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INDIA: Lay-offs from Recession-hit Gulf Lead to New Lives at Home

K S Harikrishnan

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, India, Feb 9 2010 (IPS) - Domestic worker Beena Joy, 35, came back empty-handed after losing her job in recession-hit United Arab Emirates, but soon found that getting laid-off has given her a happier life back home here in this southern Indian city.

When she left the UAE, she was not able to collect the 1,000-U.S. dollar arrears from her sponsor. But after some time at home, she felt liberated from a life of drudgery and physical abuse at the hands of her employer.

“I left quietly, without complaining to government officials or anyone, and today I am happy to be a domestic worker with a wealthy family in (the southern Indian state) Kerala,” Joy told IPS.

Her story about losing her job due to the economic downturn is not an isolated one. “I left behind many women workers like me sobbing within the four walls of many houses in the UAE,” she called. “Many of them cannot return because they need to pay off debts from paying employment agencies and for flight tickets, and are trapped.’’

Joy probably did the right thing because the labour courts in UAE are inaccessible to ordinary migrants, says Irudaya Rajan, a researcher on migration to the Gulf at the Thiruvananthapuram-based Centre for Development Studies.

“In the case of female domestic workers, they cannot even approach labour courts as they are not covered by any labour laws,” he said in an interview.

The Gulf is a magnet for millions of migrant workers from Asia, including South Asia. Many Indian migrant workers also come from Kerala state.

Talking to IPS at the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport, which is a transit point for travelers to the Gulf from Asian countries, a group of women of different nationalities but all working in UAE, said it was common for migrant women to face mental and physical abuse in the host country.

“Irregular payment of salaries, long working hours, harassment, false involvement in theft and sexual abuse’’ are the lot of women not only in domestic situations but also in offices,’’ said Jayanthi Gopal, a Nepali typist working in Abu Dhabi.

“The only difference is that domestic workers who try to run away are more vulnerable to other forms of exploitation such as forced prostitution and trafficking”, she added.

“Different types of punishment are inflicted upon female servants when they violate order of the masters”, explained, Nandini Pandiyan, a Sri Lankan domestic worker at Fujairah.

Gopalakrishnan, a Dubai- based Indian journalist, says that there even were cases of debt bondage of unskilled women workers in UAE residences and of saleswomen being taken away from shops by wealthy or influential men for pleasure.

“A saleswoman told a Dubai court that a businessman tricked her into going to watch a remote-controlled aeroplane game in the desert, where she claimed he raped her. Prosecutors accused the 27-year-old Emirati businessman of having sex with the Syrian saleswoman against her will,’’ the journalist added.

Amnesty International Report -2009 on the UAE has condemned the exploitation and abuse of foreign labourers in the country. “Cases of torture and prolonged detention without trial were reported. Women continued to face legal and other discrimination”.

Human Rights Watch, another international rights group, has urged officials to protect domestic workers under labour laws and reform the sponsoring system, which makes it difficult for women to change jobs or leave the country without their consent.

A joint study, titled ‘HIV Vulnerabilities Faced by Women Migrants from Bangladesh to the Arab States’, published by the United Nations Development Programme and the Dhaka-based Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Programme, also looks into the exploitation and mistreatment of women workers in the UAE.

The UAE federal government has adopted strict measures on career opportunities, labour acts and visa rules, despite assurances to the international community on guaranteeing of rights of foreigners.

The Global Forum on Migration and Development, which held its meeting in Athens recently, also called the attention of the UAE to address labour migration issues.

But the financial crisis, which has led to many migrants losing their jobs, has not made easier efforts to respect migrants’ rights.

Due to difficult economic times, uncertainty prevails in the Emirates as many migrant workers are losing their jobs, sponsors are flouting laws, and many are laid off without the right benefits. Those who continue to work also grapple with delayed salaries, higher rent costs and stricter family visas.

In January, some 4,000 construction workers of the Thermo LLC company in Al Sowwah Island held a protest at the Abu Dhabi Financial Centre due to the non-payment of salaries for three months, said John Kuruvila, a staffer in the company.

Rasheed, a skilled worker from India, told IPS over telephone from Dubai that there have indeed been protests at various labour camps over flouting various laws, and bad accommodation and unhygienic food in violation of contractual agreements.

All of these are also happening against the backdrop of the ‘Emiratisation’ process since the early nineties, under which the country is trying to nationalise the workforce to reverse the trend of heavy dependence on foreign labour.

Of the UAE population of 6 million people, which comprises both Emiratis and foreigners, the largest group of foreigners is from India with 1.75 million people, followed by Pakistanis at 1.5 million. About a fifth of the population is estimated to be Emiratis.

Recently, more than 5,000 typing centers across the country were shut down with the intention of giving more opportunities to UAE nationals.

T P Sreenivasan, a former diplomat who served as deputy permanent representative of India to the United Nations, told IPS: “The rulers are now trying to control the migration in order to give more placements to natives and cannot be expected to be sympathetic to Indian workers.’’

The Kerala Gulf Returnees’ Association estimates that four million individuals are working with the private sector in the UAE, and that half of these are construction workers. Indians and Pakistanis are the backbone of construction boom, while majority of the women migrant labour from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines are domestic workers.

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