Friday, 2 March 2007

Dubai: Shattered Dreams of Andhra Migrant Labour - III

Published in Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle on March 11, 2007
By Syed Akbar
Dubai, March 10: Life has been a bed of thorns for 25-year-old Kadimi Ravi Kumar, an illegal migrant from Rajahmundry, ever since he stepped into Dubai 42 months ago. Lured by the glossy advertisements in newspapers about the high living standards in Dubai, Ravi Kumar mortgaged his mother's jewellery to buy a ticket to this Arabian city.
For two years Ravi Kumar had no problems and he managed to send a few thousand Rupees to his parents back home in Rajahmundry city. But problems began for him, when Ravi Kumar was sub-let to another construction firm. His employer disappeared after extracting work from him for 10 months. Ravi Kumar is now in a debt trap, both in Dubai and Rajahmundry. Half of his daily earnings of 60 Dirhams goes towards
payment of interest.
Ravi Kumar is a classic example of exploitation of Andhra illegal migrant workers by unscrupulous construction companies and fly-by-night agents. There are hundreds of thousands of Ravi Kumars buried beneath the foundation of high rise buildings and massive flyovers.
Andhra illegal migrant workers are the most exploited lot when it comes to payment of wages. They are hired on hourly payment basis but the wages are paid after a customary lock-in period of 45 days. And quite often, "supply companies", as local manpower supply agents are called, disappear into thin air without paying the wages.
Since a majority of illegal migrant workers from Andhra Pradesh are illiterate and hail from the backward Karimnagar and Nizamabad districts, they cannot remember the name of their supply company or agent. What all they carry with them is just a telephone or mobile number of their "employer" and it serves as no proof to file a case in a labour court. Even otherwise, as illegal migrant workers or Kalli Valli, they are not eligible for a claim on wages, leave alone compensation.
"Our "employer" simply disappeared. I was taken into custody and my passport was sent to Jumerah jail where it went "missing". Without a passport, neither I can return to India nor continue in Dubai as I do not have money to bear the expenses. I am now with a new "employer" and as of now there's no problem with my wages," says Ravi Kumar attempting to put up a brave face, though the trouble he had undergone is clearly visible from his talk.
Fairly-built M Srinivas from Kodimial mandal of Karimnagar district is another victim of non-payment of wages. Scores of illegal migrants workers with whom this correspondent interacted at various labour camps in Dubai and Sharjah poured out their woes saying that they were under paid and even these low wages were not paid on time. They also complain of non-payment of wages.
Visit any labour camp or construction site in Dubai, Sharjah or Abu Dhabi and the most common complaint from Andhra construction workers is the withholding of wages by employers. Many Kalli Valli workers told this correspondent that heir "employers" regularly withheld wages.
Enquires revealed that most of the "employers" or "supply companies" had defaulted wages for periods ranging between one month and six months. The Andhra workers do not have anything in writing to prove that they had worked with a certain firm for a certain period of time. Most of them do not know the name of their employer or the company or even where the work site is located.
To ensure complete anonymity, the workers are taken to the construction site from the labour camps before the break of the dawn and dropped back only after the sun is set. Construction sites are changed regularly and it is a "normal" practice in UAE to withhold salaries for a minimum period of 45 days.
For instance, if a worker reports at construction site on January 1, he gets his
first wages on February 25. This is a deliberate strategy on the part of the employer to withhold the workers from leaving the site before the completion
of the building. A worker leaving the work half-way through the "contract"
forfeits the wages.
Allem Mallaiah from Konaraopet mandal in Karimnagar district amply sums up the plight of illegal migrant workers when he observes rather sadly, "we are just herds. We have no option but to follow the contractor. Wherever he takes us, we have to go. He pulls the rope and we follow him". Incidentally, like many Kalli Valli workers in his labour camp, Mallaiah too did not receive wages for six months.
Any delay in payment of wages or withholding of salaries for periods beyond one month severely cripples the financial condition of the migrant workers.
They fall into a debt trap and the interest on the money they borrowed back home to pay for recruitment mounts up. Moreover, they will not be in a position to send money to their families.
According to Venu Rajamony, consul-general of India in Dubai, the labour section received over 1408 complaints in 2006 as against 760 the previous year. Last year the consulate settled 1310 cases.
This correspondent has come across hundreds of cases of Andhra illegal migrant workers suffering heavily because of withholding or non-payment of wages. There are also dozens of cases where migrant workers skip a meal either because they don't have enough money left with them or they want to save a few Dirhams so that they could send home a "handsome sum".
According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, "withholding one-and-
a-half or two months' wages as security to prevent workers from running away to a better job appears to be accepted as a custom among construction companies in the UAE. When workers protest or complain about withheld wages, their complaint is not based on this customary withholding, but about wages withheld beyond that period".
For a legal migrant worker in UAE, changing jobs is a troublesome and long process and requires the approval of the original employer. But this is not so with Kalli Valli workers. This is the reason why recruiters prefer Kalli Valli workers, so that they can be changed from site to site depending on the demand for work, without inviting labour problems. And they can also skip wages quite often.
"The illegal migrant workers are not protected by UAE labour laws. We have to educate our people back in India that people should not come on visit visas
in search of employment. It is a risky proposition. Only those who gain entry into UAE on valid employment visas are protected by labour Rules," points our BS Mubarak, consul (labour) in the Consulate-General of India, Dubai.
Though there is no official record, it is estimated that unscrupulous employers in UAE regularly save as high as 10 lakh Dirhams a month by not paying wages to illegal migrant workers.

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