1.An emigration Bill that does not go far enough
The new Bill is better than the Emigration Act 1983, but more reforms are needed to protect Indian workers
In early June 2021, the Ministry of External Affairs invited public inputs to the Emigration Bill 2021. The Bill could be introduced in Parliament soon and presents a long overdue opportunity to reform the recruitment process for nationals seeking employment abroad.
For years, independent investigations into migrant worker conditions have underlined serious exploitative practices which include large recruitment charges, contract substitution, deception, retention of passports, non-payment or underpayment of wages, poor living conditions, discrimination and other forms of ill-treatment. In recent months, media reports have highlighted how the majority of migrant worker deaths in the Arab Gulf States/West Asia are attributed to heart attacks and respiratory failures, whose causes are unexplained and poorly understood. Labour migration is governed by the Emigration Act, 1983 which sets up a mechanism for hiring through government-certified recruiting agents — individuals or public or private agencies. It outlines obligations for agents to conduct due diligence of prospective employers, sets up a cap on service fees, and establishes a government review of worker travel and employment documents (known as emigration clearances) to 18 countries mainly in West Asian states and South-East Asian countries.
The Emigration Bill 2021 is an improvement over the 1983 Act. It launches a new emigration policy division, establishes help desks and welfare committees, requires manpower agencies to conduct pre-departure briefings for migrants, and increases accountability of brokers and other intermediaries who are also involved in labour hiring. But the Bill does not go far enough.
First, the 2021 Bill’s purpose “to consolidate and amend the law relating to emigration of citizens of India”, lacks a human rights framework aimed at securing the rights of migrants and their families. Progressive labour regimes do so. For example, in a country such as the Philippines, it explicitly recognises the contributions of Filipino workers and “the dignity and fundamental human rights and freedoms of the Filipino citizens”.
Another significant drawback is that the Bill permits manpower agencies to charge workers’ service fees, and even allows agents to set their own limits. International labour standards such as International Labour Organization (ILO) Private Employment Agencies Convention No. 181 and the ILO general principles and operational guidelines for fair recruitment recognises that it is employers, not workers who should bear recruitment payments including the costs of their visas, air travel, medical exams, and service charges to recruiters. Large-scale surveys by the ILO and the World Bank show that Indian workers pay exorbitant charges for their jobs and that poorer workers pay progressively larger fees — Indians in Saudi Arabia paid on average $1,507 in recruitment charges; their counterparts in Qatar paid $1,156.
To some, recruitment charges might appear like a justified service fee, but the tens of thousands of rupees that workers pay far exceed the real cost of recruitment. When low wage migrants pick up the tab it makes them vulnerable to indebtedness and exploitation. Worker-paid recruitment fees eat into their savings, force them to take high-interest loans, live on shoe-string budgets, and in the worst cases of abuse, leave workers in situations of debt bondage — a form of forced labour.
But perhaps the Bill’s most glaring inclusion is that it permits government authorities to punish workers by cancelling or suspending their passports and imposing fines up to ₹50,000 for violating any of the Bill’s provisions. When enforced, it can be used as a tool to crackdown on workers who migrate through unregistered brokers or via irregular arrangements such as on tourist visas. Criminalising the choices migrant workers make either because they are unaware of the law, under the influence of their recruiters, or simply desperate to find a decent job is deplorable, runs contradictory to the purpose of protecting migrants and their families, and violates international human rights standards. Recruiters and public officials could misuse the law to instil fear among workers and report or threaten to report them. Migrants in an irregular situation who fear that they could be fined or have their passports revoked, are also less likely to make complaints or pursue remedies for abuses faced.
Scant gender dimensions
This Bill does not also adequately reflect the gender dimensions of labour migration where women have limited agency in recruitment compared to their counterparts and are more likely to be employed in marginalised and informal sectors and/or isolated occupations in which labour, physical, psychological, and sexual abuse are common. The Bill also provides limited space for worker representation or civil society engagement in the policy and welfare bodies that it sets up.
To ensure that labour recruitment works for the tens of thousands of Indian women and men who migrate outside our borders each year, the Ministry of External Affairs must start at the top, and draft a clearer purpose which explicitly recognises the contributions of Indian workers, the unique challenges they face, and uphold the dignity and human rights of migrants and their families. Then it must address the specific provisions that diverge from this purpose.
About draft Emigration Bill 2019:
It provide for:
- Comprehensive emigration management,
- To institute regulatory mechanisms governing overseas employment of Indian nationals,
- To establish a framework for protection and promotion of welfare of emigrants.
Key features of the bill:
- It is set to replace the extant one under the Emigration Act of 1983.
- The draft bill proposes a three-tier institutional framework, with the MEA as the nodal ministry.
- At the top, a central Emigration Management Authority (EMA) has been proposed for policy guidance and supervision.
- In the middle, a Bureau of Emigration Policy and Planning, and a Bureau of Emigration Administration shall handle day-to-day operational matters and oversee the welfare of emigrants.
- At the bottom, nodal authorities in states and union territories shall coordinate aspects of management related to both emigrants and returnees.
- This could allow vertical policy coherence on emigration matters—particularly in promoting and managing safe, orderly and regular emigration.
Need for the Bill:
- India is among a handful of countries that has explicit legislation for promoting emigration.
- The intention of replacing the old Act is consistent with the government’s effort to weed out anachronistic laws and update them in line with modern conventions.
- The 1983 Act, enacted in the specific context of large-scale emigration to the Gulf, falls short in addressing the wide geo-economic, geo-political and geo-strategic impact that emigration has today.
- The United Nations’ “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development“, for the first time recognized migration as a core element of the global development agenda, and has set several targets that relate to it.
- These cover student mobility, human trafficking and exploitation, labour migration and employment, migration governance, remittances and migration data.
- One objective of the new legislation (While not explicitly stated in the draft bill) is to draw up appropriate regulations that would conform to the contemporary global agenda on these matters.
- Historically, countries which have enacted emigration laws—like the Soviet Union in the post-World War II period, restricting East-West migration in the Eastern Bloc, or North Korea today—have used such legislation to essentially prohibit international movement of their nationals.
- The laws of most countries today address only immigration.
Significance of the Bill
The emigration bill assumes significance for two main aspects.
- First, since 1983, there has been a structural shift in the quantum, nature, pattern and direction of emigration from India.
- As per the latest World Migration Report published by the International Organization for Migration, India features as the largest country of origin for international migrants (about 30 million in 2017);
- The largest recipient of remittances (about $80 billion or ?5.6 trillion in 2018); and
- Figures in five of the top 20 migration corridors from Asian countries.
- Second, the government’s attitude towards international migrants has changed over the time.
- From labelling NRIs as “non-required Indians” at the height of the “brain drain” in the 1970s and 1980s to addressing them as “India’s brand ambassadors” and “symbols of our capacities and capabilities”, as the Prime Minister did at this year’s Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, India’s position on the phenomenon has come a long way.
- The proposed bill, with its thrust on strengthening the institutional framework for emigration management, affirms that shift in outlook.
Issues with the draft Bill:
The Bill doesn’t focus much on White-collared emigrants:
- The contours of the new bill still appear to focus on managing blue-collar emigration, a la the 1983 Act.
- This is evident as the draft bill lists at length the duties and functions of recruitment agencies and sub-agents, which, inter alia include skill upgradation and pre-departure orientation programmes designed to serve only such emigrants.
- While the need for this is clear, since blue-collared workers are more vulnerable to exploitation and migration shocks, the bill must also offer management structures and policies that better reflect the current nature and pattern of emigration—specifically, concerning the aspirations of and challenges for white-collared emigrants.
The bill lacks cross-sectoral approach in emigration management:
- As per the draft bill, the EMA shall have representation from only two other ministries: home affairs and human resource development.
- It notably excludes representation of the ministry of commerce and industry, the nodal ministry involved in Mode 4 negotiations (movement of natural persons) under the General Agreement on Trade in Services at the WTO.
- At a time when nativism has led to heightened protectionism in the labour markets of destination economies, policy formulation on migration will increasingly need integration with trade and investment agreements. This shall necessitate a cross-sectoral approach in emigration management.
- However, in its proposed form, such horizontal policy coherence is unlikely to be achieved.
2.Lok Sabha passes two Bills amid protests by Opposition
Both Houses of Parliament saw repeated adjournments on Monday, as Opposition members continued their protests over allegations of snooping using the Israeli spyware Pegasus and the controversial agricultural reform laws.
The Lok Sabha was adjourned for the day after it cleared two Bills, amid the din. The Factoring Regulation (Amendment) Bill, 2020, and the National Institutes of Food Technology, Entrepreneurship and Management Bill, 2021, were passed by voice vote.
The proceedings of the Rajya Sabha were adjourned five times before being called off early for the day, as Opposition members continued raising slogans against the government.
Chairman M. Venkaiah Naidu said the persistent disruptions had cost the members their opportunity to raise issues of public importance. Mr. Naidu said important matters about COVID-19 vaccines, the alleged attacks on press freedom and even the chance to seek clarifications from the government on the Pegasus issue were denied. He said 57 matters raised by 63 members had been permitted last week but none of them could be taken up due to the disruptions. On Monday, too, there were 12 matters admitted for Zero Hour. “We are becoming helpless day by day,” Mr. Naidu said.
In the Lok Sabha, discussions on the two Bills could not take place as the Opposition members raised slogans demanding a discussion on the Pegasus issue and the farmers’ demand for the repeal of the three farm laws.
Rama Devi, who was chairing the proceedings, urged protesting members to return to their seats and participate in the discussions. When that did not happen, she went ahead with the consideration and passing of the Bills.
Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Pralhad Joshi and Minister of State Arjun Ram Meghwal also urged members to return to their seats and participate in the discussions.
While Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman spoke before moving the Factoring Regulation Bill, giving a bit of background on why the amendments were being made, Food Processing Minister Pashupati Kumar Paras simply moved the Bill for consideration and passing.
The Factoring Bill, Ms. Sitharaman said, was for the benefit of the Medium and Small Scale Enterprises (MSME) and that the Bill had accepted all the changes suggested by the Standing Committee which went into its details.
Earlier in the day, the House saw repeated adjournments and when it met at 2 p.m. and ran for a few minutes, papers were laid on the table and Ms. Sitharaman introduced the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Bill, 2021.
3.Commodity prices boosting exports’ value: Moody’s arm
‘Modest fiscal support to SMEs, low-income groups may cause deep scarring’
High commodity prices have boosted the value of India’s exports, which have hit a record $95 billion in the first quarter of 2021 and outbound trade is likely to lead the country towards a recovery after the pandemic’s ‘one-two punch’ hit the economy, Moody’s Analytics said in a report on Monday.
Stating that India is struggling to accelerate COVID-19 vaccination, the firm reckoned that ‘herd resilience’ — when 65% of the population is fully immunised — is now expected in the fourth quarter of 2022. Only Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand are expected to reach those levels of vaccination later, among India’s peers in the region. In an economic outlook report on the Asia Pacific Region titled ‘The Delta Roadblock’, the financial intelligence firm said the delta variant of COVID-19 is among the key factors adversely affecting economies.
‘Exports, a lifeline’
It termed exports a lifeline for the region which are now well above pre-pandemic levels and continued to rise in the April-June quarter.
“Even in India and Indonesia, where exports make up relatively small shares of the economy, high commodity prices have boosted the value of exports. This is one factor that helped reinvigorate India after its first devastating wave of COVID-19,” the firm said in its report.
“[India has] suffered lengthy economic shutdowns, accompanied by only modest fiscal support provided to SMEs and low-income households, that could lead to very deep and lasting scarring as they struggle to reopen businesses, pay back loans, or find employment as the economy finally recovers,” it concluded.