People from Tamil Nadu travel to the Middle East hoping for a better life but what awaits them is a quagmire of harassment, abuse and inhuman working conditions, which often lead to several illnesses and at times, death. DT Next reports
Illustration: Saai
Illustration: Saai

CHENNAI: After working in Kuwait for a little over a decade, Raj* (53) from Tiruchy is fighting a legal battle to get back wage dues. Along with him, 105 persons from the State have been waiting for over two years for their wages ranging from Rs 75,000 to Rs 2.5 lakh. Raj, a father of four and the sole breadwinner of the family, worked as a supervisor for a manpower supplying firm in Shuaiba Port in Kuwait. The pandemic forced many like him to return home without getting their due wages.

“I’ve been struggling since I returned to my native place. Everything was going on smoothly till the demise of our employer. After that, there was a delay in paying our wages. The pandemic worsened the situation, which forced many like me to return home in 2020. We’re yet to get our wages and are fighting a case in Kuwait’s labour court,” said Raj. They have engaged an advocate, giving him the power of attorney to represent them in the case.

Wage theft was a common issue among labourers who go overseas from TN, but it has turned worse after the pandemic. Not all victims of wage theft are aware of the legal provisions and have resources to pursue the cumbersome and costly legal battle to get their dues paid. The lack of a mechanism in both India and some of the Gulf countries they work to redress their grievances and protect their rights comes as a double whammy.

Wage theft, experts opine, has become common now. It’s robbing the labourers’ work and exploiting their helplessness and poverty. “The pandemic made things even worse for the working class, particularly in the unorganised sector. Employers exploit the hapless labourers, who suffer to provide 3 meals a day for his/ her family and guarantee a better future for their wards,” said Irudaya Rajan, the chair of the KNOMAD (The Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development) World Bank working group on international migration and urbanisation.

While labour activist Josephine Valarmathi attributed it to the lack of political will among policy makers to iron out the flaws in the system. “The government should enter bilateral and multilateral memorandums to safeguard labour rights and create a system to continue their legal battle for pending wages and other rights even after they return to their native place,” she said.

Wage theft is not the only problem. Many are subjected to harassment and recount horrifying experiences, suffer life-threatening injuries, and some even pay with their lives.

For instance, Kasthuri Munirathinam (55 at the time) of Mungileri village in Ranipet flew to Saudi Arabia in June 2015 to work as a domestic help for a salary of around Rs 23,000 per month. She sold her house for nearly Rs 12 lakh to settle the family debt and parted around Rs 2 lakh towards ticket and agent commission. After four months, she returned to her native village in an ambulance with permanent disability. Kathuri’s employer had allegedly chopped off her right hand when she tried to escape.

Muthukumar of Kuthanallur village in Tiruvarur was not as lucky as Kasthuri to return alive. His employer shot him dead when he refused to work as a shepherd. The tragic incident took place within four days after he landed in Sahab Al Ahmad City in Kuwait.

“Muthu reached Kuwait on September 3, 2022, and was killed on September 7. He was a kind person and helped many during the pandemic by selling groceries without making any profit,” recalled his uncle Ayyappan.

“We’re getting 3-4 distress calls a month from Tamils in Gulf countries who plead to ensure their safe return to their families,” said Pon Kumar, convenor, Migrant Workers Rights Collective. As the chairperson of the TN Construction Workers Welfare Board, he accused the labour section in Indian Embassies in the Gulf for not supporting and helping the workers and families in distress.

Many workers have reportedly died of cardiac arrest due to stress and poor working conditions. “At least 6 families have reached out to me for help. They often call us for help to bring back the mortal remains of their loved ones, but it’s a cumbersome process with little help from authorities,” said Valarmathi.

Women workers are the worst affected and most exploited on foreign soil. “Many widows and destitute women fall prey to agents. The nature of work for domestic workers here is totally different. They’re asked to take care of the children of joint families, which would have 20-25 members, and other chores. They work at least 20 hours a day. There are many women facing harassment at the hands of their employers. Only a few are lucky to land a job with a good employer,” said an office bearer of Oman Tamil Sangam Association.

Many are caught in the vicious cycle of human trafficking, he said. “They’re treated like a commodity and sold, resold among agents. They’re subjected to sexual harassment. Labourers should avoid bypassing existing laws and get jobs through proper channels and approved agencies,” he further noted. On International Migrants Day, Minister for Minorities Welfare and Non Resident Tamils Welfare KS Masthan assured the civil organisations working for unorganised workers and migrant labourers that he’d take the issue related to Tamils working in foreign countries to the knowledge of Chief Minister MK Stalin to ensure their rights and safe migration.

(*names changed to protect privacy)

Are they still alive? Families of missing fishermen want to know

On October 17, 2022, two fishermen sailed out in the Persian Gulf for deep fishing. Since then, they’ve been incommunicado, leaving their families back home in the coastal village Kadiapattanam in Kanniyakumari clueless about their whereabouts.

M Sahaya Celso and G Antony Vincent George, both in their 30s, were employed as fishermen by a Bahrain sponsor. While Celso had been working for nearly 13 years, George had around 4 years’ experience. The duo had recently returned to work after the pandemic and remain missing since October 17.

Repeated pleas from their families to the State and Union governments to help them locate the missing fishermen and ensure their safe return have not fetched a result. They were supposed to return to shore on October 19. The frantic efforts of their fellow fishermen to trace the duo ended in vain.

“They found the abandoned double engine boat with the catch and belongings intact. But there was no sign of the two. Following this, we’ve been reaching out to the authorities in Bahrain but to no avail. We tried to trace them through agents, but we were cheated out of Rs 15,000. So, we have no other resources to trace them,” said Mary Alice, Celso’s relative.

Celso is married and has two children. His brother is now supporting the family, she added. “His wife is losing hope and is trying to get a job. We’re worried about the family’s future,” she said.

Similarly, George’s wife and two children are anxious and clueless about his whereabouts since he went missing. “We also tried to check if any arrests were made in neighbouring countries, but no such events were reported. This has left us with no other options except to wait for government action. We’ve filed two petitions with the Collector’s office but there has been zero response. For now, only civil organisations are trying to help us get information,” Alice said.

Goal: To help NRTs in distress, ensure their welfare

Karthikeya Sivasenapathy, chairman of TN Non-Resident Tamils Welfare Board, tells DT Next about the board’s plans to establish a 24X7 international call centre for blue collar migrants, particularly in Gulf countries, along with a legal wing to assist them and their families. And the efforts taken to regulate the agents/agencies to thwart them from exploiting job aspirants.

What is the key focus area of the welfare board?

The board is focusing on Tamilians settled in different parts of the world and connecting with them. We’d be a bridge to help those who want to come back and settle here. Another key focusing area is the Gulf and Southeast Asian countries where Tamilians go for work in large numbers as blue-collar workers and address their grievances.

The main problem with blue-collar migrant workers is that they do not get the promised wage nor the nature of work that agents promise them. They go on tourist visas and are left to lurch once they land in the destination country (place of work). They get caught in legal issues once they land there. We’ll work on those issues with the Indian Embassies and the Union Ministry of External Affairs to ensure that prevent such incidents.

White-collar workers have different problems. Their properties are encroached upon, aged parents need help here and need assistance if there’s a death of a loved one in their immigrant country or here (Tamil Nadu).

Our MPs Kalanidhi Veerasamy and MM Abdullah are flagging such issues in

Parliament and reaching out to officials of the External Affairs Ministry to resolve them and extend necessary help to redress their grievances.

For instance, we helped a family to bring the mortal remains of a family member from California to Coimbatore during the Christmas season by reaching out to authorities in India and USA. Similarly, we received a complaint from a Tamilian settled in Sweden regarding a property dispute in Chennai and forwarded it to the concerned officials to sort it out.

What kind of measures will be taken to regularise agencies?

We’ll ask agencies to register with us (NRT Board) and the Ministry of NRT to get government recognition like the education department gives for private educational institutions. It’d help weed out agents/agencies who cheat aspirants in foreign countries and prevent the latter from shelling out money. It’d also help us monitor and regulate them.

So, have you started the process of certifying the agencies/agents?

It’d be done when the board gets its own facility. Since it’s a new board, there’d be a lot of teething problems. So, we have to settle down first and have a full-fledged office to start all these activities. The office will soon come up in Chennai.

There have been many complaints on the lack of response from officials both at the State and Centre on issues relating to missing family members or wage theft. How will the board handle such situations?

The problem is that the Government of India is not sensitive to having officials who speak and understand Tamil/Malayalam in the rank of second and third secretary at Indian Embassies in the Gulf and Southeast Asia countries where a major chunk of migrant workers from Tamil Nadu and Kerala work. When we go to the Embassy, we should feel welcomed when they speak a common language or the regional language. But that’s not the case, as many blue-collar workers are not fluent in English. Plus, several officials from north India are appointed there. As Minister Jai Sankar is also from Tamil Nadu, we’ll write to him highlighting the issue and urge him to appoint officials who can speak Tamil.

Two fishermen from Kanniyakumari have been missing since October 17 in Bahrain. There is no communication from authorities in Bahrain, GoI and TN till date. What measures have been taken by the Board in this regard?

We’ve sought details from the District Collector regarding the missing fishermen and their families. Our party has an NRI wing headed by MPs Kalanidhi Veerasamy and MM Abdullah. We’ll use their services to take the issue to the notice of External Affairs or the concerned authorities to trace the missing fishermen and help them to return safely to their families.

We’ll be having an international call centre with an exclusive number and legal wing where people can connect 24/7 to air their problems abroad. Their complaints will be taken up with the concerned authorities and monitored until resolved.

Members of the board will be establishing an office for Gulf countries. Similarly, they’ll also establish exclusive offices for Southeast Asia and Singapore, USA, South Africa and Mauritius, in consent with the Tamil Nadu government. They will coordinate with the Head Office in Chennai. We’ll also have a legal team to assist labourers in legal proceedings in the best possible way, including exploring Indian treaties and UN Conventions. There are charges that appointments made to the NRTs welfare board were political and no civil organisations or activists working for the migrants were accommodated in it? What is your view on it?

Every appointment by a government is political. This includes the appointment of the Governor too. But while forming committees and sub-committees, we’d rope in experts and civil organisations working with migrant labourers to facilitate in helping Tamilians in foreign countries. Soon, it will be done to bring them onboard.

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