workers

October 12, 2009 15:55 IST
More often than not unskilled workers end up getting a raw deal, writes Sunanda K Datta-Ra.

It sounded like the understatement of the year when Montek Singh Ahluwalia said India would "not be threatened if movement of unskilled work force is allowed globally".

Far from being threatened, India will be greatly enriched if even more Indian labourers join the armies now toiling in Singapore and the Gulf. Or, perhaps, he meant that Indian workers can hold their own against Somalis, Yemenis and other economic refugees from similarly impoverished societies.

Nevertheless, the mention of unskilled workers is welcome because India would much rather focus on the doctors, academics and, above all, IT experts who hog the limelight at Pravasi Bharatiya Divas junketings.

We can pretend they have gone abroad only because the West needs their expertise. Labourers and domestic servants in South-east Asia and the Persian Gulf are brushed under the carpet in some embarrassment.

Of course, it would be best if it were not necessary for unskilled Indians to work abroad but that is a luxury that, despite India's superpower delusions, we, in common with Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and Filipinos, cannot afford. Indians must "save the sum of things for pay" as in A E Housman's Epitaph on the Army of Mercenaries.

The UNDP's annual human-development report cites "detailed studies" to claim platitudinously "that people who migrate from one developing country to another and within the country, also experience large gains in income, education and health". Well, they wouldn't take the trouble otherwise, would they?

More relevant, movement from the poorest to richer countries has resulted in a 15-fold increase in income, a 16-fold fall in child mortality and doubled educational standards.

That does not apply to unskilled workers who are allowed abroad only for fixed terms. It applies to Non-Resident Indians who became People of Indian Origin and are now Overseas Citizens of India (OCI).

A Professor Emeritus at Michigan university, an American citizen with an OCI card, has been bemoaning his woes on the Net because he forgot to bring the old passport in which his Indian visa was stamped.

He warns others they "will probably be treated worse than an ordinary foreigner arriving without a valid visa because a foreigner, especially a white Caucasian, will at least be treated with courtesy and probably offered a temporary visa if there is no reason to deny it."

It must be galling to go all the way to the States, come back as an American sahib and then be treated as a common or garden native!

OCIs have the money and political contacts to look after themselves. Unskilled workers don't even have access to the net. Yet, these men and women are especially important - from a selfish national point of view - because they have no option but to send their earnings home.

Indian professionals can vociferously proclaim their patriotism from permanent exile in Britain or North America but masons in Sharjah and maids in Singapore must return as soon as the contract ends. Hence the profusion of Western gadgets and fixtures in Kerala's Malappuram district and Mirpur in 'Azad Kashmir'.

It's noteworthy that defying World Bank forecasts, women still constitute around 50 per cent of Asian migrants. The West's construction, manufacturing and financial services are affected but not the domestic sector which employs women who often have to face extortionate demands from recruitment agents and can be exposed to physical and sexual abuse.

Surveys show that women who stay back while their husbands go abroad also suffer financial and other difficulties. Often, they raise the funds for husbands to travel in the first place.

Everyone knows that the protector of emigrant's device did not save labourers from exploitation by passport crooks and labour gangsters here and dishonest employers and callous governments abroad. The inquiry by Shashank, a former foreign secretary, found evidence of both. But his investigations were confined to Singapore-bound Indians. Conditions are far worse in the Gulf.

Indians in England hung their heads in shame in the fifties and sixties as one immigrant scam after another forced New Delhi to furiously repeat that exporting manpower wasn't India's policy.

Nobody believed that of course but the UNDP recommendation of "greater mobility of people, both domestic and international" can make a virtue of necessity. If goods and services are globalised, labour must also be free to travel. But terms must be just.

Let us not see the return of indentured labour or even the slave trade in the name of globalisation. That is a more important task for the Overseas Affairs Ministry than organising pravasi jamborees.

Sunanda K Datta-Ray
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