Union government has failed to use the G20 summit to press for wage protection of Indian overseas workers, lament activists and trade unionists

There have been high-falutin discussions on universalisation of social security in the G20 forums, but the issues of wage theft and wage protection, which affect millions of Indian overseas workers, particularly in the Gulf, have hardly received any attention.

ON Wednesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi released two G20 commemorative postage stamps of ₹20 denomination and two coins of ₹75 and 100 denominations respectively to mark India’s G20 presidency.

The postage stamps and coins were released during the inauguration of a complex, Bharat Mandapam, at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, where the 18th G20 Leaders’ Summit will be held between September 9–10.

Group of Twenty (G20) is the premier forum consisting of the twenty largest economies (19 countries and the European Union) in the world that meets regularly to discuss the most pressing issues facing the global economy.

India holds the presidency of the G20 from December 1, 2022 to November 30, 2023. The theme of India’s G20 presidency is “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” (the world is a family) or “One Earth. One Family. One Future”.

G20 summits are being held since 2008. The first one was held as a response to the financial crisis the world was faced with that year. In the next two years, there were two summits each, and since 2011, there has been one summit each year.

The 18th G20 meet will mark the culmination of a series of G20 meetings and processes held across the country.

The Labour 20 or the L20 is an integral part of G20 and represents the interests of workers at G20. It is a special working group of trade unions under G20 countries.

With only a few more meetings amongst ministers, working groups and the ‘task force on migration of labour’ remaining, many trade unionists and migrant rights activists feel that while making policy recommendations for Indian migrant workers abroad, the L20 has missed the opportunity of recommending a framework which could provide wage protection, prevent wage theft and take care of other basic needs of workers.

An L20 engagement group’s ‘inception meeting’ was held in March 2023 at Amritsar. At the meeting, the attendees— leaders of national trade union centres, and experts on labour and labour economics from various G20 countries and invitee countries— called for the universalisation of social security to be achieved by 2030, and a G20-wide social security arrangement, including portability of social accounts and benefits.

A statement adopted at the meeting impresses upon the G20 nations the need for universalisation of social security which should benefit every last worker in the member countries. 

The statement asserts that social security financing in G20 economies— which are home to 63 percent of the global population— has gaps between universal and actual coverage and between G20 countries in the Global North and those of the Global South. 

To bridge these disparities, it is critical to ensure the financial sustainability of social security through alternative mechanisms. International Labour Organisation Convention 102 on Social Security, especially its insurance model, is a good guiding principle for the G20 member nations to ensure social security,” the statement recommends.

Another statement adopted by the L20 in June at Pune recommends that the data on the susceptibilities and needs of migrants should be collected and analysed to improve the efficiency of social protection systems across international borders.

The L20 has proposed post-extensive deliberations resulting in a multilateral agreement among important migrant-receiving and migrant-sending countries guaranteeing totalisation, exportability and providing social security benefits to migrant workers.

Review of the meetings

While appreciating the L20’s move on social protection and its portability, unionist and migrant rights activists have expressed their displeasure at the G20’s failure to recognise and discuss wage theft, which is a crucial issue for workers.

V.J. Joseph, a member of the Indian Trade Union Centre, a trade union with a pan-India presence, told The Leaflet, “Wage theft used to occur in the pre-Covid period too. But it became more clear post-Covid, when thousands of Indians were forced to return empty-handed with unfulfilled promises of unpaid salary and end-of-service benefits.”

According to Joseph, if governments can work on cooperation between migrant-sending and receiving countries on social protection, why can’t they do the same on the issues of wage protection and wage theft?

However, he was not very hopeful about positive changes because of the ruling regime’s preference and priorities.

Nothing was expected for the benefit of workers from this L20 edition,” he said.

Many trade unions had boycotted this L20 meet. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the global body of trade unions, had boycotted the L20 as Indian Workers’ Union, known as the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, believed to be a right-wing trade union affiliated with the ruling regime in India but not an affiliate of the ITUC, was given the responsibility to head the meetings,” he added.

According to Joseph, wage protection and wage theft are the most important issues faced by international Indian migrant workers.

Plight of migrant workers

Ministry of External Affairs data reveals that around 2,500,000 Indians work in Saudi Arabia, 3,500,000 work in the UAE and 700,000 work in Oman. These three countries are part of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Among the GCC countries, only Saudi Arabia is a G20 member. However, the UAE and Oman are invitees to the 18th G20 summit being held in India.

Hence, it is in the interest of migrant workers that recommendations should have been made for wage protection and wage theft because these issues crop up most frequently in the GCC countries, where the kafala system is followed.

The kafala, or sponsorship, system defines the relationship between foreign workers and their local sponsor, or kafeel, which is usually their employer. Under this system, the State gives local individuals or companies sponsorship permits to employ foreign labourers. 

Because workers’ employment and residency visas are linked and only sponsors can renew or terminate them, the system endows private citizens rather than the State with control over workers’ legal status, creating a power imbalance that sponsors can exploit.

In most situations, workers need their sponsor’s permission to transfer jobs, end employment and enter or exit the host country.

In brief, kafala is an exploitative labour system where the employee is tied to the employer thus showing signs of modern day slavery.

Altogether, there are almost seven million Indian workers in the three countries where the kafala system is followed, making them prone to wage theft. That these three countries host half of the total number of Indian overseas workers underlines the gravity of the problem and the need for urgent action. 

In 2020, some 200 plus Indian workers from the Nasser S. Al Hajri Corporation were forced to quit without being paid. Their wage theft case is still ongoing with the collective unpaid wages adding up to 12 crore. 

A case of group wage theft in Oman, where 18 Indian workers are on a strike, amounts to 6 crore. In another case, in the UAE, a group wage theft of 12 Indian workers amounts to 5 crore.

A group of 18 Indian engineers, who were involved in the building of FIFA stadiums for the football world cup held in Qatar last year, are still waiting for their unpaid wages. They were forced to return to India and their unpaid wages amount to 36,00,000.

These cases are only the tip of an iceberg of exploitation and unfair labour practices, as many cases go unnoticed or unreported.

Interestingly, because the workers were forced to return they will not be able to fight the case in the countries where the wage theft took place. 

On top of that, they will also not be competent to fight a case in India through the Ministry of External Affairs and the judiciary due to jurisdictional issues.

Rafeek Ravuther, an Indian migrant rights activist for the last two decades, said, “Why can’t India take this wage protection and wage theft issue seriously and find a way to solve it? 

Now they are talking about social protection cooperation between migrant-sending and receiving countries. They are also talking about further talks on the portability of social protection. It is an appreciated move. Similarly, can’t they discuss wage theft too?” Rafeek asked.

Meanwhile, Mini Mohan, a migrant rights researcher, said that if wage protection and wage theft are not addressed, it will affect remittances and affect the domestic economy in India.

Among the G20 countries, India is the largest migrant-sending country and remittance-receiving country. According to the World Bank, India received US $111 billion as remittance in 2022, the highest in the world.

The G20 should have discussed wage theft, as the loss of money that should come home is a serious issue. India should not have missed this opportunity,” Mini lamented.