DUBAI // Polamma Govindan thought she had no one to turn to when her employer refused to return her passport.
"I left my sponsor's house after he threatened to hurt me," the domestic worker from Mangalore in south India said.
Then she found out about the free, 24-hour helpline run by the Indian Workers Resource Centre in Dubai. "I called the centre and they helped to recover my passport," she said. "I am now waiting to return to my country."
Suffering from depression caused by her experience, she received personal counselling from the centre. She is now raising the money to go home.
Barely a month after the centre in Dubai was opened by the Indian president Pratibha Patil, staff say they have been inundated with calls from unpaid labourers, runaway domestic staff, duped employees and abandoned housewives.
Already the centre's helpline receives about 800 calls a week. Most are work-related: unpaid salaries, faulty contracts, job losses, expired visas and passports held by employers.
"We weren't sure of the number of calls we would receive when we started," said Lokesh Kapanaiah, the Indian Ambassador. For the moment, eight agents work in shifts to cover the phones. But with up to 180 calls in a single day, soon that may not be enough.
The modestly furnished centre in Khalid bin Waleed Street - Bank Street - in Bur Dubai is the first aimed at blue-collar Indians, who make up around two-thirds of the 1.75 million Indian residents.
"They are the most vulnerable community," said Mr Kapanaiah. "It is the embassy's responsibility to respond to their issues."
Legal or financial problems are the most common, according to Dr K Ellangovan, counsellor for community affairs at the Indian Embassy in Abu Dhabi. If problems cannot be resolved over the phone, they are passed to a team of legal, financial and psychological counsellors.
Of the 700 cases registered in the centre's first fortnight, more than three-quarters were dealt with immediately or in follow-up calls. The rest were sent to the panel of counsellors and will be resolved in person.
Each afternoon, from 3pm until 7pm, the centre also provides a free walk-in service, with a small, 30-seat waiting room.
Officials hope the centre will serve as a model for other Indian embassies in the Gulf region and elsewhere.
For now, though, the challenge is getting the word out. Asif Ahman, a construction worker in Dubai, said he knew about it. "If the officials at the centre can genuinely offer help, I am happy to contact them when the necessity arises," he said.
• The Indian Workers Resource Centre is a pilot project initiated by the Union Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs.
• Around two-thirds of the UAE’s 1.75 million Indian residents are in blue-collar jobs.
• Workers can call 800 46342 (800-India) at any time to lodge complaints or make enquiries in English, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam or Telugu.
• On average, the centre’s helpline receives around 800 calls a week.
• The centre is on Khalid bin Waleed Street in Bur Dubai and is open for one-on-one sessions every day from 3pm to 7pm.
• The centre is staffed by six telephone agents, three legal experts, two psychologists, two supervisors and a manager.