Saving Trouble For All Concerned


Most Asian governments have imposed bans on their nationals taking up employment in Iraq. However, that has not really checked the flow of Asian workers who are enticed by offers of monthly salaries amounting to 10 times that they make at home.

In the case of the 17 Sri Lankans, the official version is that they believed they were being taken to a Gulf country to work and it was only when they were exposed to the bitter cold after landing that they realised it was Iraq.

"It was up to two weeks before they actually realised that they were not in a country in the Gulf but actually in Iraq," according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which rescued them and flew them back home.

The 17 were fortunate to have been able to contact the IOM. As long as they remained in Iraq, their lives were at risk.

A US investigation conducted two years ago established that many Asian workers were forced to work for US contractors at US military camps in Iraq. They were threatened and intimidated into continuing there, with the US authorities taking little or no action despite being aware of what was going on. In some cases, the US commanders of the camps knew that the contractors were not even paying the workers their salaries but did nothing arguing that it was an affair that involved only the contractors and workers.

Only a dozen or so cases have been reported of Asian workers getting caught in the crossfire between the US forces and insurgents and getting killed, but that is only a scratch on the surface. Such cases get reported only when the identity of the deceased has been established and the death reported to the diplomatic mission concerned.

In a country where dozens of tortured and mutilated bodies turn up every day, establishing the identities of the dead is a difficult task. Unidentified bodies are buried without ceremony, with little or no documentation for any follow-up.

The irony is that there seems to be little that Asian governments could do to block the flow of workers to Iraq. We do come across reports once in a while of Asian workers being prevented from boarding Iraq-bound planes from Gulf airports. Again these are odd cases that are exposed, while the bulk of the flow goes unchecked and unreported.

Indeed, the main reasons are poverty and unemployment that drive Asians to seek unemployment abroad. And the culprits are unscrupulous "employment agents" who exploit them.

In most cases where exploitation of workers is exposed, corruption and political influence take the central stage, and the "agents" walk away without punishment.

The UAE has taken the lead in entering into bilateral agreements with Asian countries in order to prevent the exploitation of workers and check the unorganised flow of migrant labourers across borders.

Such agreements benefit everyone concerned because loopholes in the system are plugged. Workers themselves are spared the agony of having to pay hefty amounts for employment and then finding themselves left high and dry once they land in a foreign country.

However, the governments of countries of origin of workers have to live up to their side of the bargain by not only enacting tough rules and regulations but also enforcing them without compromise.

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