By Conrad Egbert
Site workers in Qatar made history last week when they downed tools in protest over pay and conditions. It is the first official labour strike since this type of industrial action was legalised in 2004, and brings into sharp focus the issue of labour racketeering. CW examines the implications for the industry across the Gulf.
Last week in Qatar, 400 Indian and Nepalese construction workers made history by holding the first strike since this type of industrial action was legalised last year.
It was a major turning point in the relationship between employee and employer in the local construction sector, and has ramifications for the industry throughout the Gulf.
The strike was also significant in that it brought the issue of labour racketeering into the media spotlight.
And it prompted the Indian government to draw up a blacklist of 11 recruitment agents operating in Qatar, banning them from hiring Indian nationals. A further 30 companies were put on a watch list.
Many of the workers who downed tools last week were recruited by agents operating in Nepal and India, who extorted thousands of dollars from them in fees for placing them in jobs.
The trade in human traffic within the Middle East’s construction sector is now big business — worth millions of dollars to the unscrupulous agents who prey on vulnerable workers, often from the rural villages of southern India, Nepal and Pakistan.
Many of these hopefuls sell their possessions and take out personal loans in order to pay the gangmasters used by agencies to supply sites in the Gulf.
The Indian embassy in Qatar is currently investigating a racket involving at least six firms alleged to have extracted around US $350 000 from 275 construction labourers looking for work in the country.
Most recruitment agencies based in the Gulf have overseas offices in India. These use individual gangmasters to hire workers for them on a commission basis.
“It’s no secret that there are illegal recruitment agents operating in India,” said KV Shamsudheen, chairman of Pravasi Bandhu Trust, a welfare organisation based in Sharjah.
“It’s like a mafia that is run by individuals. And in some cases they’re even connected to legal recruitment agencies that are sanctioned by the central government.”
Shamsudheen runs awareness programs in Kerala to help educate illiterate workers who are often deceived by recruiters into believing they will earn vast sums on the building sites of the region.
“They don’t realise that what they earn is what they will be spending. There is no sense in coming to Dubai to earn AED600 because when you deduct the charges against their salaries, you’d see that they earn more back home.”
Recruitment agencies in India are required to be licensed by the central government to operate legally, but individual unlicensed recruiters often end up hiring labourers for these agencies through personal contacts and networks.
Last year the International Labour Organisation (ILO) based in New Delhi conducted a survey on forced labour worldwide.
According to the report, 260 000 workers in the MENA countries were classified as ‘forced labour’ and 88% of these were exploited for private economic reasons.
“One reason why this is happening is because most of the workers who are hired by these agents are illiterate and so they sign contracts that they can’t read,” said a recruitment agent based in Dubai.
“Every agent has a sub agent in all areas where labourers can be hired from. An agency based in the Gulf would have a branch back in India, which would have individual contacts in different states of the country.
“But what people should really be careful about are individuals who are just con men trying to make a quick buck. They go out pretending they have jobs to offer, charge the workers in bulk and then vanish with all the money,” he said.
The case of the 400 construction workers in Qatar may have made headlines last week, but it could be just the tip of the iceberg.