India’s Labour Agreements with the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries: An Assessment

Date01 October 2021
Published date01 October 2021
Subject MatterResearch Articles
International Studies
58(4) 442 –465, 2022
© 2021 Jawaharlal Nehru University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/00208817211055344
Research Article
India’s Labour Agreements
with the Gulf Cooperation
Council Countries: An
Sameena Hameed1
Despite the Indian government's proactive initiatives and reforms in the labour
laws in the host countries, the welfare of Indian workers in the Gulf Cooperation
Council (GCC) countries remains compromised. The Indian workers continue
to face exploitation, often left stranded or forced to return home penniless. In
line with best global practices, India’s Bilateral Labour Agreements (BLAs) and
Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) with all the GCC countries need to
make specific reference to the host countries' labour laws and facilitate bilateral
coordination in the governance of the full migration cycle. Special focus is needed
in the construction sector, where a vast majority of low-skilled Indian workers
are employed. The article examines the effectiveness of India’s BLAs and MoUs
with the GCC countries in protecting the low-skilled Indian workers in the region.
Construction workers, forced labour and irregular workers, GCC migrant
labour laws, India’s labour agreements
The Persian Gulf region is home to about 8.5 million Indian expatriates, with a
vast majority employed as unskilled and semi-skilled workers. They contribute
about 50% (US$48 billion in 2018) of the total remittances to India. The region
had reaped windfall gains from the oil price boom in the 1970s, which ushered
rapid urbanization. Countries in the region built massive urban infrastructure and
1 Centre for West Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India
Corresponding author:
Sameena Hameed, Centre for West Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal
Nehru University, New Delhi 110067, India.
Hameed 443
established hydrocarbon and petrochemical industries and a wide spectrum of
attendant social and commercial services. Their small native population and the
affluence brought by the oil boom prompted them to shun manual, menial and
arduous labour and settle for expatriate workers, especially from the developing
Asian and African countries. Besides, these governments have been keen to
heavily regulate the stay and exit of the foreign workers, treating them as ‘guest
workers’ or ‘temporary contractual workers’ (Ulrichsen, 2016, p. 182) rather than
migrant labourers (Lori, 2012, p. 7)
The migrant workers treated as ‘guest workers’ were subjected to the enormous
control of the nationals. The foreign workers can work and stay in the Gulf
Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi
Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) only through citizen or company
sponsorships (, 2015a). The sponsor becomes legally and
financially responsible and accountable for every expatriate worker. The
sponsorship (or Kafala) system ties the expatriate workers, their residency and
work permit to their sponsors upon their entry into the country, making them
vulnerable to exploitation and forced labour. Over the years, the foreign workers'
situation in the GCC countries has come under severe criticism from the
international community and human rights organizations (Human Rights Watch
(HRW), 2015, 2017; Amnesty International, 2019), thereby forcing them to
undertake reforms in their regulatory laws. For example, in December 2010,
Qatar won the bid to host the FIFA World Cup on the promise to reform its labour
laws ahead of the 2022 event. To demonstrate its commitment to the international
labour laws, in October 2019, the Qatari Prime Minister tweeted ‘today we
celebrated the 100th anniversary of @ilo. This celebration comes in conjunction
with the reform in legislation and policies to improve workers’ welfare standards’
when the country adopted the draft minimum wage legislation (Ghani, 2019).
However, in practice, the reforms have been slow and cosmetic and about 5,000
workers took to the streets in August 2019, protesting salary delays and conditions
of work (Ghani, 2019).
The India–Gulf migration corridor is the second largest in the world
(Calabrese, 2020). In recent years, the Indian government has taken several
proactive measures within India and in the destination GCC countries to protect
the welfare of the Indian workers (Gaur, 2019). The expatriate workers’ issues
have been taken up in most of the high-level talks during the official visits to the
GCC countries. India has Bilateral Labour Agreements (BLAs) and Memorandum
of Understanding (MoUs) on labour or manpower cooperation with all the six
GCC countries (Table 1). Nevertheless, exploitation of migrant workers continues
and emanates from gaps in the regulatory framework both in India and the
destination GCC countries. BLAs and MoUs have become instruments of
cooperation and delineation of responsibilities for the smooth management of
labour flows and protection of migrant workers’ rights. Nevertheless, they need
to be strengthened in light of the changes in labour laws, their implementation
records and the issues emanating thereof.

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