Immigrant Workers from India Fight Discrimination and Exploitation

February and March 2008 have seen Indian workers abroad face and fight highly exploitative work conditions, irregular and low wages, as well as fresh discriminatory legislation. Towards May Day 2008, we take a look at the issues and the struggles.

Dockworkers in US Protest Inhuman Conditions

Hundreds of dockworkers of Indian origin struck work in early March at a Mississippi shipyard, protesting against human trafficking and inhuman work conditions. The workers have filed a suit against Signal International, a major US ship building company as well as recruiters in India and the United States, accusing them of forced labour, human trafficking, fraud and civil rights violations. They claim that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, more than 500 Indian men (mostly skilled workers from Kerala) “were trafficked into the United States through the federal government’s H-2B guestworker program to provide labour and services” and were “subjected to forced labour as welders, pipefitters, shipfitters, and other marine fabrication workers...”.

The workers complain that recruiters in New Orleans and Mumbai as well as the subcontractor Signal began a trafficking racket to exploit the post-Katrina labour-shortage. Workers paid $20,000 to get jobs in the United States, and were promised green cards and permanent residency. Instead, they were given 10-month visas and made to live “like pigs in a cage” in company trailers, 24 to a room. Under pressure from debts incurred in the process of getting to the US, they faced constant threat of deportation. They were denied basic rights like medical care, proper hygienic facilities and wholesome food. One of the workers, Sabulal Vijayan, was fired when he tried to organize the workers last year, following which he attempted suicide. Last year, Signal sent armed guards to detain and fire the organizers of a protest by the workers.

Workers Jailed and Deported from Dubai

Non-payment of wages, lack of medical care, sub-standard housing and denial and suppression of the right to unionise are the norm in the Gulf countries of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) too, where the substantial section of labour is recruited from India, mostly Kerala. Indian workers in Dubai have been protesting for months against inadequate wages. In November, the Dubai police assaulted around 4,000 construction workers, mostly from Kerala, who were striking against poor wages and living conditions. Such protests are rare in the UAE since strikes are banned and workers are not allowed to form unions. However the workers held public gatherings, road blockades and strikes. In February, a Dubai court sentenced 45 of these Indian construction workers to six months in jail followed by deportation for their involvement in the protests.

United Kingdom: Laws Militate Against Migrant Labour

The UK is all set to introduce sweeping changes in British citizenship procedures, which will militate against migrants from India and other non-European Union countries, and withdraw the right to vote that immigrants to Britain from Commonwealth nations have traditionally enjoyed. These changes amount to racial discrimination and indirect taxation on migrants. The new changes will usher in a ‘points-based system’, which will make it difficult for migrants from non-EU countries to get enough ‘points’ to be allowed in. As a result, the thousands of Asian migrant workers employed in restaurants and other establishments will be out. Employers who hire illegal immigrants will have to pay a stiff fine. British Immigration Minister Liam Byrne defended the points-based system, saying “I think that only those who we need to come to Britain should be allowed to come.”

Migrants from non-EU countries will be required to pay 5 years of taxes, council tax, National Insurance, VAT and Home Office fees whilst not possessing a British Passport, and at the same time be denied the safety net of benefits that the taxes pay for.

The new citizenship recommendations include phasing out of the right of Commonwealth citizens to participate fully in Britain’s political life, including the right to vote and contest in British elections. A narrow, conservative and xenophobic notion of citizenship is reflected also in the recommendation to hold special citizenship ceremonies requiring school-leaving children to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen!

According to the latest figures from the World Bank, India tops the list for migrant remittances: in 2007, Indian workers sent back 13.6 billion dollars – more than workers from China, Mexico, the Philippines, and France. Yet, the policy of Indian Governments, which woo and pamper prosperous NRIs while paying mere lip service to the basic rights of migrant workers from India. The UPA government is yet to keep its promises of amending the Emigration Act, 1983 to promote the interests of expatriate workers; to fix minimum wages for migrants, especially maids; and turns a blind eye to rampant and routine violations of MoUs signed with Governments of the Gulf, and denial of wages and rights by recruiting agencies and foreign employers.

The Indian workers in the US have received an assurance from the Indian Ambassador that their demands will be taken up; but it remains to be seen if the Indian Government will show the guts to take on the US over the bonded labour system that is being run in the name of the guest worker programme. 

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