According to latest data from the Overseas Employment Division of Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the number of workers traveling to Gulf countries with passports having emigration clearance required (ECR) status, has declined over the years and fallen appreciably since 2014.
The emigration of workers over the past five years had peaked in 2014, when 776,000 workers sought employment in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Since then, there has been a steady fall in their numbers — dropping 62 percent between 2018 and 2014.
Various reasons have been highlighted for the significant fall in numbers, including a slowdown in economic activity following the steep fall in oil prices that began in mid-2014 and lasted for well over two years. In response to the fall in oil revenues, governments in the GCC curtailed capital spending, reined-in expenditure and shelved several mega construction projects. They also implemented a slew of austerity measures, including cutting subsidies, raising prices of water, electricity and fuel, and limiting access to free healthcare services for expatriates.
Loss of jobs among those employed in government projects that were axed or shelved, along with the increased cost of living, made many workers return to India permanently. This change in work environment also discouraged the outflow of new blue-collar employees to the GCC. The uptick in oil prices since 2017 has so far not translated into an immediate increase in number of construction projects being launched and consequently the need for more workers.
The two mega projects in the GCC that still continue to require a large influx of workers are the 2020 World Expo in the UAE and the FIFA World Cup that is to be staged in Qatar in 2022. It is no surprise therefore that the largest outflow of ECR workers in 2018 was to the UAE and to Qatar. A total of 103,720 workers made their way to the UAE in 2018, accounting for over a third of all blue-collar workers who emigrated last year.
Meanwhile, Qatar was the only country in the GCC that witnessed an increase in the number of Indian workers traveling there, with 32,492 workers moving there in 2018, a jump of over 31 percent from the 24,759 a year earlier.
According to the Middle East Institute, a think-tank based in the United States, there are an estimated 700,000 Indian expatriates in Qatar who form the largest expatriate community and nearly double the number of local citizens. Over the past few years, Qatar has introduced several reforms aimed at protecting laborers and their living conditions. However, the think-tank said more needed to be done to ensure ethical recruitment and reimbursement od dues to workers.
Saudi Arabia was the destination for the second largest number of Indian workers, with 65,542 workers moving there in 2018. But this was a far-cry from the nearly 330,000 Indians who sought work there in 2014, making the Kingdom host to the largest Indian worker community in the GCC that year. With a five-year drop of over 80 percent, Saudi Arabia has since relinquished the role of hosting the greatest number of Indian workers in the Gulf to the UAE.
However, it is worth noting that the numbers provided by the Indian emigration authorities on workers with ECR status may not reflect the full extent of worker migration. Many workers with are known to travel to the GCC on visit visas and then convert their visas to employment visas once they join a company, thereby bypassing the official emigrate system. In addition, there are a number of Indian workers who do not have an ECR status who travel to the GCC to take up employment there, which are not recorded in the emigrate system of the emigration authorities.