Since the 1970s, hard-working migrants from South Asia have gone to toil in the Gulf. Their efforts have driven the development of both their countries of destination and origin. It is South Asian migrant workers who have built the futuristic towers of BurjKhalifa in Dubai and Abraj Al-Bait in Mecca; it is they who have erected the glittering metropolises of Dubai and Doha. Simultaneously, their remittances have propelled the economies of South Asia. India makes 70 billion USD annually from the remittances of its citizens abroad; Pakistan makes 15 billion USD; and Bangladesh makes 14 billion USD.Nepal relies on its citizens abroad for 25% of its GDP; Bangladesh, for 12%; and Sri Lanka for 10%.
And yet despite the enormous contributions of low-wage workers in construction and domestic work, nowhere are they acknowledged or welcomed. Not in the gleaming buildings they built, nor in the countries that surround them; and neither in their country of birth, where their contribution to economic development is taken for granted and they are largely ignored. Even their own families sometimes abuse of their generosity and selflessness.
At best, the South Asian men and women who work in the Gulf brave difficult working conditions in a hot and unfamiliar land. But too often they are underpaid or not paid at all, forced to perform extra tasks and work long hours without overtime pay, beaten, abused, kept in captivity, made to work in unsafe conditions, or even tortured or sold into slavery. For decades, workers have been sent off ill-prepared and unprotected, under governments that have failed them entirely, even as they benefited from the fruits of the workers’ labour. Workers facing abusive conditions have nowhere to turn to for help; although their governments know the extent of the problem, they have done little to address it.
However, 2016 is a year of unprecedented opportunity for governments to finally right these wrongs. Following years of awareness-raising and relentless campaigning by civil society on behalf of migrant workers, it seems that South Asian governments may finally be listening: on 27 November 2014, SAARC governments adopted the Kathmandu Declaration, Article 21 of which stated that they agreed to cooperate to improve the safety, security and wellbeing of migrant workers from South Asia.
The crucial question now is whether SAARC governments will back up their rhetoric with action and address their gross neglect of their citizens abroad. The moment of reckoning will be on 3-4 May in Kathmandu:aPlan of Action to implement Article 21 has been drafted by Nepal, and it will be discussed and finalized by SAARC governmentson those dates before being adopted at the SAARC Summit in Pakistan later this year. This is a momentous occasion to take badly needed action to protect migrant workers.
So the question arises: is this a turning point for migrants in the Gulf? Will governments commit to a meaningful Plan of Action and finally take responsibility for their citizens abroad? Will they commit to ensuring ethical recruitment with no fees for migrant workers? Will they agree to promulgate a standard contract across the region? Will migrant workers in the Gulf be able to turn to their governments in times of need?
These questions will be answered on 3-4 May in Kathmandu.