Indian workers line up to board a bus after a day’s work in Dubai, November 18, 2005. (Reuters)
NEW DELHI/DUBAI/RIYADH: India is pressing rich countries in the Gulf to raise the wages of millions of Indians working there, in a drive that could secure it billions of dollars in fresh income but risks pricing some of its citizens out of the market.
Over 5 million Indian nationals are believed to be employed in the oil exporting states of the Gulf, the single largest group in a migrant worker population of more than 20 million.
Migrants do many of the dirty and dangerous jobs in the region, from construction to the oil industry, transport and services. They account for nearly half of the roughly 50 million population of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.
Over the past seven months, Indian diplomats in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have sharply increased the minimum salaries that they recommend for Indian workers at private and public firms in those states.
“We want the Indian workforce to be paid higher salaries. Inflation, the value of the Indian currency and a rise in the cost of living in the Gulf were the factors that led to the decision,” Y.S. Kataria, a spokesman for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA) in New Delhi, told news agency Reuters.
The success of India’s strategy is not yet clear, however.
“Of course it will encourage companies to look at Bangladesh and Pakistan as more viable options to get migrant workers,” said Mohammed Jindran, managing director of UAE-based recruitment agency Overseas Labour Supply.
The Indian government cannot dictate the pay of its citizens in the Gulf – decisions to hire workers are made by labour recruiters in individual countries, which have not set minimum wages for migrants and usually prohibit union activity by them.
However, the recruiters must rely on the co-operation of local authorities to operate in India. An internal memorandum prepared by the MOIA, sent last month and seen by Reuters, says that if workers are offered wages below specified minimums, ministry officials “would deny emigration clearance”.
Even when Gulf recruiters agree to certain wage levels, the numbers do not necessarily stick. Some workers are promised one salary when they sign up in their home country, then forced to renegotiate lower wages when they arrive in the Gulf.
Another MOIA official said India’s pay demands had met initial resistance in all six GCC countries, while two of the countries had threatened to reduce their Indian workforces and hire more, lower-paid workers from Bangladesh and Nepal instead.
If India’s efforts to secure higher pay succeed, they could boost its economy, because migrants send much of their pay home. India received $69 billion as remittances in 2012; a 2010 central bank study found Gulf nations accounted for 31 percent.
Higher wages could also impact many companies. Fawwaz al-Khodari, chief executive of Saudi builder Abdullah Abdul Mohsin al-Khodari, said profits in the sector might be squeezed by demands from governments of some labour-exporting countries.
“In cases where salaries have been 800 to 900 riyals, we are now hearing talk of 1,500 riyals as a minimum salary, which is a huge increase…Clearly this would become a major issue in the contracting industry.”