How South Asian countries can protect their migrant workers abroad

Some of the world’s busiest migration routes run from South Asia to the Persian Gulf countries, and there have been ample tragedies in recent years concerning the mistreatment of migrants once they arrive. While the blame primarily falls on abusers and institutions in the Gulf, the governments of origin countries sending the most South Asian migrant workers along this corridor—India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—have a role to play in creating safer and more prosperous conditions for their citizens working abroad.

India, which is the largest source of international migrants in the world, has about 8.9 million citizens working in the Gulf. The subregion is a big draw for migrants from Pakistan, too: Among Pakistanis applying to work abroad in 2020, more than 95 percent applied to work in Gulf countries. As of July 2022, just over 600,000 Bangladeshi migrant workers—out of its total 691,000 migrant workers abroad this year—are currently employed in the Gulf region.

These flows remain strong despite the fact that migrant workers are often overlooked and overworked in the Gulf. For example, after arriving under the kafala sponsorship system—which has been adopted by countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and the Gulf countries—migrant workers sometimes face dangerous and poorly regulated working conditions that cause injury or death.  In spite of the significant role migrant workers play in keeping the world functioning—a role that they fill at great personal sacrifice—policymakers often treat migrant workers as invisible.

India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh must increase diplomatic pressure in Gulf countries, build on-the-ground bureaucratic infrastructure there, and improve labor laws and standards in their own countries. These changes, some of which have already been successfully deployed by origin countries such as the Philippines, would dramatically benefit South Asian migrants in the Gulf.

Increase diplomatic pressure

Under the kafala system, workers are subject to highly uneven power dynamics as their employers gain control over their employment and immigration statuses. Such exploitation is pervasive at the institutional level, and combating its effects will require the highest level of diplomacy.

South Asian countries sending migrant workers can begin by ramping up their diplomatic presence in Gulf countries and harnessing all sources of diplomatic leverage. The Philippines has utilized multiple diplomatic tools to protect its citizens: establishing strong diplomatic missions in the Gulf and banning workers from migrating to some Gulf countries (and only lifting the bans after signing agreements and memoranda of understanding, or MOU, with the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia guaranteeing protections for migrant domestic workers from the Philippines).

India has signed similar MOUs with Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, with a specific focus on domestic workers. Pakistan has likewise signed MOUs with Qatar and the UAE, but neither agreement explicitly mentions domestic workers or their rights. As domestic work is a highly feminized field, migrant women domestic workers (MWDWs) are especially susceptible to exploitation and abuse under the kafala system. Therefore, all three of these South Asian countries should sign an MOU explicitly addressing domestic-worker rights with each Gulf country with which they already have a migrant-worker MOU. And finally, given their significant migrant-worker populations in Saudi Arabia, both Pakistan and Bangladesh must also work toward signing MOUs with the Kingdom to solidify high-level commitments to ensuring the welfare of migrant workers.

To bolster their MOUs, South Asian countries should consolidate their diplomatic weight and strategic approaches by consulting with one another. For example, the Colombo Process and similar institutions gather countries—including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—to discuss common goals between sending countries, share effective strategies, and ultimately commit to protecting migrant workers abroad. Since joining the Colombo Process, South Asian member countries have revamped legislation surrounding migrant workers such as Bangladesh’s Overseas Employment Policy, Sri Lanka’s National Labour Migration Policy, and India’s Emigration (Amendment) Rules. Increased engagement with these interactive institutions can significantly help improve migration regulations and future diplomacy with Gulf countries.

Build infrastructure in destination countries

India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh should establish comprehensive bureaucratic-support systems in Gulf countries so that once migrant workers arrive to their destinations, they have reliable access to services such as employment-contracts verification and legal assistance, and even a safe haven in times of distress. The Philippine Overseas Labor Office offers such services to its migrant workers, whether documented or not, throughout the Gulf—and also provides cultural programming to foster a sense of community among workers and connect them to their host countries’ cultures.

In contrast, India’s embassies and consulates are the main source of support for migrant workers in the Gulf. But many Indian migrant workers are not aware of the services offered by their embassies, nor do they feel the current offerings adequately serve their needs in times of distress, especially when their sponsors take their identification papers. Countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh have overseas labor and employment divisions within their governments, but their physical offices are only located in sending countries and thus can only provide limited aid once workers are actually abroad.

India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are all lacking a robust bureaucratic presence in the Gulf. With services (and awareness of them) lacking, South Asian countries must revamp their support systems and the methods through which services are promoted. Governments should also seek out partnerships with existing migrant-worker community spaces in the Gulf, such as places of worship. Building up on-the-ground aid, with physical spaces for support, can exponentially improve the lived experiences of migrant workers.

Improve laws and standards in sending countries

India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh must also build stronger systems at the point of departure, where South Asian migrant workers are often recruited through informal and under-regulated channels. Brokers, agencies, and other private intermediaries can charge both workers and employers sky-high prices for visas, flights, and post-arrival services. On top of this disjointed recruitment system, migrant workers are often not provided with adequate orientation about their rights and services available to them abroad before traveling to their destination countries. Despite these disadvantages, however, many migrant workers still prefer to work with private intermediaries due to perceptions that government-associated channels are inefficient.

Rather than restricting migrant workers to government-associated channels, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh should draw recruiting agencies into public-private partnerships. For example, in the Philippines, any hiring through a private-recruitment agency must be certified by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration before the worker can depart the country. Using similar regulating recruitment tactics and practices while retaining the established recruitment networks can help South Asian countries eliminate redundancies in the system managing migration without sacrificing migrant workers’ safety and wellbeing.

Of course, it is not solely the responsibility of sending countries to guard against injustices occurring under the kafala system; Gulf countries must also work to remove the all-too-common practices allowed under this system that amount to modern-day slavery. But India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh shouldn’t wait. Beyond improving their own economies to make them equitable for those who have no option but to go abroad, South Asian countries should immediately improve policies specifically for migrant workers both at home and in destination Gulf countries. These steps cannot be taken in isolation, either: It is essential that these countries adopt all of these measures together to amplify their impact on the lives of South Asian migrant workers.

Elaine Zhang is a former young global professional with the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center.

Further reading

Image: Workers are seen inside the Lusail stadium which is under construction for the upcoming 2022 Fifa soccer World Cup during a stadium tour in Doha, Qatar, December 20, 2019. Photo via REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach.