Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A battle for survival

Immersed in debt and struggling to feed his own family, life was a constant struggle for Krishna Ganam on his small farm. Earning less than dhs200 a month as an agricultural labourer in the Andhra Pradesh district of southern India, Krishna struggled to provide even the most basic of necessities for his wife and two daughters.

Their home was a simple wooden hut. The nearest town to buy provisions was several kilometres walk away. Then, with a promise of a well-paid job, extra money to send home each month to help provide for his family and a future free of debt and worry, Krishna, who cannot read or write, found himself lured to Dubai.
But his dreams have turned into a nightmare. He now finds himself an illegal worker in the UAE hiding from police and immigration officials, and sharing a dingy single bedroom with 20 other men in Sharjah. His work is collecting discarded cardboard boxes left lying around the city and he is lucky to earn dhs500 a month.
He is just one of thousands of Indian men whose lives have been ruined by bogus recruitment agents cheating them out of huge sums of borrowed money with false promises of employment. Krishna, who worked as a cotton farmer on a holding of just three acres, says: “I spent dhs2,000 on pesticides and seeds hoping for a bumper crop. But the crop failed and I was left in deep debt. “Moneylenders were chasing me for their interest on their money. That was when I took a decision to come to Dubai. I had seen some of my friends go to Dubai and return to own a house. I too hoped to have and live in my own house one day.”
Krishna said he borrowed dhs10,000 (the equivalent of about four years’ wages), from a moneylender that he then paid to a recruitment agent who promised him an air ticket and a lucrative construction job in Dubai. “I had so many dreams of earning money for my family before I got to Dubai, but my hopes were dashed and I ended up as an illegal labourer with a little hope for the future,” says Krishna.
On arriving in the UAE - at Sharjah airport - he said his agent took his passport and said he would return with the correct visa. He never saw him again.
“I was in the airport for two days without proper food and water. When I finally came out I did not know what to do.” Without a work visa and a proper job, he now makes ends meet by working for almost ten hours a day collecting cardboard boxes.
“What I earn is very little. My income depends upon the number of cardboard boxes I collect everyday. I often end up earning less than dhs500 per month,” he says. “I have even stopped calling my family now as I am failing them. They were asking me to send the money that I did not have. My wife and daughters are now working as labourers to feed themselves,” he said.
Krishna last saw his family three years ago and has no idea when he will next return to India. He says that he has two daughters who are ready for marriage. “I also need money to spend on their marriage. But I have not earned anything living in this country. I am worried whether I would ever be able to get them married,” he says. Krishna said that he cannot head home without money as he would be hounded by moneylenders.

“I owe them a lot of money. If I go back, I am sure they will make me sell whatever little land I have. I don’t want to do that. My three acres of land is the only hope for my future,” he said. Because of his debts, Krishna did not take advantage of the illegal workers’ amnesty announced in the UAE last year. “I owe more than dhs10,000 to the moneylenders. If I go back home, I won’t have any option except ending my life. I left my fate to God and I am working hard to earn some money,” he commented.

Krishna says he will never forgive the agent who ruined his life. “He took large sums of money promising me a job with a salary of at least dhs1,500 per month. Instead of providing me with a job, he left me here and ran off with my passport. He is no human being. “I do not know what to do. I am really scared to approach the police because of my illegal status. I keep away from all public places for fear of being caught by the police. My life revolves around a small room and a workplace in Sharjah,” says Krishna.

He says there are thousands of agents in India who are involved in providing labour from India to the UAE. Some are legitimate, but many are unscrupulous conmen. “They collect between dhs5,000 and dhs10,000 to provide a visa and a job. Many men like myself are cheated and left with nothing. No one takes action against these people as they are involved together in a powerful mafia and have high level connections with the politicians and Indian police officers,” he says.

Last year during the amnesty, more than 30,000 out of an estimated 55,000 men from Andhra Pradesh alone were deported by the UAE for lacking passports and visas permitting them to work in the UAE. Indian Consulate officials in Dubai said that the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, based in New Delhi, has been taking action against recruitment companies or agencies that have cheated the workers.

“Based on complaints, a number of companies have been blacklisted in recent times. The licences of some recruitment agencies have also been cancelled,” BS Mubarak, Consul for Labour at the Indian Consulate, told 7DAYS. “The Indian Consulate in Dubai has been forwarding the names of the bogus companies to India after getting complaints from workers.”

He added that the consulate can help cheated workers by providing them with outpasses to legally leave the UAE, but cannot fund their air fares home.
For most duped workers, all they have to depend on is the generosity of social groups and charities to help meet the costs - either to return home or to scrape by here in the UAE.

Clean up the system

Mohammed Ali Shabbir, a minister in the Andhra Pradesh state government, has promised action against the recruitment agents cheating men out of their livelihoods. “We have started a crackdown on the network and have arrested a few small recruitment agents who were trying to send these workers on visit visas,” Shabbir, the Minister for Energy and Coal and Minorities Welfare told 7DAYS.
“We have also launched awareness campaigns at district level to educate workers on travel issues and especially the measures to be taken when going to Gulf countries. We have told them to keep their passports with them and not to hand them over to the agents,” he said.

However, Indian Association Sharjah President YA Rahim said that not enough is being done by the Indian government to put a stop to the cheating of workers by recruitment agents. “Unscrupulous recruitment agents are making use of the loopholes in the Indian system to cheat the workers. Many officials in India are hand in glove with the recruitment agents starting from immigration officials to the police officers. They are taking bribes and allowing these agents to flourish,” he said.
“Though the ministers are making statements, they are failing in the implementation side. There is a need to clean the system and streamline the recruitment procedures with the help of Indian missions,” Rahim said.

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