Death of workers in Kuwait underlines vulnerability of Indian migrants.

The death of 45 Indian workers in a fire in Kuwait is a reminder of the dismal working conditions of a large, and often ignored, section of the Indian diaspora. The labour camp that was gutted on Wednesday was reportedly packed beyond capacity. The rapid spread of the blaze and the high number of casualties indicate that the six-storey building did not have adequate safety provisions, such as fire exits and fire-fighting equipment. The Kuwait government has ordered an investigation and assured that the guilty will be held to account. The country’s deputy prime minister has asked the Kuwait Municipality and the Public Authority of Manpower to address similar violations elsewhere, where a large number of workers are crowded into residential buildings. India’s Minister of State for External Affairs Kirti Vardhan Singh has reached the Gulf nation to ensure early repatriation of mortal remains and speedy medical assistance to the injured. But the Centre and state governments must do much more — they should use the growing goodwill for India in the West Asian countries to guarantee the well-being of the migrant labour force.

According to the Ministry of External Affairs data, nearly 8.8 million Indians live and work in the Gulf. The money they send back home makes for more than a fourth of the diaspora’s annual remittances. In Kuwait, Indian carpenters, masons, electricians, construction site labourers, factory and domestic workers and food delivery agents constitute nearly a fifth of the country’s workforce. Several studies and reports have shown that they are vulnerable to exploitation by employers. Two years ago, for instance, an investigation by this newspaper underlined the precarity of the lives of Indian workers employed in the construction of soccer stadiums in Qatar. While the significantly high salaries in the Gulf continue to make countries in the region a favoured employment destination, at the same time, the availability of a large number of unskilled and semi-skilled workers and footloose labourers reduces the bargaining capacity of the migrants. Many are recruited through the visa sponsorship, or kafala system, which binds workers to their employers, severely limiting the capacity of the migrants to seek better housing or occupational safety improvements. Fear of loss of employment or deportment prevents most from complaining about the quality of working or living conditions.