Mirage in the desert
They leave India dreaming of a bright future. But for hundreds of contract labourers, life in West Asia soon becomes a nightmare, says VALSON THAMPU.
Date: Last month
Place: An international airport in the Middle East
I WAS in a queue at an immigration counter with three young Malayali men one of whom looked lost and confused ahead of me. One of them looked worried as he did not have the visa and did not know where to collect it from. As he moved out of the queue to look for the "visa collection center", I chatted with his friends and came to know that they were new to the country, and were to be employed as contract labour.
I had to spend about two weeks in the country, for readings and lectures at various places. As I was relatively free during the day, it became possible to ascertain, though discreetly, the plight of expatriate contract workers.What I heard shocked me. As I did not want to believe it, I decided to investigate the issue to the extent possible.
With difficulty I managed to get the help of a person who was familiar with this camouflaged human tragedy. He volunteered to take me to some of these camps.
As we travelled to our destination, my guide touched upon the miserable plight of Indian women who work as domestic help. He narrated what had happened to a Raji Joseph who had been brutally ill-treated by her employer. Apparently, she had been beaten and tortured and subjected to severe mental and physical humiliation. She was locked up for days and starved for weeks. She had even been branded. Unable to endure this any longer, Raji managed to escape and seek refuge in a police station. But her employer brought up false charges against her and managed to have her sent to prison for three months.
My guide went on to narrate the story of a Muslim girl, again from Kerala, who too was once a maid. She had lived for nine months under virtual house arrest. She suffered ill-treatment and humiliation. However, her ordeal came to an end somewhat providentially. The house was to undergo annual maintenance work and one of the workers happened to be a Malayali. Moved by her plight, he worked out her rescue and repatriation to Kerala.
I was made aware, in elaborate detail, of the plight of hundreds of such maids.
As I sat listening, I was reminded of my visit to another country in the same region a few months earlier. There too I had heard heart-rending stories of the way maids were exploited and ill-treated by their employers. As my stay there was comparatively short, I could not investigate the issue. I did request an "informer" to send me authentic case studies and statistics on the subject so that this issue could be brought to public notice in India. But I have not heard from him since, perhaps indicative of the fear in which even well-employed people live in these countries.
It is striking to note how back in India, especially in Kerala, how Malayalis, who resort to strikes and protests at the drop of a hat, settle down to near-slavery-like conditions in West Asia without as much as a murmur and then prove themselves to be docile and dedicated workers.
In the meanwhile we had reached the outer gate of one of the 600 labour camps in that city. In each were inmates varying in strength from a mere 35 to 650 people.
It was obvious that visitors invite instantaneous suspicion.
It is impossible to get into any one of them without the help of someone trusted by the camp authorities. At the time I reached the camp, it was almost deserted, as workers had been trucked to a distant worksite, returning only late in the evening.
I had to be content meeting a supervisor. By the end of the meeting, I had some idea of the living conditions of the hapless young men in each camp. It was stated that there had been a protracted strike a few months ago to protest the low wages as well as the substandard living conditions. All except 30 of them had had their services terminated and then deported. Those who survived the purge were forced to accept any term and condition. I made further enquiries into the living and working conditions of these workers. The recruits from India most of them from Kerala have to bribe recruiting agents to the tune of Rs. 70,000 to Rs. 80,000 (an amount that would take them years of hard labour to recover). They are offered, at the time of recruitment, Omani Rials 60 (about Rs. 7,000) per month, which very few companies do pay. Most workers actually earn 30 to 40 Rials per month (Rs. 3,500 to Rs. 4,500). They work in severe climatic conditions in summer, the temperature is in excess of 50° Celsius. In many cases the payment of even this measly salary is erratic. In some cases, reportedly, salaries have not been paid for over six months. In the case of a particular construction company, the manager had served notice to the workers after winding up the assets of the company overnight. Even after recovering the initial costs in reaching West Asia, the best monetary terms offered to workers in this category are inadequate and do not enable them to meet their basic needs or even to remit to their families in India.
What does all this mean in terms of the human experience?
Consider this case of a young and well-educated man in one of these camps and who had committed suicide recently. He had come to West Asia with great expectations, having spent a fortune in terms of recruitment commission and visa fees. On arrival, he found himself in a labour camp, being forced to do menial and unskilled work. His income was so low that he could not manage to go home for eight years. The conditions of work and life were so harsh that he almost became insane, which eventually led to his tragic decision.
Suicides, I was told, are a common feature in these labour camps.
In the camps, these workers often 30 to 60 people live in a single room, sleeping in bunk beds. Most of these rooms are not air-conditioned. It is horrifying to think of what happens in summer, with only the ceiling fans for comfort. In the midst of plenty, these men live a life of destitution and heartless exploitation. Several of them do part-time menial jobs, after eight hours of gruelling work, in households nearby to supplement their meagre source of income. About 75 per cent of the young men who live in these camps are married, with their wives unaware of their sorry state in a far away land.
This vast human tragedy has been under wraps. And, there are several reasons for this. The victims of this organised exploitation do not want their plight to be made known in India, it would only lead to social embarrassment for the family.
Recruiting agencies are, for obvious reasons, keen to perpetuate the myth that West Asia is a haven for employment for all. And expatriates in these West Asian/Middle Eastern countries do not want this issue raised for fear of a backlash from local authorities.
But the time has come to tell the truth and, if possible, to discourage prospective victims from walking into this trap. For many in Kerala God's own country employment (never mind what the job is) in the Middle East is a passport to heaven. But for many, it soon turns out to be a trapdoor to hell. And you only have to meet the victims of this massive and organised lie in these latter-day concentration camps to know this truth.
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