Quality not quantity – it’s time to re-think overseas employment

The occasion of International Migrants Day is an opportunity to reflect on the significant changes seen in the governance of international labour migration in India in 2017.

Feature | 18 December 2017
While headlines focus on the steep drop in the recorded number of migrants and the dip in remittances to India, these figures should be contextualized by the changes seen in the Gulf economies and their labour markets. Several countries of origin in Asia and Africa are drawing more of this ‘market’ but not regulating the amount their workers are paying as recruitment fees or the wages they are being offered in the destination countries. India is not engaging in this race to the bottom and is taking concrete measures to ensure fair recruitment and decent work for migrants. These can be summarized as strengthened protection measures; investment in skills development; and deeper cooperation within countries and among countries.

A fine balance is needed in the governance of migration. Onerous regulations increase irregular flows such as the use of visit visas or falsely obtaining passports in the Emigration Clearance Not Required (ECNR) category. Recruiters and employers have criticized India’s e-governance platform for labour migration (e-migrate) as being overly burdensome. While it is not a perfect system, it is important to recognize that the online processing of migration clearances and monitoring of recruitment agencies has resulted in increased transparency, efficiency and connectivity. The site posts information of the employer, recruiter and worker along with the conditions of work.

Also, contracts must stipulate wages that meet minimum levels set by the Indian Government, in the absence of minimum wages in the Gulf States. While the minimum referral wage (MRW) has raised wages for some, it has not eradicated the practice of the contract being substituted once the worker is in the country of employment. A recent study by the ILO and the V.V. Giri National Labour Institute found that workers have been receiving between 20 – 30 per cent less than the set MRWs.

Another significant development in 2017 has been the engagement of different government agencies in the governance of migration. The Ministry of Labour and Employment and the Ministry of Skills Development and Entrepreneurship have taken up a more central role in the preparation, protection and reintegration of migrant workers. As part of the Skill India initiative, subsidized vocational training is provided to migrant workers. The aim is to improve working conditions and increase workers’ employability in less vulnerable occupations. However, building skills recognition across borders is complex, requiring deeper collaboration within India and simultaneously with the governments and the employers in the countries of destination.

This year the Ministry of External Affairs also conducted a series of events to also facilitate greater cooperation between the centre and the states. The Government of Andhra Pradesh is the first state to formally adopt a policy — geared towards protecting migrants and enhancing the impact of migration on the development of the state. A more nuanced approach is also a must when it comes to governing the migration of women. Restrictions on their mobility should be replaced with improved training and services.

Measures by the Indian Government– e-migrate, International skilling centres and state-level strategies – indicate a shift in approach to focus more on the quality of jobs for Indian workers overseas, rather than the quantity of jobs. These initiatives are also being observed by other countries of origin in the region. It is in India’s strategic interest to share such innovative practices and collectively raise the living and working conditions of migrant workers from all over South Asia. At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that regulation works more effectively when migrants have alternative options at home, and are not migrating out of distress.

This article first appeared on the UN in India website