Thiruvananthapuram: Thirty-five-year-old Paulson Johnson from Kerala has stopped sending emails to the Qatar government, global labour organisations, and the Indian embassy regarding his unpaid salary and end-of-service benefits. A day before Onam, the harvest festival of Kerala, he called me and said that he has lost hope and will not run after anyone for his hard-earned money.

Paulson had migrated to Qatar in 2011. He joined as an excavator operator for a monthly salary of $486 (equivalent to about Rs 26,000 back then) at Bin Omran Trading and Co. In 2015, he was moved to the FIFA 2022 project on an increased salary. He was in the team that built Al Bayt Stadium, which hosted the FIFA 2022 opening match between Qatar and Ecuador.

"When I went there, it was just bare land. We built the stadium, which can host 32,000 spectators. We worked for 11 hours every day, but were paid for only 8 hours, and the lunch break was only 15 minutes,” Paulson said. “After everything was done, they threw us out empty-handed, violating all contract norms. We were forced to return in March 2022."

Paulson is owed $9,000 (Rs 7.5 lakh) as pending salary and end-of-service benefits. He and his 18 friends, most of them in mid-level posts, are cumulatively owed $126,000 (Rs 1.05 crore). Since March, they have been knocking on the doors of the Indian government, the Qatar government and global labour organisations, but all their efforts have been in vain.

This is not an isolated instance. Praveen P.P., another Keralite, is stuck in Oman since 2021, waiting to get unpaid salary and end-of-service benefits amounting to $11,605 (Rs 9.6 lakh), from the construction company he worked for. Praveen and his friends, who are also in a similar situation, had approached the Omani and Indian authorities, but with no success.

"Now, even getting food for the day has become a problem,” Praveen told IndiaSpend. “Some charitable organisations are providing us with food. We heard that the owner, an Indian, has fled Oman. No one tells us anything."

If Paulson's and Praveen's cases relate to unpaid salary, there are cases like that of Suresh S., an Indian security guard in Qatar, who is sticking to his work despite being abused physically and mentally only because there are no other options.

Then, there are the likes of Bimal Jacob Mohan, who has been in coma in a hospital after a stroke suffered in January 2022, waiting to be repatriated home, which is now being coordinated by social workers.

“Repatriating a patient needs a lot of money and involves a lot of paperwork,” George Varghese, an Indian social worker handling Mohan’s case in Abu Dhabi, told IndiaSpend. “And if it is of a worker whose company is not supportive, then everything will be in a mess.”

The problem of modern slavery

In addition to abusive and fraudulent recruitment practices and the high costs associated with labour migration in the countries of origin, workers who migrate to the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain) face labour and workers' rights violations as they follow an exploitative employer-employee labour contract system called Kafala, which has resemblances to modern-day slavery.

In these countries of destination, especially in the Gulf, migrant workers face poor working conditions and substantial occupational safety and health deficits, combined with weak labour inspection in migrant-intensive sectors such as construction and domestic work.

The non-inclusion or partial inclusion of certain categories of migrant workers, such as domestic workers, in labour laws is also a problem. While salary is ensured through bank transfer, freedom of movement and other rights limiting work to eight hours and access to health are often compromised.

Limited access to justice, weak and inefficient dispute settlement mechanisms, and the absence of compensation schemes also have a negative impact on migrant workers. Additionally, in some countries, migrant workers have limited or no freedom of association and are unable to bargain collectively.

According to the United Nations Department of Economics and Statistics (UN DESA), as of July 2023, there are 281 million migrants all over the world, which is 3.6% of the world population.

The International Labor Organization global estimates of international migrant workers reveal that the number of migrant workers in 12 Arab States amounts to 24.1 million in 2019, representing 14% of all migrant workers worldwide. The 12 Arab States are the six GCC countries plus Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Syrian Arab Republic, and Yemen.

The region has the highest global share of migrant workers as a proportion of the total workforce, reaching 41.4% in 2019 compared to the global average of just 5%. According to the Ministry of External Affairs, there are 13 million Non-Resident Indians (migrant workers and migrant entrepreneurs) all over the world, of which nearly nine million are in the GCC.

Archaic laws

Despite being the largest migrant-sending and remittance-receiving country, India governs migration with a 40-year-old Emigration Act which leaves the migrant worker at risk. In 2019, there was an attempt to update the Act, but it failed to get Parliament's approval. Two years later, a fresh version came in the form of the Emigration Bill 2021.

Suggestions were sought from the public and civil society organisations, but not much has been heard about it since then. During the Parliament session in March 2023, the Ministry of External Affairs acknowledged the need for an updated Emigration Act to handle migration-related issues. But it stated that the ministry was still in the process of creating a preliminary version of the Emigration Bill after consulting with all concerned parties.

Other than dabbling with the Emigration Act, the Indian government has shown less interest in signing and ratifying key global conventions meant to protect migrant workers and their families. India hasn’t signed or ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (CMW)--an international treaty that sets out the rights of migrant workers and their families that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1990 and came into force in 2003.

The CMW applies to all migrant workers and members of their families, regardless of their migration status. It guarantees them a wide range of rights including the right to life, liberty, and security of person; the right to work; the right to education; the right to healthcare; and the right to freedom of association. The CMW also prohibits discrimination against migrant workers and their families. It requires State Parties to take measures to protect migrant workers from exploitation and abuse.

The CMW is an important instrument for protecting the rights of migrant workers and their families. However, it has not been widely ratified--only 58 States have ratified the Convention. None of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have ratified the CMW, and neither has India.

Similarly, India hasn’t signed or ratified ILO Convention 189 (Domestic Workers Convention) which extends rights such as paid leave, minimum wages and employment contracts to domestic workers. India has also not signed or ratified ILO Convention 87 (Migration for Employment Convention). C187 guarantees the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise. The Convention belongs to the eight fundamental ILO conventions for the protection of labour rights. The Convention safeguards the rights of both employees and employers to freely organise.

India has adopted the Global Compact for Migration 2018, but with reservations: the Indian government upheld its sovereign right to decide who is a regular migrant and who is an irregular migrant. The Global Compact is the first inter-governmentally negotiated agreement, prepared under the auspices of the United Nations, covering all dimensions of international migration in a holistic and comprehensive manner.

It is a non-binding document that respects states’ sovereign right to determine who enters and stays in their territory and demonstrates commitment to international cooperation on migration. It presents a significant opportunity to improve the governance of migration, to address the challenges and to strengthen the contribution of migrants and migration to sustainable development.

IndiaSpend reached out to the Ministry of External Affairs for comment on the emigration laws and the issues faced by Indian workers in these countries. We will update this story when we receive a response.

India puts labour on the back burner

Mini Mohan, a migrant rights researcher, told IndiaSpend, "If India signs global conventions on migration, that would save migrants from risk of exploitation.

“Additionally, if India pushes labour welfare in global platforms like the Colombo Process, Bali Process, Abu Dhabi Dialogue and South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), that would also help Indian migrants in the Gulf and other countries.”

The platforms mentioned by Mohan convene periodically to discuss labour migration in South Asia, Asia Pacific and the Arab Gulf. Migrant-sending and -receiving countries come together on such platforms.

Mohan points out that the Ministry of External Affairs should give some importance to labour issues. “Currently they focus on trade. Labour comes second,” she said.

Until 2016, the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs (MOIA), a separate entity, looked after Indians abroad. However, in 2016, after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition came to power, it merged the MOIA with the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). Rights activists claim that this was a bad move that has led to a decreased focus on migrant labour issues.

Rafeek Ravuther, a migrant rights activist who for two decades has been running a television programme named Pravasalokam on Kairali, a Malayalam TV Channel headed by film actor Mammootty and backed by the Communist Party of India Marxist, to find missing Indian migrants all over the world, told IndiaSpend that lack of effective pre-departure programmes, which is the first stage of migration, leads to trouble for migrant workers.

“In the past, we used to see TV advertisements on safe migration,” Ravuther said. “But now they are missing. And the government is not reaching out to potential migrants in rural India to sensitise and guide them.”

Ravuther pointed out that there are thousands of fake recruitment agencies who lure the potential migrants with false promises and traffic them. “When a migrant reaches the destination country, with faults in the first stage of migration which is recruitment, then from there on various issues will start putting the migrant worker in a difficult situation.”

Kuwait the worst offender

The MEA’s replies to a series of Right to Information (RTI) queries reveal that Indian migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are in a difficult situation, facing various labour and human rights violations.

Since 2019, till June 30, 2023, the Indian embassies in Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia together received 48,095 labour complaints from the Indian migrant workers.

Kuwait topped the list with 23,020 complaints, followed by Saudi Arabia with 9,346 complaints. Oman is in third place with 7,666 complaints, the UAE is in fourth place with 3,652 complaints, Bahrain is fifth with 2,702 complaints, and Qatar is sixth with 1,709 complaints.

The Indian embassy in Kuwait lists non-payment of wages, unfair working conditions (including lack of proper food) and harassment as the most common complaints from Indian migrant workers. The Saudi Indian embassy lists salary issues, exit issues, and renewal of work permits. The Omani Indian embassy says that salary issues and repatriation are the major problems faced by Indian migrant workers there. The UAE Indian embassy lists wage issues, repatriation, and retention of passports. The Bahraini Indian embassy cites wage issues, repatriation, and violation of local labour laws as the most common complaints. The Qatari Indian embassy also cites wage issues, passport retention, and visa issues as the most common complaints.

All the issues cited by the Indian embassies in the GCC are signs of forced labour as defined by ILO, which states that various indicators can be used to ascertain when a situation amounts to forced labour, such as restrictions on workers’ freedom of movement, withholding of wages or identity documents, physical or sexual violence, threats and intimidation or fraudulent debt from which workers cannot escape.

Lateefh Thechy, a social worker in Saudi Arabia for the past 30 years, told IndiaSpend that the numbers indicated in the RTIs are just the tip of the iceberg. "Out of every 100, only 10 may be able to go to the embassy and file a complaint because the risk factors after filing a complaint are scary," Lateefh said.

Lateefh said that a worker filing a complaint could be physically abused by the employer, and could lose their shelter and further protection. "Workers will be far from the Indian embassy,” he pointed out. “Those who have the money to reach the embassy and the courage to fight a case against the employer will be the only ones filing a complaint."

The number of complaints per year in Qatar and the UAE since 2019 are below 500 and 1,000, respectively. Qatar began reforming its exploitative kafala labour system in 2018, which could be cited as a reason for the low number of cases. The UAE has also introduced several reforms to the Kafala system, encouraging more skilled migrants to work in the Emirates. Such reforms may be a reason for the smaller number of labour complaints in the UAE.

News dailies in the region report that other Gulf countries in the region are also trying to eliminate the Kafala system, introduce a minimum wage, make it easier for migrant workers to change jobs, and provide them better protection for migrant workers.

The number of labour complaints at the Kuwaiti Indian embassy however reveals that the situation there is worse when compared to its neighbours. The cases ranged between 3,965 and 5,660 between 2019 and 2022. And this year, as of June, the number of cases has already reached 3,770.

India’s two-passport problem

Sister Josephine Valarmathi, director of the National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM) in Tamil Nadu, an organisation involved in issues relating to Indian migrant workers, said that the GCC countries are trying reforms but India is still stuck in 1983. “We still have two passports,” Valarmathi points out. “We are least bothered about low paid workers. We don’t talk about them and try to elevate their status and protect their rights even when the destination countries are initiating reforms.”

In India, there are two types of passports: ECR and ECNR. ECR stands for "Emigration Check Required”, while ECNR stands for "Emigration Check Not Required”. The government of India categorises passport holders into two categories based on their educational qualifications and professional skills. This categorisation ensures that people with lower educational qualifications or limited skill sets can avoid fraudulent recruitment agents or employers.

Individuals who have passed grade X or higher, are taxpayers and have filed an income tax return for the previous three years with an average annual income of Rs 10 lakh or more, are eligible for an ECNR passport. Individuals who do not meet any of the above criteria are considered eligible for an ECR passport.

ECR passport holders are required to obtain clearance from the Protector of Emigrants (POE) if they are traveling to any of the 18 countries, including six GCC countries, which the Indian government considers to have labour laws that are not friendly to migrant workers.

For ECR passport holders, the clearance from the POE is obtained by submitting various documents, including employment contracts, visas, and travel tickets. The POE checks these documents thoroughly to ensure that the individual is traveling overseas for genuine employment purposes and is not duped by fraudulent recruitment agents or employers.

In short, an Indian who has not passed grade X and wants to migrate to one of the GCC countries must go through a number of strict measures to ensure safe migration. The laws are even stricter for women.

An Indian social worker in Kuwait, who requested anonymity, said that it is India, and not the destination countries, that should be held responsible for the woes of Indian workers in the Gulf. The social worker said that if India does its part by signing global conventions, following them strictly, updating the emigration laws and refreshing the MoUs with countries of destination to ensure safe, orderly, and regular migration, the worker will be safe, happy, and productive, which will benefit both the destination country and India.

We welcome feedback. Please write to We reserve the right to edit responses for language and grammar.