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The Grass On The Other Side Is Always Greener

September 13, 2015

The sad story of a group of unfortunate engineers in the gulf grabbed my attention this week – a bunch of about 30.

Applying to work in various capacities in companies based in middle-east through proper legal channels such as registered manpower agencies/media advt, the men were initially elated landing plum jobs in construction, electrical, chemical industries in foreign shores. Qualified engineers seeking better career prospects, the bait for them was the tax-free NRI emoluments. Mostly from lower middle-class, first time graduates coming from rural background with little work experience and in age-bracket 25-35 years, future looked promising to them even as they remained in the dark about what awaited them in distant horizons.

Some were puzzled why they were issued business visas but were convinced by their agents, it took the least time to procure business visas and once they arrived in the middle-east, the same would be converted to work permit in no time. Others however were not even aware of the difference between the two kinds of visas and the repercussions. The business visas issued were valid for 1-2 months from date of stamping.

The men initially had shared accommodation in villas with all amenities (as guaranteed to them until they could fetch their families on settling down). They were also fed from an Indian kitchen and were paid their dues/salaries on time. Only one thing nagged them: why they were underemployed: because the electrical engineers were asked to do an electrician’s job and the civil engineer, the labour’s job. They were assured, it was a temporary arrangement as vacancies were being filled one by one.

Two months lapsed and they found their visas were neither renewed nor converted into employment visas. The scope of work remained menial improving neither. It was a great let-down for the group who resented the nature of their work. For the first time, they sensed trouble but remained in denial believing all would be fine. The men soon found themselves illegally staying in the gulf country against their wishes as the two months galloped away. They had no intention of flouting the local laws and were aware of the consequences.  They were overstaying without valid visas which was a criminal offence that could land them behind bars. Still they were helpless because their passports were with their employers.  Their bosses assured them that their business visas were being converted to work visas and it took time.

In the meantime, almost 6 months passed with 4 months of no salaries paid. Any angry demand from the engineers was met with rough treatment from the employers. One or two daring ones who questioned were manhandled which made the group tone down their pleas and defences. The amenities provided to them were being scaled down or withdrawn one by one and even getting food once a day was becoming rare.

The engineers’ frantic calls now were met with chilling response from the other side. In the absence of valid travel documents or any for that matter, the men obliged their bosses without a word for months.  They were restricted to limited moving space and were transferred to sites in far-flung areas because they were told, it was risky to dwell in crowded city suburbs without proper papers and identifications.

A couple of them decided to represent the entire group seeking return of passports drawing courage finally, to concerned authorities. They approached the Indian Embassy as last resort when nothing else worked. Here they were told, the embassy was helpless because the men were on business visas that had expired and so they were clearly overstaying illegally as they held no valid work visas. In any case, the group could not produce their passports for any evaluation/action. In the circumstances, the law was against them and the Indian govt could do nothing about it. The off-handed reply from the Indian establishment dampened the spirits of the trapped employees who were advised to approach their employers yet again.

With doors closed on them in the most trusted quarters, the engineers knocked at their employers’ one final time.

The employers had something up their sleeves the gullible fellows did not bargain for. One in the management played good guy and an other played the bad. The bad guy lost his temper and challenged the men to do what they deemed fit. The good guy affably but in ‘confidentiality’ told the engineers to lodge a police complaint.  The passports were with the management anyway. Promptly the group marched up to the police to file an FIR against the employer.

It’s here they discovered they had been double-crossed. They found that there was an FIR awaiting already filed by their bosses against the entire bunch that they were ‘absconding.’ Compounding to that, the police discovered that the men were overstaying illegally.  Their passports had been handed over to the police by the employers. The men were thrown into cell with immediate effect, with their mobile phones confiscated. They were however provided with an Arab speaking legal counsel who spoke very little English. None of them could even contact a friend or any family member. On insisting on making calls to friends, the men were asked to sign by their own counsel in Arabic documents that the group did not understand. Some did but those who smelt something fishy refused. Later they came to know, those who signed on the dotted line had unwittingly admitted to the illegal visa violation on their part that justified imprisonment.  It was clear admission of guilt and plea bargain for soft sentence. They were also fined for the offence.

In the cells, the men met fellow countrymen, around 200 of them, all qualified professionals and labourers and supervisors, languishing for months similarly duped by agents/employers. Some had had consular access through influence or friends and were trying to buy their freedom paying their fines.

The men discovered, as they had overstayed their visas and had inadvertently turned out to be illegals, the companies they worked for needed to pay them wages no more and not even the return airfare. For 6 months (and even 1-2 years in some cases) of menial but back-breaking work in inhuman conditions, they had been paid only 2 months pay. Some of them were bailed out by their families who sent in the money. For some, friends pooled in to pay even their flight charges back home. Those who could not garner resources stayed back in their cells. Most labourers fell in this category.

This is a very organized crime. The modus operandi is very simple. Easy to recruit young ambitious men back from India luring them with handsome pay.  It is not an issue recruiting illiterate or semi-skilled labourhands who never raise a question. Over-smart guys are tactically avoided. Once the men’s passports get into the hands of these criminal gangs of recruitment agents, the fate of the newly employed is sealed.

The group gave a chilling account of how a good number of men – skilled and unskilled – were thus forcefully being held captive by some unscrupulous agents/employers who blackmailed them with their expired visas, withholding their passports. A friend happened to visit one such a dwelling unit – a portacabin in the middle of deserts, that was beneath standards, unfit for even labourers. Air-conditioners did not work and many were cramped into a single dirty hallway. The drainage system was over-strained.  Food and water were a scarce commodity. So this is were the group was shifted to after their two month ‘honeymoon’ period came to an end. The unhygienic and pathetic living conditions of the young men bothered the friend so much that he decided to spread the word and rescue as many as he could with the help of well-wishers. The plight of the poor engineers has moved one and all.

It is not only the Indian policemen who are corrupt. There are also foreign policemen who are corrupt. The good-hearted man saved atleast 2 engineers and prevented them from being ‘barred lifetime’ from gulf/overseas jobs in future, preventing a stamping to such an effect in their travel document. Through various channels, he retrieved the passports for his friend and one more who were totally demoralized by the scam. He also fed them, got them their airtickets and sent them home after procuring for them a valid ‘exit pass’ that is mandatory for men flying out of GCC countries. Visa violation is a serious offence that could totally hamper one’s future. The men were psychologically scared, said the friend. Clearing their names was as tedious as getting them out of their cell on paying the stipulated fines imposed on the handcuffed men.

The engineers, even though they were educated, were silenced and held to ransom because they were aware their legal entity stood compromised with visa violation unwillingly committed by them. Law-abiding citizens they were, the shock that set-in totally demotivated them. They had no locus standi in the issue. The prima facie evidence spoke against them. Many could not recover from trauma and looked withdrawn, defeated. They feared what their families back home and friends would think if the world must come to know they did their time in lock-up.

Barring a lucky few among them, others could face problem with renewal of their passports even in India because of their overstaying in foreign soil without a valid visa. Their future is sealed already. Quite some of them as on this date are still rotting in cells.  There are even 1-2 extreme cases where the rural guys claimed selling their farmlands to pay commission to ‘agents’ who promised them the world. The friend’s friend was lucky as his mate not only rescued him from appalling conditions but also smartly saw to that that no observation was made in his passport by the host country. The guy did a tremendous job in regularizing his unfortunate friends’ passports/visas.

The freed man is back in India now and reportedly says he needs a break.

For my own safety and security, I cannot name the gulf country or anything more in this matter. My frustration is equally towards the Indian Embassy as it’s with the scheming agents. For NRIs like us, embassies are our one and only hope should something go wrong. Where else can we turn to. If a unhealthy pattern is developing, why cannot embassy people look into the matter. If short on staff (the famous reason usually cited by our embassies), it is the duty of the Indian govt to see to that our embassies have full strength to spare for important NRI issues. India benefits maximum by way of foreign exchange repatriated by NRIs especially those employed in Middle-East. Let me make one thing clear: the Arabs get a clean chit. They have no hand in any of these slimy dirty schemes played out by our desi manpower agencies.

We the expats are mostly unaware of the behind-the-scene vulgarities of a few ugly operators. We cannot pinpoint specific cases although we hear of them all the time. For most of the white-collar workers here  placement has been through direct references/contacts or via standard and regular/reputed manpower agencies online. In last 20 years even in India, interviews are held through Skype.  Remember you need no middleman nowadays if you are saleable in the job market and if you keep climbing steady the ladder of hierarchy in the field of your specialty/expertise. Your record must speak for you. Your references must. It is unwise to upload our CVs in all and sundry recruitment sites. Why should our bio-data be accessible to anyone. Once you build an impressive career, by your 35th year you must be able to switch jobs entirely through personal references/contacts. I think that marks a maturity/milestone in our career development even though I am not a working woman. I am drawing up conclusions on observing how real professionals work. Back-checking is crucial. Cross-checking the credentials of your would-be employers and their reputation in the market is vital. Many racketeers are masquerading as registered manpower agencies ready to con the gullible.

Recently I learned from a friend that her husband has not been paid wages for over 4 months in the oil & gas sector that he is employed with in the gulf. Oil prices are further crashing. Only a couple of years back, it peaked to $100 per barrel that mooted a slew of infrastructure & oil & gas projects in the region. Sliding gradually down to $72 since and then hovering around in the $48-60 range for a while, the oil prices nosedived to under $40 after a 2-3 year boom period ushering in speculations. Now its $28 per barrel and as per Goldman Sachs forecast, it could hit rock bottom @ $20. Which means bad news for most of the gulf-employed. Even the governments here are shaken. Many projects are stalled right through middle-east as the cost of extraction/production exceeds the oil price per barrel (a clear case is Sultanate of Oman). As companies fold up, an increasing no. of working staff are given pink slips or are left high & dry with salaries pending unpaid for months.

Taking on a middle-east job right now is not advisable. Its good to do detailed research about anything we may venture into. As the US and Australia and Russia are to go ahead with mining their oil and gas blocks, the future looks bleak for middle-eastern economies. Supply is plentiful. Shale Gas is another worrying dimension. But it is also true, developing third world nations like India can breathe easy. It’s a good time for Modi govt to make good the fiscal deficits incurred/accumulated over last many years with escalating oil prices. If computed and cashed in right, we may be in for a fiscal surplus (!!!).

Some foreign friends like Filopino and Malaysian Indian engineers have enrolled their boys to study Petroleum engineering. My husband has forever been against the idea. He prefers a broader base like perhaps Chemical engineering. I used to argue with him, oil would last for another 200 years safely. But he would counter, when the time was ripe, the US and Russia would offload their own reserves because otherwise the advent of next generation transport/fuel technology would render their resources useless. I still thought that would take another half century minimum. My husband always argues in favour of core engineering. He is never for too much specialization. In 50 years he says, world might make a transition to some other form of energy (which he believes must have passed through field trial stages successfully) and before that, we need to exhaust the oil wells. The cost of erection and maintenance is huge. A lot has been sunk into oil exploration by multi-national companies and they have to get back every cent.

The impact of the oil prices is devastating to some production units/industries. The end-sufferers are usually the salaried class that go unpaid for months, cheated out of their wages.

State-run oil companies in GCC countries have off-loaded over 35-40% of their regular engineering staff who were on future expansion projects that have been shelved indefinitely. Insecurity is inbuilt in NRI career that most aspirants tend to ignore. The oligarchy if not monopoly influence and power the oil rich nations wielded in the region could be on wane already.

If you land a well-paid position in the gulf, it is fine. It is not the impossible or any feat. Before embarking on a new career it is worthwhile to study in depth the prospects as well as drawbacks of working in middle-east. All is not hunky-dory here, never been. School fees plus bus fees alone for a single child works out to about 50,000 Indian Rupees for a CBSE attending ward in most GCC countries – PER MONTH. Housing is another aspect. Cost of living has also sky-rocketed in many gulf nations. Temperatures are extreme.

I kept sulking of the 50 C day temperature but a friend told me, where he worked (at the oil exploration site offshore drilling),  temperature touched 75 C. So this is the ground reality. Gulf NRIs are not tax-exempt for no reason.

You only have to ask desi women in the middle-east how climate affects our health. Miscarriages are common in the heat. Only the natives can get away with it unharmed. Menstrual cycle gets shortened for most expat women. It is not advisable for young men/women in fertile age to work/live in these difficult conditions if you ask me.

However, for our fellow countrymen, NRI life is all honey & milk. They live in an illusory world that anything and everything OUTSIDE India is a luxurious dream. The obsession with overseas career is a main reason for some of us getting tricked by cunning operatives.

So oil is not the reason some unscrupulous agents ruthlessly manipulate young and innocent men back home.

For me, it is more shocking that the heartless crime and conning is perpetuated by none other than fellow Indians upon Indians. In Malaysia, we have come across a similar situation. A mechanical engineer was working in a company with 3 partners – a Malay, a Chinese and a Malaysian Indian Hindu. It was the third partner of Indian origin who was nastiest. He frequently traveled to India and recruited professional engineers who he later treated like bonded slaves. The men were incapable of any action as their passports were held by their bosses against their will. A good company/organization never takes/keeps your travel documents. You must be free to walk out whenever you wish. It is a basic, fundamental human right. In GCC nations ofcourse, any expat male over  the age of 16 years needs an exit visa/permit. This is to  rule out that there are no pending charges/unresolved issues pertaining to the exiting employee, legal, financial or otherwise. Grievances, if any, need to be addressed and settled before an adult male can leave the port of occupation/living. In Malaysia, our greatest concern was taking care of passports which we would not even leave behind when we went shopping.  Passport theft was a common crime there. The multinational my husband worked for were a reputed listed company. It was the converse with the mechanical engineer’s family. The family was also supplied with some electronics at bargain prices when they went to the south east asian country for the first time (by local Indians). The family found that from fridge to tv nothing they bought for valuable money worked. When we came across them through common friends, they were in a state of disillusionment. Their priority was getting their passports back so they could fly back to India. The man of the house worked longest hours without any weekend break. Finally some good samaritan rescued them, retrieving their passports skillfully negotiating with their employers. One wrong move and your passports stood to be tampered with. It is a risk none wants to take. This is why even the bunch of engineers in the gulf suffered in silence for months. They endured pain in hope, one day their passports would be returned to them.  Now the mechanical engineer’s family lives in Australia. For these simple folks, it was one long and arduous and unforgettable journey in Malaysia. When asked about racism down under, they say it’s nothing compared to what fellow Indians did to them.

My heart goes out to the young engineers stranded in middle-east, some married with families, some still single, whose hopes stand dashed. I wish one by one all of them emerge out of this mess without damages and head back home safe and secure. All is not over yet. I hope this one sordid episode does not inflict kind of permanent injury in their psyche.

Good to be ambitious but it is also important to be alert to make the right judgement. Success is more about being in the right place at the right time I guess. Best examples are those who cashed in during the Y2K scare prior to the millennium. We have to be at the happening place when it matters. Very few of us are lucky enough to connect the dots and make it. Doesn’t matter if we don’t. Life is not all about money. You stand nothing to lose by working/living in India – a great place, second to none. Home is Home.




From → Dilli Durbar

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