Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for March 2014

More than 400 Nepali migrant workers have died on Qatar’s building sites since the Gulf state won the bid to host the soccer World Cup in 2022. At the same time, more than 20 Indian labourers die on average every month on Qatar’s construction sites as employers show an appalling lack of concern for workers’ safety and the Qatari authorities race to meet construction deadlines and keep costs down. It has been estimated that, unless radical improvements in labour conditions begin now, more than 4,000 workers (mostly from South Asia) would have been killed – and countless others permanently maimed- by the time the rest of the world turns up in Qatar to enjoy the soccer.

All over the oil-rich Gulf States, an apartheid-like social system prevails. At the top of the pyramid are the Arab sheikhs who will never get their hands dirty but who reap the profits. Just below them are the senior executives of American and European banks and corporations, followed by those in middle-management. Then come South and South-east Asian professionals and business folk. At the bottom of the stack are the migrant labourers, from Filipina housemaids to (at the very bottom) unskilled construction workers from the Indian subcontinent who live in squalid, over-crowded accommodation and have little or no legal protection. The latter are heavily indebted to loan sharks at home who have paid for their passage to the Gulf. When the sheer pace of construction combines with a desperation on the part of workers willing to make huge sacrifices to improve the living conditions of their families back home, the result is a massive potential for exploitation.

These grim statistics about worker mortality did not come through investigations by South Asian governments. Far from it. The latter show no interest in the plight of their migrant labour. All that concerns them is the foreign exchange the migrants earn and send home. The statistics were unearthed and published by a local news agency invoking India’s Freedom of Information Act (forcing the embassy in Qatar to reveal how many Indian citizens had died in the past two years) and human rights organizations such as the Pravasi Nepali Co-ordination Committee (which compiled lists of the dead using official sources in Qatar).

When, last December, an Indian diplomat in New York was arrested and strip-searched by federal agents for violating US visa regulations, it provoked howls of outrage among the Indian media. This was an “insult to the pride of the nation”; and the Indian government was prompt with its tit-for-tat reprisals against spouses of American diplomats working in India.

No such outrage attends the deaths of Indian construction workers in Qatar and elsewhere. The Indian social elites are not only apathetic towards their own poor, but they find them a deep embarrassment (“to the pride of the nation”) and wish they could simply disappear.

Writing in The Times of India three decades ago, the well-known sociologist Rajni Kothari lamented: “As I talk to my friends, my relatives, my professional colleagues today, I get a feeling of total ignorance of the other India. When in fact they are forced to take note, such as when they walk through the pavements on which people are sleeping, there is a feeling of revulsion, of rejection, of contempt, not of compassion, empathy and least of all of any sense of guilt.”

Little has changed since Kothari wrote these chilling words. The hyped-up talk in Western media about India’s “economic boom” ignored the fact that economic growth was not accompanied by any significant increase in employment. The only “dynamic” private activity that has generated more jobs in the past decade has been construction. However, most construction in India is marked by a lack of concern for minimal standards of worker safety and other basic protections, just as in Qatar. Indeed, we don’t know how many workers die or are injured while working on building sites in India, because such data is rarely gathered.

An eminent Indian economist, Jayati Ghosh of Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, cites official National Sample Survey data to state that about 95 per cent of all Indian workers are stuck in informal activities, “in precarious and often exploitative and low-paying contracts.” More than half of these are self-employed, which means that they are responsible for their own safety.

Ghosh also observes that neglect of workers’ rights has been part of an economic strategy that sees economic growth as worth almost any cost. Private investors must be provided with all sorts of incentives by the state to allow them to deliver growth. Any kind of worker protection is seen as inhibiting “wealth creation”. This strategy delivered growth (but without creating decent jobs) for a while; now even that growth is running out of steam.

Given this context, it is no wonder that the urban and rural poor are desperate to migrate abroad in search of work, even leaving young families behind. In places like Qatar, Dubai or Singapore, it will take several years before they have paid off the loan sharks from the meagre remittances they send home. Recognising the rights of migrant workers cannot be separated from the need to recognise the rights of workers in their home countries. And this would mean bringing morality and political responsibility back into the heart of economic policy.


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