Uncertainty ahead

Over 75,000 Indians in Saudi Arabia, who are being forced to return home face an uncertain future. The deadline for implementation of the Nitaqat law, which aims at localisation of labour with a view to tackling Saudi unemployment, is around the corner. It requires all businesses to hire at least 10 per cent locals. Consequently, foreign workers are being thrown out of their jobs.

Saudi authorities say that it is illegal, blue-collar workers who are affected. Those who are unable to find a new job that regularises their status in the kingdom will have to leave the country. If they don’t, they face the prospect of arrest and severe punishment. This has triggered an exodus of anxious Indians. They face multiple challenges. The most immediate is to leave Saudi Arabia before the July 3 deadline. Many may not be able to do so as Saudi authorities are not processing their papers fast enough. India must push the Saudis to speed up this work. Then, many of the returnees may not have the money to pay for their flight. Delhi will have to step in to help them out.

There is a general misperception that all those who go abroad for employment are prosperous and have fat savings. Indeed, those who went to Saudi Arabia dreamt of becoming rich. While some did, the vast majority ended up in low paying jobs. Conned by middlemen and lacking legal status, they were exploited by their employers.  Forced to go home now, they are in a soup. While economists have drawn attention to the impact the exodus will have on India’s foreign exchange earnings, there is the human suffering that we must not ignore.  Many of the returnees were sending money home and supporting large families. The future of entire families thus hangs in the balance. The numbers impacted are enormous. Uttar Pradesh, for instance, is expected to see around 25,000 workers returning. Each of them would have been supporting a family of at least six members. As Minister for External Affairs Salman Khurshid has rightly pointed out, they need “hand-holding” in the coming weeks and months. State governments must take pro-active steps to ensure that their economic uncertainty is addressed. Else this will turn to frustration and anger.

But there is a silver lining. Indian workers in the Gulf have a reputation for being hard-working and reliable. They can look for jobs there again. Only this time they must make sure they go legally. Delhi needs to act sternly against international job rackets that push aspiring Indians into exploitation.

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