Kuwait tragedy underscores need for new emigration law - Hindustan Times
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Kuwait tragedy underscores need for new emigration law

ByRejimon Kuttappan
Jun 13, 2024 09:19 PM IST

India needs to eliminate the ECR and ECNR distinction for passports, and establish a comprehensive migration policy, similar to those of neighbouring countries

On Wednesday, both Kuwait and India, especially Kerala, woke up to a heartbreaking tragedy — a fire in a six-storeyed building in Mangaf had claimed the lives of 49 migrant workers, including over 40 Indians, in a Keralite-run Kuwaiti construction company. The Kuwaiti government has initiated a probe and ordered a raid to find violations in buildings housing migrant workers. Mangaf, a 30-minute drive from Kuwait City, is known for accommodating low- and mid-level migrant workers from India, Bangladesh, and Egypt in poor conditions.

People walk past a building which was ingulfed by fire, in Kuwait City, on June 12, 2024. More than 35 people were killed and dozens injured in a building fire in an area heavily populated with foreign workers in Kuwait, the interior ministry said. (Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat / AFP) (AFP) PREMIUM
People walk past a building which was ingulfed by fire, in Kuwait City, on June 12, 2024. More than 35 people were killed and dozens injured in a building fire in an area heavily populated with foreign workers in Kuwait, the interior ministry said. (Photo by Yasser Al-Zayyat / AFP) (AFP)

The Indian ministry of external affairs (MEA) has set up help desks and hotlines, and the minister of state, Kirti Vardhan Singh, has arrived in Kuwait to assess the situation. The government has also declared a compensation of 2 lakh each to the families of the Indians who died in the fire.

However, media attention will shift from the tragedy to other news, and the MEA will become preoccupied with other pressing issues. The fact is that, despite India being the largest sender of migrants with around 13 million Indians working abroad, and the largest receiver of remittances ($11,100 crore), it has frequently failed to uphold the rights of Indian workers on foreign soil.

The Union government continues to govern migration with the outdated Indian Emigration Act of 1983, despite significant changes in migration worldwide. In 2019, there was an attempt to update the Act, but it failed to get Parliament’s approval. Two years later, a fresh version, the Emigration Bill 2021, was put forward. Suggestions were sought from the public and civil society organisations, but not much has been heard about it since then.

The existing Emigration Act lacks standardised Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for assisting Indians in foreign countries. This gap became evident during the Covid-19 pandemic when Indians stranded abroad sought to return home. Then, Indians were repatriated by their employers, mainly from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates), which lack labour friendly laws. They returned empty-handed. The Indian government lacked an effective mechanism to recover their unpaid wages or end-of-service benefits, amounting to lakhs of rupees for many. Meanwhile, smaller out-migrant countries such as the Philippines actively fought against such wage theft. Similar issues arose in Qatar, when Indian workers involved in building stadiums for the football World Cup were exploited and repatriated without receiving their wages. The Indian government was silent. Similarly, during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Indian students had to take shelter in bunkers, fearing for their lives. India lacked SOPs and an estimate of the number of students stranded, which meant it took days to ascertain the situation.

Now, let’s explore another reason why an updated Emigration Act is necessary and how it could prove beneficial during tragedies, including the Kuwait fire.

The Indian government provides insurance coverage of 10 lakh in case of accidental death or permanent disability, along with other benefits, for Indians migrating for employment. Unfortunately, this scheme is mandatory only for those migrating to certain countries, holding specific passports, and using the eMigrate system established by the late external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.

The covered destinations are 18 nations where labour-friendly laws are lacking and there are security risks. Among them are all six Gulf countries, Malaysia, Iraq, and Yemen. The chances of exploitation of migrant workers are high in these countries, including through denial of decent working and living conditions, among other forms.

The existing Emigration Act provides for two categories of passports, Emigration Clearance Required (ECR) and Emigration Clearance Not Required (ECNR).

Passports held by under-matriculate workers are of the ECR category. Such workers must use the eMigrate system and are obligated to subscribe to the insurance scheme if they wish to migrate to the aforementioned 18 countries. If these requirements are not met, families of victims of incidents such as the Kuwait tragedy may not receive the 10 lakh compensation. Media reports indicate that the Kuwait fire victims from Kerala were skilled migrants and highly educated, likely falling under the ECNR category — subscribing to the insurance scheme would not have been mandatory for them.

Labour migration activists have been urging the Indian government to update the Emigration Act and address the existence of two passport categories, emphasising equal protection for both. As a labour migration researcher and forced labour investigator, I advocate updating the Emigration Act, eliminating the ECR and ECNR distinction, and establishing a comprehensive migration policy, similar to those in neighbouring countries. India requires a visionary plan rather than mere response measures.

Rejimon Kuttappan is a labour migration researcher and author of Undocumented: Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf. The views expressed are personal.

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