India: Government must value migrant workers for more than the billions they send home

The lack of effective regulation of visa brokers and rogue recruiting agents makes Indian migrant workers vulnerable to serious human rights abuses, said Amnesty International India today in a new report focusing on migrants from the Indian state of Kerala working in Saudi Arabia.

The report, Exploited Dreams: Dispatches from Indian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, highlights cases of migrant workers from Kerala who were deceived about their jobs, wages and working conditions by Indian visa brokers and rogue recruiting agents. Many workers went on to face a range of abuses in Saudi Arabia, which at their worst included forced labour.

“Migrant workers send billions of dollars in remittances every year to India and sustain thousands of families. Yet Indian authorities continue to let them down when they are abused. It is time that migrant workers’ rights get the protection they deserve,” said G. Ananthapadmanabhan, Chief Executive, Amnesty International India.

“Recent events in Iraq have been a harsh reminder of the risks that Indian migrant workers can face in the countries they work in,” said Ananthapadmanabhan.

“This report shows how the exploitation and deception of migrants can start much earlier, before they even leave home, at the hands of visa brokers and rogue recruiting agents.”

The report is based largely on interviews with Indian government officials, recruiting agents and migrants, many of whom returned to India after the enforcement of the Saudi government’s ‘Nitaqat’ programme (which aimed to increase employment of Saudi nationals in the private sector and clamp down on irregular workers).

Amnesty International India interviewed migrant workers deceived by visa brokers and recruiting agents, who ended up working in Saudi Arabia in jobs different from the ones they were promised. In some cases, they were not paid for several months or at all.

Migrant workers reported working regularly for between 15 to 18 hours without a day off, and without being compensated for overtime. Some were subjected to threats and beatings by their employers, had their passports and residency permits confiscated and were denied exit permits to return home.

Few sought any remedy after they returned home, or were aware of their rights under law or existing mechanisms for redress. Virtually nobody had attended any training programmes before they left India.

“Migrant workers are vulnerable because of individual acts of deception, but also because policies and laws that regulate their recruitment are poorly designed and implemented,” said Ananthapadmanabhan. 

The Indian Emigration Act governs the recruitment of Indian migrant workers, including by mandating government certification for recruiting agents, and setting up Protector of Emigrants offices to regulate them. 

However, Amnesty International India’s research found evidence of recruiting agents violating emigration laws and policies, including by failing to conduct due diligence to ensure that migrant workers are not deceived. 

Further, visa brokers, who are used by most potential migrants, are both unregistered and unregulated, and function outside the law. Migrants’ reliance on brokers to facilitate the recruitment process often left them vulnerable to deception, exploitation and indebtedness.

Authorities like the Protector of Emigrants lacked the resources to effectively regulate recruitment of migrant workers, and rogue recruiters were rarely punished. 

“Systemic violations need to be met with systemic changes. The government must draft a new emigration law that is consistent with international human rights standards and aligned with progressive emigration management systems,” said Ananthapadmanabhan.   

“Authorities in Kerala and in the central government must better regulate recruiting agents and brokers, expand pre-departure training programmes and improve access to remedy.”

Recommendations to the government of India (see report for complete list)

Consider alternate regulatory measures to recognise and regulate visa brokers including: Providing clear terms of reference by which visa brokers may be tied to recruiting agents.Informing brokers about their legal obligations and the rights of migrant workers.Issuing short-term and individual licenses to visa brokers to conduct recruitment in collaboration with recruiting agents and renewing licenses based on their record.Emphasizing to recruiting agents that the onus is on them to conduct due diligence on the prospective work conditions promised by visa brokers tied to them.Enforce greater regulation of recruiting agents by setting up a separate department under the Protector of Emigrants to conduct timely and surprise checks and reviews. Provide the department with the necessary logistical and financial support and assistance to undertake their duties.Improve access to remedy by setting up a separate department with enforcement powers under the Protector of Emigrants to investigate complaints of exploitation or other abuses by recruiters. The department must provide access to legal aid, information, translation services and other assistance where necessary.Expand the outreach of the pre-departure orientation and support programmes provided by the Government of India and the state of Kerala, including through the Overseas Workers Resource Centre, the Non Resident Keralite Affairs Department (NORKA) and the Migrants Resource Centre (MRC).

Recommendations to the government of Saudi Arabia

Sign and ratify without reservations the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Sign and ratify without reservations the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.Fundamentally reform the kafala system and remove the requirement for migrant workers to obtain the permission of their employer to move jobs or leave the country.Reform national labour laws to ensure that migrant workers have adequate protection against abuses by employers and the state.