x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

New Indian ambassador says labourer welfare a major issue

The new Indian ambassador to the UAE says the welfare of labourers from his country will be a "major issue" to address during his term.

MK Lokesh was last posted to Brussels, where he negotiated new trade agreements.
MK Lokesh was last posted to Brussels, where he negotiated new trade agreements.

ABU DHABI // The new Indian ambassador to the UAE says the welfare of labourers from his country will be a "major issue" to address during his term. "Given the numbers and types of people, there are a multitude of problems," said MK Lokesh, who takes the post after three years as the deputy chief of mission in Brussels. "It is not so much an issue of illegal immigrants here. They become illegal here once they abscond or try to improperly change jobs."

Some of the workers who come here become involved in petty crime. Many encounter employers who do not adhere to the labour contracts they signed back home. To that end, the missions in the UAE, in concert with the Ministry of Labour, were working to assemble a database of labour contracts by the end of the year, Mr Lokesh said. It would see the compilation of contracts that companies have to submit when they seek work permits for labourers being brought over from India, further protecting workers by providing a record of what they agreed to, in case of disputes.

The embassy is working to open the Indian Workers Resource Centre in Dubai in three months' time. The centre will provide free legal, medical and social counselling. Although he has had just two weeks on the job, Mr Lokesh has already had to wade into the case of 17 Indian men sentenced to death in Sharjah after they were found guilty of murdering a man in a gang fight over alcohol bootlegging. "In India, these issues very quickly become an emotional issue, and that complicates matters. But we have complete faith in the judiciary here and justice will prevail."

Even though he is in the early days of his first posting to the Middle East, Mr Lokesh said he had already been impressed by the tenacity of the UAE's Indian expatriates. "I have been interacting with a lot of them," he said. "I have met people that have played a very important role between the two countries. They understand the local culture. They are very co-operative, the community here. There is a lot of diversity among them, but they also move as one."

Mr Lokesh's most comparable experience in catering to the UAE's massive Indian community of 1.7 million came when he spent the three years up until 2000 as consul general to the 1.2 million South Africans of Indian origin who call Durban home. The two groups had similar attitudes, he said. "They look to India for cultural and spiritual sustenance." Mr Lokesh, who takes over the post Talmiz Ahmad vacated in February for Saudi Arabia, hopes to translate his diplomatic experience in Belgium to negotiate new trade agreements.

India is one of the UAE's largest trading partners, but he believes that much more is possible. "There is untapped potential for investment," he said. Pointing to the International Renewable Energy Agency, which has chosen Abu Dhabi as its headquarters, Mr Lokesh said he could see "co-operation" in the energy arena. Mr Lokesh said he would like to see the UAE play a more central role in the establishment of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind energy sources, in India.

"The Indian community already provides a link between the two countries so finding partners is not a problem," he said. "The necessary conditions are already there." Mr Lokesh has been keeping himself busy by reading up about the region, including From Rags to Riches: A Story of Abu Dhabi by Mohammed al Fahim. After working in Europe and North America for more than a decade, Mr Lokesh welcomed his new home's climate.

"I certainly won't miss the cold, the harsh winters," he said. Mr Lokesh's wife Radhika, who is also a diplomat, will not join him in the capital as she has been posted as the consul general in St Petersburg in Russia. sbhattacharya@thenational.ae