Fair deal in far lands

Working away from their country makes women domestic labour vulnerable to exploitation. With incidents of physical and mental abuse on the rise, the Government of India has acted to ensure fair wages and protection of their rights, reports Aditi Tandon

Female household workers have a reason to smile as the government has taken steps to protect their rights.
BREATHING EASY: Female household workers have a reason to smile as the government has taken steps to protect their rights. — Photos by Mukesh Aggarwal

The lives of as many as two lakh Indian maids working abroad are set to change for the better. In September last, the Government of India acted to secure one of its most vulnerable workforces abroad. The government has laid down strict terms and conditions for employing female household workers (FHWs) and the Indian missions abroad will ensure compliance by overseas employers. Among these terms and conditions are the minimum wages, terms of contract and minimum age for emigration.

Only recently, the Indian mission in Kuwait rescued a Maharashtrian girl, who had gone there as a housemaid and got enmeshed in the flesh trade. Her passport had been confiscated by her employer, making her defenceless in the alien land.

The case had its impact as the government announced the setting up of round-the-clock multilingual helplines in all its missions in the Gulf countries.

As of today, the helplines are functional in all Gulf nations — Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and the UAE — except in Saudi Arabia, the toughest and the most conservative of all societies abroad. These helplines remain flooded with calls and are serving well as first links in the chain of defence built up by the government for domestic workers abroad.

Securing wages

Emigration Trends

n There are about five million Indian workers all over the world.
n More than 90 per cent of these are in the Gulf and Southeast Asia.
n In 2006 about 6.77 lakh workers went from India with emigration clearance.
n Out of these, 2.55 lakh went to UAE, about 1.34 lakh to Saudi Arabia, about 76,000 to Qatar and 36,000 to Malaysia.
n Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh are the leading sourcing states.
n The number of emigration clearances granted by the eight offices of the Protector of Emigrants was 4.66 lakh in 2003. Now it is 8.09 lakh

A significant step in this direction has been the fixing of minimum wages of domestic workers. In October last, the government directed the Indian missions abroad to fix wages of the FHWs at anywhere between $ 300 and $ 350. These have since been notified in all Gulf countries, including Oman, which was the last country to notify these in July
this year.

Coupled with wages is the mandatory requirement that intending employers abroad must show a minimum income of $2,723 per month. India's new emigration rules, laid down by the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (OIA), further stipulate that potential employers will have to approach the Indian embassies in the respective Gulf nations with an application seeking to recruit a housemaid.

"The employer will have to submit an undertaking and a work contract in a standard format, duly attested. An FHW will not be allowed to move from India unless the work contract between the employer and the worker is cleared by the Indian mission abroad,"G. Gurcharan, Joint Secretary in the ministry explained. Gurcharan said these new rules were meant to guard women against sexual exploitation. The ministry is at present handling about 70 complaints of harassment against Indian women working abroad; in some cases the government is even fighting cases against employers.

But evidence proves that the measures are not yielding the desired results. Even today, close to 5,000 cases of runaway maids are being reported annually from Kuwait alone; the country has the maximum number of FHWs from India — as many as 85,000 followed by 55,000 in Saudi Arabia and the rest in the UAE. Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh are the major sourcing states, with 1,50,842 workers from Tamil Nadu getting emigration clearance in 2007; the corresponding figure for Kerala and Andhra Pradesh being 1,50,475 and 1,05,044, respectively.

The OIA ministry admits to the challenges of rescuing runaway maids, who lead invisible lives in the culturally harsh surroundings of the Gulf countries. "They are the most vulnerable as they don’t function in public spaces. Lack of support system imposes considerable mental and physical stress on them. It was to mitigate their suffering that we demanded on-site welfare measures in all host countries, where our missions are running shelter homes for runaway women," Gurcharan says.

Age limit

The government feels that making 30 years the minimum mandatory age for women to emigrate for work has done a lot of good. Starting September last, women under the Emigration Clearance Required (ECR) category, irrespective of the nature or category of employment, are not being allowed to work abroad if they are below 30 years.

The move followed several reported instances of sexual exploitation of Indian FHWs abroad — an issue that the National Commission for Women took very seriously. They told the government to ensure that only women above 30 years of age were allowed to emigrate. "These women, it is assumed, are mature enough to face tricky situations. Hence the age ceiling," says the commission.

Along with stipulating the minimum emigration age, the Government of India, through the OIA ministry, also laid down that all employment contracts be made directly between the worker and the employer. Employers are now asked to provide domestic workers with pre-paid mobile phones so that they can contact Indian authorities during an emergency. Whereas potential employers are free to hire the FHWs through 1,835 registered recruiting agents in India, they are required to deposit $2,505 as security if they want to directly recruit the FHWs.

"The amount is refundable at the end of the contract, but not if a maid complains of non- payment of salary and other dues. We are strictly monitoring the complaints filed by the FHWs; each such complaint is marked to the Protector of Emigrants (there are eight in all), who then directs the recruiting agent concerned to repatriate the worker at his own expense. If the agent fails to act, we take action," top officials in the ministry say.

In 2007 alone, the ministry cancelled the registration certificates of six recruiting agents. At present, more than 332 foreign employers are on the government’s blacklist; last year, the ministry had received 34 complaints of illegal recruitment, out of which it granted sanction to prosecute in six cases.

Diplomatic pressure

That apart, the government is now building diplomatic pressure on the Gulf nations to drop archaic laws governing workingwomen. "Unlike in India, women in the unorganised sector in the Gulf are not covered by labour laws. The interior ministry, our equivalent of the home ministry, governs them. We are working out bilateral labour agreements with the Gulf to protect the welfare of our workers," ministry sources say.

The purpose of having such agreements is two-fold — extending protection to women workers and facilitating monitoring of labour laws by joint working groups, which have already been constituted with Qatar and the UAE; the process of signing the agreement with Bahrain is on while a model work contract has been evolved with Kuwait.

The MoU with the UAE was signed on December 13, 2006 and with Kuwait in April, 2007. The MoU with Malaysia has been finalised and will be signed soon. Efforts are also on to negotiate MoUs with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, while an additional protocol to the existing labour agreement between India and Qatar was signed in November last to address mutual concerns.

These MoUs mandate that the host country will take measures for the welfare of workers in the unorganised sector; will evolve a statement of broad procedures that the foreign employer will follow to recruit Indian workers and will enable a joint working group to ensure the implementation of the MoU and meet regularly to find solutions to bilateral labour problems.

Skill training

Even as government policies move forward — the latest being India’s insistence that its workers be paid salaries through banks — the government also realises the urgency of providing skills training to the FHWs. The ministry has a budget of Rs 9.25 crore this year for the upgradation o skills of emigrant workers, including the FHWs, for whom the ministry plans to hold pre-departure briefings to acquaint them with the culture and practices of the country of their employers.

As for the skills-training component, it seeks to upgrade maids as home managers, capable of smart decision-making and presentation. The idea is to send out semi-skilled, instead of unskilled labour. For achieving this objective, the ministry is exploring two options — getting potential emigrants trained in home management from home science colleges across the country or sending them for refresher courses at the famous Byraju Foundation in Andhra Pradesh, which has a well-developed component to train women workers in household management. The ministry is also studying a proposal sent by Khalsa College, Amritsar, to take the FHWs through the grind of a finishing school.

As of today, the major outflow of emigrant workers is to the Gulf where almost five million workers are estimated to be employed. A majority of these are semi-skilled and unskilled workers, most of them being temporary migrants, who return to India after the expiry of their contracts. The government is eager to reverse the trend and see how it can send more skilled and semi-skilled people abroad. It is now trying to diversify its destination base by exploring options of formal labour exchange agreements with the European countries like Poland and Germany, which have better working conditions and better human rights record.

Given the complexities of international migration, it is no surprise that migration management itself is emerging as an area of immense expertise.

But experts believe it is a challenge worth taking, because it economically enriches both the source and the host nation. The employment of Indians abroad has gone a long way in strengthening the forex reserves of the country. Thanks to working emigrants, remittances saw a jump from Rs 57,821 crore in 2001-02 to Rs 75,238 crore in 2007-08. Most of this came from semi-skilled Indians employed in the Gulf, most of whom are women.