India's external affairs minister was in Abu Dhabi this week praising the contributions of the 1.7 million Indian expatriates who live and work in the UAE. And he offered some good advice for how to make working conditions safer.
What SM Krishna did not say, at least not with any specificity, is how the Indian government will contribute to those initiatives.
New Delhi no doubt understands that protecting its citizens starts, but does not end, at seeing them off from the airport. With more Indians in the UAE workforce than any other nationality, India arguably has a greater responsibility than other countries to lead in cooperative strategies to protect and benefit the expatriate workforce.
Some countries have demonstrated a clear commitment to their citizens in the diaspora. The Philippines is among the most active in the UAE when it comes to counselling and consular services. In 1998, Nepal went so far as to prohibit Nepali women from seeking work in the Gulf after a series of cases involving mistreatment of domestic staff (that ban was officially lifted in early 2012).
India, to be fair, has moved as well; it is working on digitising contracts and offering pensions. But Indian labourers in the UAE have also expressed a troubling level of desperation. In 2011, an estimated 113 committed suicide in the country, roughly one every three days. Many were stressed by financial troubles, advocates say, taking their lives because they felt they had no place to turn.
No labour challenge can be addressed unilaterally, and greater protection requires cooperation. While the UAE government has banned recruiting fees, for instance, labourers from across Asia continue to report that fees are being extorted. In Kathmandu, it is common knowledge that recruiters in certain areas can provide paperwork for overseas work, if the price is right. Labour issues often start at the point of origin.
But in the UAE, and elsewhere in the Gulf, there is a growing advocacy movement of workers' rights. The UAE has already answered some of Mr Krishna's concerns by implementing a Wage Protection System and improving living conditions in labour camps. Both governments would benefit by discussing how to further safeguard workers from point of origin all the way to the job site.