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Relevance: The emigration bill and other reforms are essential to protect Indian workers abroad.
The new emigration bill is better than the Emigration Act 1983, but more reforms are needed to protect Indian workers.
In early June 2021, the Ministry of External Affairs invited public inputs to the Emigration Bill 2021. The Bill could be introduced in Parliament soon and presents a long-overdue opportunity to reform the recruitment process for nationals seeking employment abroad.
How Emigration is governed at present?
Labour migration is governed by the Emigration Act, 1983.
- The Act sets up a mechanism for hiring through government-certified recruiting agents – individuals or public or private agencies.
- The Act outlines obligations for agents to conduct due diligence of prospective employers.
- It also sets up a cap on service fees and establishes a government review of worker travel and employment documents (known as emigration clearances) to 18 countries. These include mainly in West Asian states and South-East Asian countries.
Why does India need the Emigration bill?
- Serious exploitative practices: For years, independent investigations into migrant worker conditions have underlined serious exploitative practices. Such as large recruitment charges, contract substitution, retention of passports, non-payment or underpayment of wages, poor living conditions and ill-treatment, etc.
- In recent months, media reports have highlighted how the majority of migrant worker deaths in the Arab Gulf States/West Asia are attributed to heart attacks and respiratory failures, whose causes are unexplained and poorly understood.
- The Emigration Bill 2021 is an improvement over the 1983 Act. This is due to the following reasons.
- The bill launches a new emigration policy division
- It also establishes help desks and welfare committees
- The bill requires manpower agencies to conduct pre-departure briefings for migrants
- It also increases the accountability of brokers and other intermediaries who are also involved in labour hiring.
What are the challenges with the emigration bill?
- The bill lacks a human rights framework aimed at securing the rights of migrants and their families. Progressive labour regimes do so. For example, the Philippines explicitly recognises “the dignity and fundamental human rights and freedoms of the Filipino citizens”.
- Against ILO Convention: International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Private Employment Agencies Convention No. 181 mentions that the employers, not workers, should bear recruitment payments. This includes the costs of their visas, air travel, medical exams, and service charges to recruiters. The bill, on the other hand, permits manpower agencies to charge workers’ service fees, and even allows agents to set their own limits.
- Large-scale surveys by the ILO and the World Bank show that Indian workers pay exorbitant charges for their jobs. For instance, Indians in Saudi Arabia paid on average $1,507 in recruitment charges.
- The Bill permits government authorities to punish workers by canceling or suspending their passports and imposing fines up to ₹50,000 for violating any of Bill’s provisions.
- This can be used as a tool to crack down on workers who migrate through unregistered brokers or via irregular arrangements, such as on tourist visas.
- But it runs contradictory to the purpose of protecting migrants and their families and violates international human rights standards. As migrant workers, in general, are unaware of the law and recruiters influence them.
- Recruiters and public officials could misuse the law to instil fear among workers and report or threaten to report them.
- This Bill does not also adequately reflect the gender dimensions of labour migration. Women having limited agency in recruitment but are more likely to be employed in marginalised and informal sectors and/or isolated occupations in which labour, physical, psychological, and sexual abuse are common.
- The Bill also provides limited space for worker representation or civil society engagement in the policy and welfare bodies that it sets up.
The Ministry of External Affairs must start at the top, and draft a clearer purpose which explicitly recognizes
- The contributions of Indian workers
- The unique challenges they face
- Uphold the dignity and human rights of migrants and their families.