Today's Editorial

Today's Editorial - 14 June 2024

Kuwait fire: It’s time we stop invisibilizing migrant workers

Relevance: GS Paper I

Why in News?

The death of 45 Indian workers in a fire in Kuwait is a reminder of the dismal working conditions of a large, and often ignored, section of the Indian Migrants

More About News:

  • Most of those who died in the Kuwait fire were aged between 20 and 50 years old. 
  • This incident has brought attention to the lack of safety and deplorable living conditions of migrants in destination countries.
  • It is not an isolated event in the Gulf countries. Two years ago, during the World Cup in Qatar, news reports highlighted rising migrant deaths, harsh working conditions, and severe human rights violations. 
    • Similar issues were reported during the Dubai Expo, which heavily relied on migrant labor for rapid infrastructure development. 
    • During the COVID-19 pandemic, Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Health reported that migrants made up 75% of positive cases by May 2020, with cramped living conditions contributing to the virus's rapid spread among them.
  • These tragic incidents are a result of chronic indifference towards addressing migrant rights, safety, and working conditions in destination countries
  • The repetition of such incidents suggests that lessons have not been learned, and migrant issues are only in momentary focus during alarming situations.

Challenges faced by Indian migrants in Gulf countries

  • The majority of these migrants work in the unorganized sector, such as construction sites and factories, where they often face dangerous working conditions.
  • The availability of a large number of unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the Gulf reduces the bargaining capacity of migrants, despite the region offering significantly high salaries.
  • Many migrants are recruited through the visa sponsorship or kafala system, which binds them to their employers and severely limits their capacity to seek better housing or occupational safety improvements.
  • Although India has signed Memoranda of Understanding with West Asian countries, including Kuwait, to streamline recruitment procedures and provide legal protection, the legal redress process is prolonged and court processes are expensive.
  • Migrants, who are already vulnerable, have to contend with the absence of legal assistance and a shortage of interpreters in an alien country.
  • Migrants in Gulf countries do not have the option of permanent residency, are not adequately protected, and have few rights.
    • The lack of citizenship rights can lead to exploitative labor conditions, similar to what was observed in Qatar before the World Cup.
  • One major challenge in addressing these issues is the lack of data on migrants, both at their origin and destination countries.
    • Even when migrant worker deaths were reported in Qatar due to rapid construction work, there was no concrete data from the Ministry of Public Health or embassies of Asian countries regarding the health status of migrants, the reasons for their deaths, or possible redressal actions sought.
    • The lack of clarity and uniformity in data from different agencies indicates the grave invisibilization of migrants, especially those employed in low-skill, low-paying job profiles.
  • While sources like the KMS provide regular updates on emigration, return migration, and remittances in Kerala and other states, India still has a long way to go in systematically studying migration.
    • The Kerala Migration Survey (KMS) 2023 estimates that 2.2 million people from Kerala have migrated, with 80% of them residing in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

Way Forward

  • There is an urgent need, especially given the large number of migrants from India to various parts of the world, to systematically study the conditions of their migration and their lives in the destination countries.
  • With a large Indian diaspora, especially in the migration corridor with West Asia, India needs well-thought-out and effective policies to ensure the safety and well-being of its migrants.
  • A national-level migration database is recommended as a necessary step forward to adequately understand the various sections of migrants from India and the increasing trend of return migration.
  • The article states that it is high time that India is known as the country with the most efficient infrastructure for ensuring safe migration and life at the destination for migrants, not just the highest migrant-sending country that receives the most remittances.
  • Although India has signed Memoranda of Understanding with almost all of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries on mobility and migration, 
    • The article suggests that India has not yet been fully successful in tapping the potential of being one of the strongest migrant-sending countries to ensure the well-being of its people in the destination countries.
  • Regulate and monitor the recruitment practices of agencies to prevent exploitation and ensure fair treatment of migrant workers.
  • Expedite the process of updating the Emigration Act to provide better legal protection and safeguards for migrant workers. India's 40-year-old Emigration Act leaves migrant workers at risk.

Beyond Editorial:


  • It is an initiative launched by the Saudi Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development(“HRSD”) to encourage the private sector to hire Saudi nationals, thus decreasing Saudi unemployment and increasing the share of their participation in the labor market.
  • The initiative restricts certain positions in the private sector to be occupied only by Saudi nationals.

Kafala System

  • The kafala, or sponsorship, system gives private citizens and companies in most Arab Gulf countries almost total control over migrant workers’ employment and immigration status.
  • The system arose from growing demand in Gulf economies for cheap labor, and the desperation of many migrants in search of work and the opportunity to send money home to their families.
  • The system applies to almost all foreigners working in a kafala host country, comprising all nationalities, economic classes, and professions. 
  • Critics have called the system “modern slavery,” saying mistreatment arises from the sponsor-worker power imbalance and sponsors’ legal impunity.

Pravasi Bharatiya Bima Yojana (PBBY)

  • Pravasi Bharatiya Bima Yojana (PBBY) is a mandatory insurance scheme for welfare of overseas workers in ECR Countries.
  • It Provides insurance cover of upto Rs. 10 lakhs in cases of work related death or permanent disability.
  • Insurance under the scheme is available with a one time premium of Rs. 275 and Rs. 375 for two and three years respectively.

Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF)

  • Aimed at assisting Overseas Indian nationals in distress on a ‘means tested’ basis.
  • Set up in all Indian Missions and Posts abroad Over 80,000 beneficiaries.
  • Enables Indian Missions/Posts to meet contingency expenditure.
  • Specific activities include: air passage to stranded Indians, boarding & lodging, initial legal assistance, emergency medical support, airlifting of mortal remains.

Emigration Rules under the Emigration Act for workers going abroad:

  • Registration Requirement: Workers going to conflict zones or places lacking sufficient labor protections must register on the Ministry of External Affairs’ ‘e-migrate’ portal.
  • Passport Issuance: Passports issued under the ECR (Emigration Check Required) scheme cover workers traveling to 18 specified countries, excluding Israel despite ongoing violence in the region.
  • Service Charge Limitation: Recruiting agents are prohibited from collecting more than ₹30,000 in service charges from workers. These charges include costs for domestic travel, lodging, and boarding during interviews.
  • Additional Costs: Workers are responsible for fees to the NSDC (National Skill Development Corporation) and flight tickets, totaling approximately ₹1 lakh, despite concerns raised by unions about paid recruitment in conflict zones.
  • Government Stance: The Ministry of External Affairs, emphasized India's satisfaction with Israel's strict labor laws, noting it as an OECD country with robust protections for migrant and labor rights.
  • Responsibility: India's commitment to ensuring security and safety for its citizens abroad, acknowledging the government's role in facilitating safe migration under stringent regulatory frameworks.

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