By Margherita Stancati
- Oliver Lang/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
- Though Indians are the biggest community of foreign workers in Gulf countries, women workers remain vulnerable to exploitation. Shown, women taxi drivers, in pink uniforms, at the Dubai airport.
There are more Indian migrants in the Gulf than in any other region in the world – around 3.5 million, according to United Nations’ estimates – and a little under half of them are women.
Most of the women are low-skilled and single. They make more money working in Gulf countries than they would ever hope to at home. This allows them to send part of their savings to the relatives they left behind, which improves their status in the eyes of their community.
A route to female emancipation? Not so fast, says a new report drafted by the UN’s women agency.
They see the working conditions women encounter in the Gulf as comparable to those of early 19th-century “indentured” immigrants, contracted servants who were sent to foreign colonies to work in plantations. They were usually given food and lodging but no extra money – it was essentially a step up from bonded slaves.
“The working conditions and the nature of occupation of the women laborers in contemporary Gulf migration expose them to a variety of vulnerabilities which are not dissimilar to those faced by women in the 19th century plantations,” says the UN Women report, which focuses on patterns of female migration from South Asian to Gulf countries.
Under British rule, many Indian indentured laborers – also known as “coolies” – made their way to sugar and other plantations in far-flung colonies, from Mauritius to Jamaica.
The practice was suspended several times following reports of widespread abuse and oppressive working conditions and eventually banned in the early 20th century.
The new report warns that women are vulnerable to similar patterns of exploitation in Gulf countries, where many are employed as cleaners or maids.
“Domestic workers in particular are always at risk of physical, sexual and emotional abuses, including confinement, underpayment or non-payment of wages, as well as a range of other abuses,” the report says.
The root of the problem, the report says, is that “the working conditions are entirely dependent on the personal relationship between the worker and the employer.”
What ties workers to their employers is, above all, the sponsorship system their visa depends on. This system, known as kafala, “allows very little scope to end abusive working conditions,” the report argues.
The lack of adequate labor laws and poorly enforced employment contracts mean workers have few tools to turn to in their defense.
It’s not just in Gulf countries that Indian domestic workers suffer poor working conditions. Reports of abuse are widespread in India, too. Most recently, a 13-year-old maid was reported to have been locked up by her employers while they went on holiday in Thailand, a case that sparked widespread introspection on how India’s middle class treat their domestic help. (A lawyer for the couple, who were eventually arrested, denied charges they abused their maid.)
And in March, a U.S. court ruled in favor of a maid who accused her former employer of slavery. The employer at the time worked at the Indian consulate in New York.
The UN study also found that Indian attempts to regulate female immigration to prevent abuses haven’t helped — quite the opposite. The 1983 Emigration Act, for instance, says that it is mandatory for women who want to work abroad to get special emigration clearance unless they are over 30 years of age and have completed middle-level education.
“Though it was initiated with the objective to protect the rights of workers, anecdotal evidence indicates that the provision not only restricts the right of women to work but also promotes unregulated migration, where female workers end up in more vulnerable situations,” the study found.
The report welcomed an Indian government initiative aimed at guaranteeing a minimum wage of between $300 to $350 per month in Gulf countries. India has also introduced a compulsory insurance program for citizens employed abroad.
Low-skilled male laborers started migrating from India to Gulf countries – above all to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – with the oil boom of the 1970s. Women came with the construction surge that followed, most of them employed as domestic workers or nurses.
Poverty and unemployment, as is the case with immigrants elsewhere, were the key reasons that pushed them to cross the Arabian sea. Today, many Indian laborers can count on an informal support network in the Gulf, facilitating immigration.
Indians are the biggest community of foreign workers in Gulf countries, followed by Pakistanis and Egyptians. Many of them come from the southern state of Kerala, where the economy depends heavily on remittances from the Gulf.
Indian laborers also send more money home than any other immigrant community in the world. In 2010, India received $55 billion in remittances, according to World Bank data, a third of which came from migrants working in Gulf countries.